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  • Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time by Garry Wills
  • Alex Cahill
Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time. By Garry Wills. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. ix + 414 pp. $30.00 cloth.

Garry Wills’s monograph Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time is a thought-provoking contribution to the realm of Shakespeare Performance Studies and political history, although the title itself is somewhat misleading. The subtitle suggests the book will focus extensively on Shakespearean drama. However, Shakespeare is not the only Elizabethan writer included in Wills’s analysis, and the book itself actually focuses principally on Queen Elizabeth I. Further, Shakespeare and Elizabeth share the limelight with the poet Edmund Spenser, and it is Spenser’s Faerie Queene (and not a Shakespearean king or heroine) that Wills employs continuously to comment on Elizabeth’s performativity. Although the book’s title is slightly problematic, its overall content offers a cultural and political study of the Elizabethan era that is relevant and insightful to anyone interested in Shakespeare Performance Studies as outlined in W. B. Worthen’s Shakespeare Performance Studies (2014). The monograph examines how Elizabeth’s reign relied entirely on her ability to “make-believe” elements of her monarchy, since her position as an English queen (and not king) was “unimaginable”; thus, “she would just have to be imagined into office, and imaginatively retained there” (7).

Wills divides his book into six sections that focus on aspects of Elizabeth’s reign in which the queen created an illusion of power: (courtly) love, (divine) monarchy, (cosmic) religion, (faerie) nation, (chivalric) war, and (courtier) warriors. The first section, “Make-Believe (Courtly) Love,” analyzes Elizabeth’s exploitation of courtly love as one way to strengthen her reign. Since Parliament fretted constantly over the question of an heir, Elizabeth created the illusion that the prospect of her bearing a child (by means of a potential marriage) was [End Page 328] always possible. Thus, “all the conventions of her court were tempered by the conventions of courtly love” (31). To illustrate this argument, Wills claims that Renaissance courting was “a clever way of going back into English tradition without revivifying its Catholic elements,” (17) and it successfully kept Elizabeth’s Parliament, patrons, and suitors temporarily placid.

Wills’s second section, “Make-Believe (Divine) Monarchy,” figures Shakespeare’s plays more prominently as a parallel to Elizabeth’s reign alongside Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. As a presumed bastard child of Henry VIII, owing to her father’s paranoia regarding her mother’s faithfulness, Elizabeth manipulated make-believe to solidify the idea that she was the blood heir to the throne and spent a majority of her reign “downplaying coronation, since it remembered a vestigial machinery for choosing a king apart from heredity” (64). This section argues that Shakespeare’s characters Richard II, Cleopatra, and Henry V served as dramatic representations of Elizabeth’s theatricality regarding succession, but the section diverges from the main argument concerning Elizabeth’s theatricality considerably in order to rebuke theories commonly associated with these plays in modern scholarship such as the New Historicists’ “Hal Haters” (91).

“Make-Believe (Cosmic) Religion” argues that Elizabeth’s personal religious beliefs were and remain something of a mystery, which is why the façade of a make-believe religion needed to remain strong. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, notoriously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church but still firmly supported many of its beliefs and practices. As Wills argues, Elizabeth also struggled to solidify England’s new religious affiliation: “She had some longstanding ties to her father’s Catholicism without the pope—she preferred, for instance, a robed and celibate clergy, and she kept a gold crucifix in her chapel. But she also had a pent-up resentment of the half-sister [Mary, Queen of Scots] who so stormily preceded her” (171). This new religion had very blurred boundaries, but Elizabeth was determined to create the perception of a strong religious underpinning for her nation, something she did successfully by cultivating comparisons of herself to key religious figures. In this section, Wills highlights Elizabeth’s comparisons to: Deborah (a...


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pp. 328-331
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