banishment of the Tarquins was an unqualified good, but Rome soon
degenerated from its unified state and â€˜fell shee into manie-headed
powreâ€™, until the people eventually realized that they were better off with
a â€˜brave Monarchall stateâ€™ (592), a stable political form that could offset
the dangerous swings that other states experienced. Grevilleâ€™s aim is to
outplay the republicans at their own game and show that constitutional
monarchy Ã€ which would in Grevilleâ€™s terms hardly limit the monarchâ€™s
powers at all Ã€ is the best form of government that ensures stability and
grants the people maximum liberty.
Grevilleâ€™s work would appear to suggest that a republican tradition
in England could be assumed from the sixteenth century onwards, even
if it became more developed and more clearly articulated as the prospect
of a republic became a reality rather than a distant possibility considered
in somewhat abstract terms by a few intellectuals and disaffected political
commentators. Greville shows how important republicanism was within
a literary tradition, hardly surprisingly given the role that literature played
in political life.
Many educated people only had the chance to participate in public
politics in any significant way by writing literary texts.20 However, the
implications of this relationship have not always been so carefully thought
through. The question of republicanism has been controversial partly
because the match between politics and literature has been imagined as
one-way rather than two-way traffic. The result, I would suggest, is a
distortion of early-modern intellectual culture which was far more able to
countenance and so balance the complicated relationships between
different fields of study.21
Wernham 1984. Norbrook 1999; Bevington 1968.
Woudhuysen 1996; Spiller 2004.
Republicanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain 117
Republicanism has often been removed from the story of English
political history because what has been observed does not match the
retrospectively established definitions. The most sustained and cogent
argument against the existence of republicanism before the English Civil
War has been made by Blair Worden, who claims that, whether one
defines republicanism as a language or a programme, its constituent
elements are simply not present in Elizabethan England: â€˜In pre-civil-war
England it was the abuse of monarchy, not the principle, that attracted
complaintâ€™.22 Worden is convinced that classical republicanism was a clear
and distinct strain in English political thought, and argues further that
â€˜pre-war discontent . . . was invariably directed towards the reform, and
thus to the strengthening, of the monarchyâ€™.23 The inserted premise does
not necessarily follow from the first. Reforming the monarchy did not
always involve strengthening it, but, more often than not, limiting
its powers in order to strengthen those of the people under the rule of
law. As Markku Peltonen has reminded us, if English humanists took
â€˜the princely context for granted, it did not prevent their adopting a
number of â€˜â€˜civicâ€™â€™ and republican themes in their writingsâ€™.24 If everyone
did believe in the monarchy, there were clearly very different positions
taken on its role and purpose, not just whether it was an institution worth
preserving. Political debates in early-modern England cannot be reduced
to this either/or formula. Worden rightly points out that major writers
such as More, Sidney and Bacon did turn to â€˜non-monarchical models of
government for guidanceâ€™, and even if we can agree that â€˜constitutional
collapse was the dread, not the hope, of the class of lay intellectuals
to which these writers belongedâ€™, their exploration of alternative political
institutions would appear to indicate that they did not necessarily
believe that the monarchy had to remain static, and did not believe that a
change of the constitution would make society better. There was a long
tradition of commonwealth thought, placing emphasis on the needs of
the people as well as the monarch, which could easily be mapped onto
We need to bear in mind how difficult it was for writers to say exactly
what they meant in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, as
the case of the (eventually) cautious figure of Fulke Greville indicates:
one reason why so many authors interested in political ideas, events and
problems turned to literary forms to express their ideas in coded forms.26
Worden 2002, p. 311. Worden 2002, p. 311; Worden 1981.
24 25 26
Peltonen 1995, p. 9. Jones 2000. Clare 1999; Clegg 1997.
118 andrew hadfield
In adopting literary forms, narratives and modes of representation,
writers did not simply disguise their political ideas, such as an interest in
the ways in which a monarch ought to use the counsel of his advisers;
the precise nature of the problematic formula of the king or queen
possessing authority as a â€˜monarch in parliamentâ€™; the responsibility that
a magistrate had towards those above and below him; the ways in which
the succession should be managed; or, the exact form that the â€˜mixed
constitutionâ€™ should assume. They did, of course, comment on all these
issues at appropriate times.27 But it is important that we recognize that
literature did not just exist as a disguised form of politics. Writers also
made use of existing literary forms, styles and representations as political
interventions in themselves. Nowhere was this more apparent than in
the case of republicanism.
Republicanism was a literary phenomenon, as well as a matter of
constitutional belief and doctrine, because it consisted of a series of
stories. These were easy to narrate, repeat, retell and refigure, signalling
a republican subject matter, style or area, without necessarily entailing
a commitment to any programme. This particular aspect of republican-
ism is another reason why it is hard to define and isolate, and why some
historians have been sceptical that the scraps and fragments of republican
culture that undoubtedly exist in pre-Civil War England can be accorded
any substance. Nevertheless it is a mistake to argue that historical
documents and evidence precede literary evidence, as if the latter were
simply derived from the former as a supplementary discourse.
