SUMMARY: Political Thought and the Theater, 1580-1630

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.

SUMMARY: Political Thought and the Theater, 1580-1630

SUMMARY: The Politics of Renaissance England

In his summary of English Renaissance politics, Norman Jones argues that Elizabeth and James’s reigns were most affected by questions of succession, religious conflict, and economic turmoil. Elizabeth refused to marry, and though she had young male favorites, this reality was as constant source of anxiety for Elizabeth’s advisers and the English people. She made a religious settlement in 1559 which made the Catholics mad and the Puritans upset that the reforms had not gone further. A Catholic seminary in England began to turn out priests that saw their faith as political, and pressure from the Pope and other Catholic nations was common. Economically, the nation expanded its overseas expeditions, and explorers like Drake and Hakluyt provided new bounty for Elizabeth’s coffers.

By the 1580s, it was clear that Elizabeth was not going to get married. Instead, she turned her eye to the continent and its religious conflict. She supported the Dutch which further incurred the wrath of Spain. A gust of win in 1588 disarmed the Spanish fleets, and England was saved a gigantic defeat and invasion. Things were more complicated in France where Elizabeth supported the newly crowned Henry IV only to see the war not go well and Henry to convert to Catholicism. Ireland was a mess, especially with the rebellion of Hugh O’Neill. The queen sent her favorite, the Earl of Essex, to take care of the problem, but Essex fails to take care of it. He gets taken off the job, tries a rebellion back in England, and finally loses his head in 1602.

The domestic economy grew at the end of the 16th Century, and the market for English exports (chiefly cloth) were significant. However, war sapped Elizabeth’s bank account, and the nation was in debt when James took control. James tried to bridge the gap between Puritans and Catholics with his own theological wisdom. He got a gunpowder plot from the Catholics for all his work and protests from the Puritans who didn’t like his tyrannical version of church hierarchy. His attempt to merge Scotland and England was ineffective due to the massive cultural gap between the nations, and while James stayed out of wars for most of his reign, he had an awful spending habit. James’s relationship with Parliament was problematic at best and so he had to rely on things like selling titles in order to make money.

One of the biggest worries for the English people was Charles, James’s son who was set to inherit the crown. Namely, James had been trying to match Charles with a Spaniard. He eventually ended that match, but Charles still ended up married to a Frenchman. James got pulled into the 30 years war as a result of his daughter’s marriage to a Bohemian prince. When he died, James left the nation in a difficult state. Norman Jones argues that this difficulty was caused by James’s ultimate outsider status, the royal-authority-believing foreigner who didn’t quite know how the English constitution worked.


SUMMARY: The Politics of Renaissance England