In this survey article, Annabel Patterson attempts to answer the question, “What was the connection between political thought in the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns and the popular theater of the time?” The question is a difficult one. Shakespeare, the play’s most popular playwright, was also enigmatic on political issues. Specific critics helped focus the question: David Bevington explored contemporary political allusions, Margot Heinemann explored religious conflict, and Rebecca Bushnell explored how one could tell in the period who was a good king or not. Patterson argues political thought is abstract and deals with the structure of government and the proper representation it occasions. One of the reasons that English drama may be ambiguous in its political commitment is that not many English writers offered original political analysis. Most of those pieces came from the Dutch. The two most important pieces of English analysis (both from the 1550s) were printed in Geneva.
Patterson points out that if one goes to the Henrician interlude or the Restoration era, all of a sudden the political thought of playwrights becomes strikingly clear. As an example, Patterson gives us a dramatization of Queen Esther wherein we have an inset discussion on the relationship between kings and advisors. In a criticism of Cardinal Wolsey, the most effective voice in the play argues for a king to be the lone decision maker. Patterson teases out contemporary applications as well that are a little less secure in the meaning. Whatever the case, we can simply contrast the open discussion from the Esther play with the enigmatic Elizabethan version of this same question in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Another interesting example, though it falls just before the fifty years Patterson focuses on, is Gorboduc where two advisors debate the political reasons for dividing a kingdom or leaving it in tact. Again, the obvious comparison point is a Shakespeare play, King Lear, where it’s impossible to point to any single line for an abstract discussion of the implied principle, “NEVER divide a kingdom.”
Ending her article with the analysis of two Jacobean plays, Patterson shows how conflicted political thought is in the period’s drama. Middleton’s A Game at Chess was meant to discourage Prince Charles’s marriage to a Spanish wife and was clear enough in its targets that it earned a formal protest from a Spanish ambassador. Samuel Daniel’s Philotas is about the dangers of an over-powerful subject. This play seems divided in its treatment. The first three acts appear seem to be a reading of Elizabeth favorite-turned-outcast the Earl of Essex. The final two acts discuss the fact that Philotas’s fellow courtiers were to blame for his downfall. Patterson shows how the first three acts were written in 1600, while Elizabeth was still alive, and the final two acts were complete a year into James’s reign. The resulting negotiation for Samuel Daniel, who Patterson labels a political philosopher, is a complicated one to say the least.
In short, this period’s plays is not where we should go to find political thought.