The basic stories of republicanism were well known, and were often
repeated. The two fundamental stories dovetail neatly, representing the
birth of the republic, and its prolonged death, linked through the name
that has perhaps become the most republican of all names, Brutus.
The first story is that of the rape of Lucrece, whose abuse at the hands
of Tarquinus Sextus, son of the tyrannical king of Rome, Tarquinus
Superbus, results in the end of the dynasty of the first kings of Rome,
and the founding of the republic when Lucius Junius Brutus leads the
revolt that has them banished. The most familiar source for readers in the
English Renaissance was Livyâ€™s The History of Rome from its Foundation.28
Of course, the story could be inflected in a variety of ways, often being
used as a paradigmatic example of female virtue and chastity, as in
Chaucerâ€™s The Legend of Good Women (reprinted in the complete edition
Axton 1977. Livy 1960, pp. 80Ã€85; Donaldson 1982; Shakespeare 2002.
Republicanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain 119
of Chaucer in 1561). More often, however, it possessed a clear political
charge, as it did when alluded to in the most widely cited Huguenot
treatise advocating the assassination of tyrants who opposed the will of
God and the people, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, or, concerning the
legitimate power of a prince over the people, and of the people over a prince
(1579). The author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos went out of his way to
advertise the link between republicanism and Protestant resistance theory.
The text was supposedly written by â€˜Stephanus Junius Brutus, the Celtâ€™,
translating the name of the founder of the republic, Lucius Junius Brutus,
to Scotland and so signalling support for those radical Protestants, such as
John Knox, who opposed the imposition of Catholic rule by Mary
Stuart.29 The text ends with a plea for the tyranny of Iberian Catholicism
to be overthrown and the author stating in block capitals: â€˜O BRUTUS,
YOU WERE MY TEACHERâ€™.30
The fact that the text could refer to the story of the foundation of the
Roman Republic in such a fleeting manner indicates its status as a key
element of what a â€˜culturally literateâ€™ reader might be expected to
recognize, as well as its significance within early-modern political culture
(evidence that might be read alongside attacks on republicanism as signs
of its existence and importance). Exactly the same political connotations
are provided, albeit more cautiously, in William Painterâ€™s The Palace of
Pleasure, one of the most popular works of fiction in the second half
of the sixteenth century, which, like the even more successful A Mirror
for Magistrates, went through a variety of editions and ever expanding
versions after its initial publication in 1566. Painterâ€™s sub-title, â€˜with
pleasaunt histories and excellent novelles, selected out of divers good and
commendable authorsâ€™, makes the work sound innocent enough, but this
influential compendium of prose tales started life when it was entered in
the Stationersâ€™ Register in 1562 as what must have been a more politically
oriented work entitled The Cytie of Civilitie.31 Painter derives a number of
tales from Livy, as well as contemporary Italian and French collections.
The second novel in the collection is â€˜The Rape of Lucreceâ€™, a narrative
that may have influenced Shakespeareâ€™s poem, especially given the use
of Painterâ€™s work by other dramatists to provide source material for
their plays (most famously, John Websterâ€™s The Duchess of Malfi).32
Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos 1994, p. 3; Knox, 1994.
Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos 1994, p. 187.
Painter 1890, i, p. xxxix; Hadfield 1998, pp. 147Ã€62.
Shakespeare 1960, pp. 193Ã€6; Webster 1995Ã€, i, pp. 675Ã€705.
120 andrew hadfield
Shakespeareâ€™s decision to publish a version of the legend in 1594 was
certainly a bold move and would have marked him out as a writer keen to
explore political ideas and themes, however he chose to tell the story.
Shakespeareâ€™s Lucrece stands as part of the well-established English
tradition of complaint poetry, where a female voice eloquently laments
her fate.33 Lucreceâ€™s journey from servile subject of the king to an
outspoken critic of the excesses of monarchy, prepared to use violence,
absorbs the political transformation which she had traditionally been
seen to cause. There is little need for Brutus in Shakespeareâ€™s version,
not because the poem has no interest in the republican significance of the
story, but because Lucrece has already done all the work for the reader.
Hence it is a sign of the poemâ€™s sophisticated political character, rather
than the interference of a heavy-handed editor, that it has a prose
description of the establishment of the republic as a preface to the poem
as â€˜The Argumentâ€™.34 Shakespeare, making use of the accounts in
Ovidâ€™s Fasti, as well as Livyâ€™s History of Rome, ends with the standard
political moral as read by earlier writers such Buchanan, Painter and
William Fulbecke. Brutus, speaking next to Lucreceâ€™s body, makes
â€˜a bitter invective against the tyranny of the King. Wherewith the people
were so moved, that with one consent and a general acclamation the
Tarquins were all exiled, and the state government changed from kings
to consulsâ€™.35 However, the poem itself simply ends with the memorable,
but potentially bathetic, two feminine couplets:
And so to publish Tarquinâ€™s foul offence;
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquinâ€™s everlasting banishment. (ii. 1852Ã€5).
