- Shakespeare, Popularity and the Public Sphere by Jeffrey S. Doty
Shakespeare, Popularity and the Public Sphere.
Cambridge UP, 2016. 210 Pp.
JEFFREY S. DOTY’S BOOK SHAKESPEARE, POPULARITY AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE represents an engaging approach to the intersection of politics, publicity, and popularity in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, illustrating the way these notions are portrayed and put into action in six plays by William Shakespeare. Doty’s starting point is that the idea of popularity was in flux in early modern England. Political theorists and moralists often condemned attempts by the elites to rely on the common support and to obtain popular favor as a way to advance their careers in the political milieu, and public discourse could easily fall under the category of defamation. At the same time, the social and cultural changes of the time had led to “the emergence of public relations” (2) and to new modes of engagement among monarchy, nobility, and commoners.
Whereas Elizabeth I’s style of monarchy was firmly based on the idea of courting her subjects’ love and admiration (and thus on establishing a peculiar type of symbolic relationship between the crown and the people), James I’s conception and performance of monarchical power was far more detached and resistant to similar interactions. Court nobility also had to carefully consider the degree to which they relied on popular support to obtain political gains, since positive public opinion could be beneficial but could also quickly raise suspicions among peers. These tensions within the performance of politics in the public domain made their way onto the stage. Doty thus argues that “Shakespeare made popularity a central theme in his plays for London’s amphitheaters” (18). He presents the thesis that “when Shakespeare dramatized the tactics for winning the love of the people, he subjected the Elizabethan controversy of ‘popularity’—and the real figures associated with it—to playgoer scrutiny” (19), thus engaging the audience with the political conundrums presented on stage. Due to this active role that playgoers could experience, Doty considers that “the public stages were already spaces of popularity” (23), where figures of power—their words, their actions, their motivations—were subjected not only to the gaze of their anonymous audience members, but also to their opinion and judgment. In other words, “judging and sentencing plays were two distinctly democratic pleasures of playgoing” (66). [End Page 143] The book is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 focuses on Richard II and how it “reflects late Elizabethan concerns about an emergent public sphere” (29), since Bolingbroke deposes Richard without resorting to military violence, relying on the support of commoners to back him up. Doty shows that the intensity of Bolingbroke’s popularity in this play is very much a Shakespearean creation when compared to his sources, reflecting the Bard’s fascination with the Earl of Essex and his continuous political performances aimed to obtain and manipulate popular support.
Chapter 2 is dedicated to 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV as examples of how the exploration of popularity in these historical plays is pierced by early modern tensions. Doty argues that in 1 Henry IV, the protagonist, Hal, does not try to achieve popular support from the people of the tavern of Eastcheap. Rather, he repudiates his time there when it is politically expedient to enhance his profile as prince. Popularity is therefore won through a certain degree of monarchical theatricality that imbues the crown with a monarchical aura. Yet this process of legitimation is based on a hollow performance of politics that Shakespeare exposes to his audience. In considering 2 Henry IV, Doty again stresses the conflictive nature of popularity, this time through his analysis of King Henry’s “larger network of cannibalistic images that Shakespeare uses to convey the risks of courting popularity” (86), suggesting that the overconsumption of kingship can lead to its ruin. This would also explain the death of Falstaff and other Eastcheap characters: their disappearance would be Shakespeare’s way to address the dangers of his own popularity as a playwright and to break free from his audience’s desire to see more plays...