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  • Xenophon and Plato in Elizabethan Culture:The Tyrant's Fear Before Macbeth
  • Francesco Dall'Olio (bio)

When in the Wasps (422 BCE) Aristophanes satirized the Athenians' obsession with tyranny,1 the state of uncertainty and anxiety provoked by the Peloponnesian War had caused the Athenians to fear that one man or a group of conspirators could take advantage of the situation to overthrow the democracy. As a result, the definition of tyranny, the personality of the tyrant, and democracy in relation to other forms of government became issues of great interest, sparking off a lively debate. Twenty centuries later, Renaissance England experienced a similar theoretical urge: the political, religious, and cultural turmoil triggered by Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy (1534) initiated a heated debate on the difference between a king and a tyrant, the legitimacy of tyrannical rule, and the obedience of the people to monarchical sway.2 The kings and queens of England in this period were repeatedly charged with accusations of tyranny from different quarters and for different reasons. Henry VIII's personalistic and despotic rule solicited the infamous parallel with the Roman tyrant Nero from Catholics and Protestants alike, who accused him of using the Reformation for his private purposes.3 Anthony Gilby, a Marian exile in Geneva and a translator of the Geneva Bible, wrote in his Admonition of England and Scotland (1558) that "thus was there no reformation, but a deformation, in the tyme of that tyrant and lecherous monster." 4 Mary's rule led Protestant writers to compare her to such traditional tyrannical figures as Herod, Nero, or Caligula, as the politician John Hales refers to in an oration to Elizabeth (1559) printed by John Foxe, the author of the martyrological The Acts and Monuments of the English Church (1563).5 In the course of her reign, Queen Elizabeth had [End Page 476] to face both Catholic and Protestant threats: the former accused her of being an unlawful sovereign (Pius V, on deposing and excommunicating her, defined her "pretensia Angla regina," and Sixtus V accused her of "exercysinge an absolute Tyrannie"),6 while radical Protestants manifested their disappointment with her politics in religious matters (the clash became particularly virulent in 1584, with her royal veto on Anthony Cope's Puritan revision of the Book for Common Prayer).7

The official ideology of the Elizabethan age replied to this constant state of threat and uncertainty by endorsing a new political theory about tyranny and kingship based on the concept of obedience. Elizabeth and her advisors encouraged the composition of homilies and treatises to instruct the people that rebellion against an anointed king was always a sin, no matter how bad the sovereign was. An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion, the clearest and most direct expression of this new doctrine, was very explicit on this point: "a rebel is worse then the worst prince, and rebellion worse then the worst government of the worst prince that hitherto hath ben."8 During Elizabeth's reign, this view influenced the way political theory came to associate tyranny with the usurpation of the throne, replacing medieval conceptions focused on the ruler's personality9 and identifying in illegitimate kingship the only case when revolt could be tolerated.10 As Maynard Mack has noticed, "England, in contrast [to the Continent], assigned to the king what had been developed by the Church lawyers for clerics, compressing into the doctrine of two bodies united in one being the faceless permanence of an institution and the character of a man," while the royalists moved "toward the theory of divine right."11 All this, however, did not occur smoothly.

The idea of the tyrant as a bad ruler had been the foundation of medieval interpretations of tyranny, and in the works of such theorists as John of Salisbury (Policraticus 8.7) and Thomas Aquinas (Sententiae 2. quaest.44. art.2), it served to legitimize the people's right (and sometimes duty) to depose and even kill the tyrant, conceived of as a monstrous beast and Satan's envoy.12 This theory, still current in Italian humanism,13 in the Elizabethan age furnished theoretical ground for such "heretical" authors as John Ponet, a...


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