The use of these feminine rhymes is perhaps a means of reminding us
that the republican case is based on the actions of a woman. Shakespeareâ€™s
representation of Brutusâ€™s speech (ii. 1818Ã€41) does not have the dramatic
character that it does in Ovidâ€™s Fasti, Livy or Painter because Lucrece has
already reached the conclusion that Rome needs to re-establish its
â€˜country rightsâ€™ (i. 1838).36 In transferring the political significance of her
violation to the victim herself, Shakespeare refashions and combines two
distinct poetic traditions, establishing the virtuous, beautiful, politically
agile and literate Lucrece as a republican heroine.
33 34 35
Kerrigan 1991. Shakespeare 2002, p. 48. Shakespeare 2002, p. 66.
Ovid 2000, Fasti 2, lines 841Ã€4.
Republicanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain 121
In terms of this reading of the poem, Tarquinâ€™s attempt to persuade
Lucrece to yield to his desires is probably its most significant section.
We do not witness the conflict of two mutually exclusive political lan-
guages, that of absolutism and that of contractual theory, as we might
expect if republicanism is considered as a language or a programme.37
Rather, both protagonists accept that a constitutionally limited mon-
archy is a desirable political form. The problem is that Tarquin cannot
confine his appetites within the boundaries established, and Lucrece is
consequently forced to consider more revolutionary action. Tarquin is
represented as a tyrant, admitting to himself that his â€˜will is strong
past reasonâ€™s weak removingâ€™ (i. 244). The narrator elaborates on this
clash between reason and appetite, referring to Tarquin as a traitor,
whose â€˜greedy eyeballsâ€™ commit â€˜high treasonâ€™ in misleading his heart
(ii. 369Ã€70). Given that the expanded treason statutes that were passed
by the Tudors all sought to strengthen the power of the monarchy and
define more forms of verbal opposition to the regime as treachery than
had been prohibited in the late middle ages, the extent of Tarquinâ€™s
arrogant abrogation of constitutional powers is clear enough.38 While still
attempting to persuade Lucrece to commit adultery he proposes a means
of circumventing the law that will satisfy his desires, confirm his real
power and leave the constitution intact:
â€˜But if thou yield, I rest thy secret friend;
The fault unknown is as a thought unacted.
A little harm done to a great good end
For lawful policy remains enactedâ€™. (ii. 526Ã€9)
Tarquinâ€™s argument is that Lucrece should submit to him as a means
of preserving Roman liberty; the barely suppressed threat is that if she
does not yield to him he will undermine the state when he becomes
king.39 Tarquinâ€™s reason informs him that he is acting in a manner ill
befitting the heir to the throne; his will is too strong for him to control.
Any monarch who cannot limit his appetites is a tyrant and leaves
himself vulnerable to being overthrown in the interests of the people,
as monarchomach and republican theories often claimed. In a discussion
about kings who seize kingdoms â€˜by violence and without the consent
of the peopleâ€™, Buchanan argues that tyrants often disguise their true
natures because they are aware of the consequences of their actions,
Sommerville 1986, â€˜Introductionâ€™. Bellamy 1979, p. 15.
On the political implications of disguise in the poem, see Dzelzainis 1999, pp. 111Ã€13.
122 andrew hadfield
â€˜For the hatred aroused by a single misdeed loses them all gratitude for
their ostentatious generosityâ€™. Their aim is to act â€˜for the sake of their own
absolute power rather than the advantage of the peopleâ€™ and to â€˜enjoy
their own pleasuresâ€™ instead of governing in the interests of the people
they are supposed to serve.40 This dishonest and closed form of
government encourages the further vice of bad rule, flattery, the â€˜nurse
of tyranny and the most grievous plague of lawful kingshipâ€™.41
Lucrece refuses to remain silent and dares to challenge Tarquin. His
desire to separate his private act from his public person produces
a corresponding division in Lucreceâ€™s understanding of him: â€˜In Tarquinâ€™s
likeness I did entertain thee:/Hast thou put on his shape to do him
shame?â€™ (ii. 596Ã€7). Lucrece tries to separate the private from the public
body of the future king. Lucrece then explores the consequences of
Tarquinâ€™s as yet uncommitted crime in lines that show her political ideas
changing as we read:
â€˜Thou seemâ€™st not what thou art, a god, a king:
For kings like gods should govern everything.
â€˜How will thy shame be seeded in thine age,
When thus thy vices bud before thy spring?
If in thy hope thou darâ€™st do such outrage,
What darâ€™st thou not when once thou art a king?
O be rememberâ€™d, no outrageous thing