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The Third Citizen, Shakespeare’s Theater
and the Early Modern House of Commons

Oliver Arnold

Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
$55, 328 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8018-8504-4. Hardback.

Reviewed by Marie-Dominique Garnier


The Third Citizen takes its title from the name of a minor character in The Tragedy of Coriolanus, to whom Shakespeare has attributed the following conundrum: “We have power in ourselves to do it, but it is a power we have no power to do.” The Third Citizen explores, in other words, the paradoxes attached to political representation, from a new angle: that of a “strangely neglected” crowd of garlic-eating plebeians, “third zone” citizens, the components of what could be called a “tiers-état.”
This well-researched book musters a wealth of texts and documents relating to the political and aesthetic choices of two contemporary “houses”: the House of Parliament, and its theatrical counterpart, Shakespeare’s full “house” or theatrical stage. Thanks to Oliver Arnold’s researched mediation, thousands of pages of speeches, pamphlets, bills and reports confined in library print rooms and antiquaries have, even if partially, begun their second life, in a book about parliamentary practice and its relevance to contemporary drama. As Arnold remarks quite early in his study, Shakespeare’s life spanned a key stage in the history of the House of Commons and its relation to “third citizens,” i.e. to the Mr Nobodies of early modern democracies—the moment in Parliamentary history when one of the new institutional missions of the Commons was to articulate or relay public opinion. On the other hand, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, since “only one-sixth of the adult male population were qualified to vote in Parliament” [52], representation remains largely a fiction. Similarly, the freedom of speech to which English subjects were supposedly entitled “was strictly circumscribed to the walls of St Stephen’s Chapel,” since “nothing spoken within the walls could be reported to the public itself" [55]. MPs could—and did—use their legislative power to punish private subjects who discussed parliamentary affairs" [63]. The representational model thus recovered in Arnold’s book is best redefined as “incarnational” [82].

Oliver Arnold’s dense book explores the fertile ground left mostly unturned by new historicist approaches of early modern politics, whose energies have been divided between court and country. The story told by Arnold’s book remains, he claims, “outside established historiography,” in the sense that his purpose is not to “revive Whiggish visions,” but to show that representationalism was born as much from aspirations to an equal share of power as from the MPs’ desire to exert their authority over the people. The book opens and ends with a quotation imported from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which perhaps most electorates would be well-advised to reread before, during, and after election times:

Le peuple anglais pense être libre, il se trompe fort; il ne l’est que durant l’élection des membres du Parlement; sitôt qu’ils sont élus, il est esclave, il n’est rien. Dans les courts moments de sa liberté, l’usage qu’il en fait mérite bien qu’il la perde. [Du Contrat Social, 190]

Unfortunately, Arnold does not accompany his readers any further into a study of Rousseau and his relationship to the notion of representation.

Arnold’s approach to a possibly rebellious electorate is, he states, closer to a “Bakhtinian squint” than to “the wide eye of Whiggery” [23]. The Third Citizen operates a revision of Greenblatt’s treatment of Shakespeare’s plays in relation to the literature of kinship, here displaced towards the literature of representational politics. Among the conclusions Arnold’s book reaches is the rather distressing fact that, much as what happens in Coriolanus, the creation of Parliamentary representation (or the Roman tribunate) is a fraud that “suppresses and usurps the people’s power at the moment of its first flowering” [20]. The corpus of plays examined by Arnold’s book is mostly based on Shakespeare’s Roman plays and on the tetralogy.

Contrary to a Shakespearian representation or “play,” the essence of theatrical representation at work in the House of Commons does not acknowledge the presence of any viewer. Its gaze, in other words, is eminently self-contained and self-directed. There was, Arnold concludes after commenting two engravings of the MPs in St Stephen’s, “no viewer to gaze.” The ruling metaphor, the ruling organ, beneath Arnold’s reading, then, is not that of vision or gazing, but the metaphor of “absorption,” swallowing, to which the second, brilliant half of part I of the book is entirely devoted: “Cade’s Mouth: Swallowing Parliament in the First Tetralogy.” Representation has boiled down, Arnold argues, to a form of digestion. A spokesman is, from this angle, always improper, and does not utter the claims of the popular voice, as in the “ventriloquist” model of representation supported by Annabel Patterson. 

Part II shifts attention to political representation in Shakespeare’s Rome, and in particular to Titus Andronicus, which Arnold’s book is among the first to take seriously as a political play, “haunted by the silence of the people” [101]. The rape of Lavinia is interposed between two elections “to demonstrate that elective politics […] can deprive the ‘poor citizen’ of voice” [104]. Arnold goes on to explore, in the pages that follow, the implications of such a term as “trust,” used by Marcus Andronicus (“me, the tribunes and their trust” [I.1.80]), which, in its technical, legal sense, involves notions pertaining to property, investment, profit, and return on capital.

Arnold’s reading of Julius Caesar parts company with a well-established critical tradition which sees Plutarch’s Lives and North’s Live of Caesar as its sources, bringing to the foreground a number of important differences between Julius Caesar and its sources—such as Shakespeare’s dis-locating of the murder of Caesar to an “empty” theatre. The play elaborates, he claims, an opposition between “theatrical representation” and political representation, the former being “far more radical” than the latter. The next chapter, on Coriolanus, recalls that the phrase “free elections” was meaningless in almost all Elizabethan and Parliamentary elections. Democracy, in other words, should not be confused with representative democracy. The “franchise” to elect (the “voice”) should be re-envisioned, in this play, as the means by which “the people enslave themselves to representatives.”

Several questions remain after reading Arnold’s brilliant and well-documented analysis of Shakespeare’s “representational plays” (as well as his convincing close-readings of Shakespeare’s texts). What the book seems to lack is a comprehensive, philosophical grasp of the concept of representation, which resonates in many directions and should encompass recent developments such as the critique of “representation” formulated by deconstruction. Among the few “theorists” quoted, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Bakhtine figure briefly, though not very prominently. Bourdieu and Althusser are mentioned half way through the book and submitted to a rather severe critique, on the grounds that they mistake “ideology for ‘the real’.”

Arnold’s final words resonate with the tragic, suicidal sense that any possibility of subversion is banned from our modern democracies—definitely a “pensée triste,” to borrow Deleuze’s phrase, which must, against all odds, be resisted.


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