- Staging Power in Tudor and Stuart English History Plays: History, Political Thought, and the Redefinition of Sovereignty by Kirstin M. S. Bezio
Kirsten Bezio’s book argues that the Renaissance stage participated intensely in the debate over sovereignty via the history play. Limiting its scope somewhat by addressing only chronicle plays set in the UK that “focus primarily on governance and sovereignty; and whose interest in history is didactic and actively political,” the book addresses dramas ranging in critical popularity, from Shakespeare’s Henry V to Robert Davenport’s King John and Matilda, resulting in a satisfying survey of the subgenre (1).
A substantial introduction presents the origins of monarchy and defines what Bezio terms the “sovereign–subject compact” in the centuries leading up to the Wars of the Roses. The author shows that prior to the Magna Carta and indeed before the Norman Conquest, the ancient Britons practiced kingship based on mutual obligation: the king was responsible for upholding the written statutes of the law and the more traditional common law, and the people were responsible for their obedience to that law, as well as remaining capable of judging and even rejecting the behavior of their king as needed. Bezio’s characterization of both the explicit limits on the monarchy and the ancientness of those limits changes the conversation regarding the perception of monarchy in pre-Tudor times. In this light, for example, the strict absolutist discourse that emerges under the Stuart kings becomes particularly alien within the context of an English tradition of the sovereign–subject compact.
The book covers the period from 1400 to 1642 and the closure of the public theatres. The chapters, which are arranged chronologically and cover different periods, all contain a brief overview of the royal history of the period under consideration, followed by discussions and analyses of the history plays printed or performed during that time frame, and finishing with a summary of the arguments considered in the chapter. The first chapter covers the long period from 1400 to 1558 to explore the repercussions of the Wars of the Roses on perceptions of the monarchy. Henry VII asserted greater sovereign autonomy than his predecessors, but the role of the barons in tearing the nation apart in the prior conflict made the notion of a limited Parliament and peerage more attractive, particularly to the middle and lower classes. Bezio describes how Henry VII and his canny son bolstered their providential kingships through the theatrical, particularly pageants and progresses. The chapter suggests, although not entirely persuasively, that Henry VII originated the use of drama “not only for political ends on behalf of the crown, but as a way for the populace to participate in political discourse” (32).
The following chapters cover the relationship of theatricality and the monarchy under the rise and reign of Elizabeth I to argue that the early public stage, and history plays in particular, represents a shift toward using the theatre as propaganda—a charge that may be somewhat overstated. Chapter 3 offers access to several rarely studied early history plays, such as The Troublesome Raigne of King John (1587), The Scottish History of James IV (1587), and The True Tragedy of Richard III (1588), and Bezio groups these plays, along with Edmund Ironsides, together for their “focus on the English tradition of limited monarchy as the sovereign ideal” (65). Specifically, she convincingly presents The True Tragedy, with its crowning of Richmond by election, as offering a solution to the problem of succession that troubled the English during the later years of Elizabeth’s reign.
These succession anxieties occupy the frame of chapter 4 in which Bezio delves into her richest vein of material, for this period finds over forty English history plays registered or produced, a number of which staged a limited monarchy surrounded by councilors, peers, and commoners, particularly Shakespeare’s Henriad and King John. In the concentrated chapter that follows it, “The Queen’s Councilors: Censorship, Courtly Silence, and the Secrets of the Succession (1600...