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Shakespeare and Republicanism
Andrew Hadfield

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
£50 hardback. 363 pp. ISBN 0-521-81607-6; ISBN 9-780521-816076.


Reviewed  by Guillaume Coatalen



Andrew Hadfield is a leading scholar well known for his work on Shakespeare, Spenser and colonial and travel writing. As is often the case with brilliant ideas, one wonders why nobody had ever thought of writing a book on a topic which sounds so obviously central to understanding Shakespeare’s choices. There was a crying need for such a monograph simply because no other Elizabethan or Jacobean dramatist wrote so much on the Roman republic [57]. This controversial study has been systematically quoted and discussed in all subsequent editions of Shakespeare’s works covered in the book, thus becoming the starting point for all political readings in the field. Hadfield refutes the widespread opinion according to which Shakespeare expresses a reactionary fear of the mob in Coriolanus, among other plays. In fact, in the wake of Machiavelli, Elizabethan advisors and writers tried to devise suitable responses to civil war, which would not lead to tyranny. Tyranny was kept at bay by maintaining a fine balance between subjects, parliament and Crown. The possibility of civil war was not a theoretical one in Shakespeare’s age but a danger that was all too real, as shown by the religious wars in France.

The book contains two parts: the first one admirably sums up republican ideas in Renaissance England and the second concentrates on Shakespeare’s works by following his literary career. Not only should the first part be compulsory reading for anyone interested in reading a clear synthesis of a tricky topic (students in history and political philosophy should find it extremely useful), but it is also a wise and humane attack on the ever damaging rule of theory over literary studies. The sterile debate on identity is rightly noted as the chief culprit, and one realises, yet again, what a disaster the received digest of Foucault’s thought has been for true scholarship. Prof. Hadfield notes how good old politics has become the catchy “politics of” in an ever-growing list of titles churned out by the academic industry.
It is impossible to do justice to Hadfield’s achievement, who makes innumerable convincing connections between republicanism and Shakespeare’s works while always wearing his vast erudition lightly. He writes a lucid analytical prose with many a felicitous phrase while keeping a steady course in a theoretical minefield. The conversational tone and seamless analysis turns what could have been an unwieldy account into a highly readable book. Hadfield argues that the stage was the main scene of public debate at a time when discussing central political issues, such as the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, was forbidden by law. He shows that republicanism was not represented by a political party but rather by an elusive cluster of sometimes contradictory ideas, images and myths. Among them stood out the rape of Lucrece by Tarquin, the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and Caesar’s assassination. Republicanism was not restricted to the history of the Roman republic. When their faiths were persecuted, both Protestant and Catholic pamphleteers interpreted Biblical figures, such as Judith or King David, in republican terms. This allowed them to encourage rebellion against a monarch who was no longer seen as legitimate since he was ungodly. Dramatists reflected upon the fairly recent French and Italian cases of civil strife. Republicanism was based on two distinct but related bodies of texts, classical and contemporary ones. The major sources from Antiquity included Aristotle, Livy, Lucan’s Pharsalia, Polybius’, Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ histories. Influential contemporary republican treatises included Thomas Starkey’s Dialogue between Pole and Lupset (c.1533-35), Sir Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum (1583),  Richard Beacon’s Solon his Foliie (1594), the Huguenot treatise Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos (1579), Buchanan’s political works, Ane detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (1571), De Jure Regni Apud Scotis (1579), and Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582). As duly noted in the preface, the first part owes much to Skinner’s groundbreaking Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978), and to Norbrook’s and Peltonen’s research on republicanism in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Nevertheless, Hadfield maps out a territory largely unknown to most Shakespearean critics, and also speaks to those historians who have failed to recognize the existence and importance of republicanism before the Civil War. By looking into the invaluable testimony offered by plays and other writings—Christopher Hill’s method—instead of focusing exclusively on institutions or political events, historians would have noticed that republicanism far antedated Cromwell. Republicanism is inseparable from basic political questions: What is the best constitution? How should the king be chosen? What happens when the legitimate king is too weak to rule? These were pressing issues when Mary Stuart as second queen was as good a candidate as Elizabeth, and later, under the reign of the Virgin Queen. Factionalism [42] was another current political thorn Venice’s model republic was admired for removing permanently, contrary to the English monarchy festered by the conflict between the Cecils and the earl of Essex’s circle in the late 1590s.

The study has far-reaching consequences for Shakespeare studies as well as for Renaissance plays in general. In the second chapter of Part I Hadfield shows that Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Massacre at Paris, Jonson’s Sejanus and Catiline and Chapman’s two Byron plays (1608) are replete with Republican concerns. There is only one faulty reference to Webster in the index—read 55 instead of 100—but the first scene of The Duchess of Malfi is an apt illustration of some republican topics analysed by Hadfield. Antonio comes back from France and praises the French king’s rule. In addition to being an obvious criticism of James’s court, “their judicious king...quits first his royal palace/Of flattering sycophants, of dissolute/And infamous persons” [I.i.6-9, ed. R. Weiss], the lines insist on the advisors’ role in a monarchy, “Though some o’ th’ court hold it presumption/To instruct princes what they ought to do,/It is a noble duty to inform them/What they ought to foresee” [I.i.19-22], a point discussed at length by Hadfield [17 and elsewhere].

The second part begins with “Shakespeare’s early republican career” and follows with his first tetralogy, “The beginning of the republic: Venus and Lucrece,” “The end of the republic: Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar,Hamlet, and ends with “After the republican moment.”
The general outline of the book is built on a striking parallelism between Shakespeare’s literary career and  the mythical history of the Roman republic. Prof. Hadfield stresses that the place of rhetoric in Renaissance culture and thought owed much to its political status in the Roman republic [180-81] and that fine oratory was both the fuel and sign of honest free debate. The comment has far reaching consequences on practical criticism. A rhetorical analysis of, say, Coriolanus’s speeches should yield precise political lessons based on republican ideals. Hadfield’s original insights are too numerous to be retraced here, and a few examples will have to suffice: Prince Edward’s comment on Caesar and its significance in Richard III [126-27], Elizabeth I as Venus in Venus and Adonis [132], the importance of Cicero in Julius Caesar [168], Hamlet and Scottish politics in general and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in particular [187], Hamlet employing Brutus’s tactic [188], Measure for Measure and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots [210-11].

Given that this a Cambridge University Press publication, the reader is surprised to find quite a few typos—the repetition of “that,” “a Dark Ages” [10], “falls” for “fails” [24], “later” for “latter” [41], “the Cicero’s detachment” [169]. A wrong page number has crept into the index, and the list of abbreviations is faulty: “SP Studies in Philology” occurs twice and “JDJ” does not, even though it crops up in the bibliography, (it is perhaps the John Donne Journal). Going back and forth between the text proper (around 200 pages) and the abundant endnotes (80 pages) is uncomfortable. Anyone interested in the topic is ready and glad to read lengthy footnotes. This is particularly annoying since Hadfield covers such a vast territory from Antiquity to the minutiae of Elizabethan politics. His background reading is understandably extensive and many references would otherwise be difficult to hunt down. These are minor blemishes in such a carefully built work and major landmark in Shakespeare studies.



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