Shakespeare and Republicanism
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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 . 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.
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.”
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” , “falls” for “fails” , “later” for “latter” , “the Cicero’s detachment” . 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.