Then kingsâ€™ misdeeds cannot be hid in clay.
â€˜This deed will make thee only lovâ€™d for fear;
But happy monarchs still are fearâ€™d for love.â€™ (ii. 601Ã€11)
Lucrece stands as the ideal subject in these lines, perhaps we might even
argue that she transforms herself into a citizen when threatened by the
illegal actions of the monarch, a role that prefigures her representation as
the body politic itself when Tarquin rapes her. In the first lines cited here
she sees kings as Godâ€™s representatives on earth, able to govern every-
thing, the familiar statement of absolutist theory in Europe, and an
interpretation of the role of the monarch within the English constitution
which the Tudors intermittently asserted as theirs.42 In the second stanza
she develops her ideas, speculating on what Tarquin might do when he
has become king if he is prepared to act so badly before he has assumed
40 41 42
Buchanan 2003, pp. 85Ã€7. Buchanan 2003, p. 3. Sommerville 1991.
Republicanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain 123
power. The implications of this train of thought undermine the premise
with which she started. If kings need to be suitable for their office, then
they have no absolute right to rule. If they rule to serve the people then
the people have a right to expect proper regal behaviour. The last line of
this stanza might have been written with Buchananâ€™s recently published
History of Scotland in mind.43 Buchananâ€™s long work was designed in part
to show that history exists to record the misdeeds of kings so that their
subjects can learn how to choose their monarchs wisely and to depose
those who show signs of being unsuitable to rule.44 Lucreceâ€™s actions lead
to the deposition of the Tarquins before Sextus Tarquinius has a chance to
rule, the implication being that prevention may be better than cure.
Lucrece travels a vast journey in her debate with Tarquin. She starts
off accepting that the king is like a god, and ends one step away from
articulating the monarchomach position, that the monarch who fails to
rule justly in the interests of his subjects can be legitimately overthrown.
This political awakening is then applied Ã€ by implication Ã€ to the poem
itself: â€˜For princes are the glass, the school, the book, / Where subjectsâ€™
eyes do learn, do read, do lookâ€™ (ii. 615Ã€16). Anyone who learns from the
behaviour of Tarquin, as Lucrece suggests, will almost certainly come to
the conclusion that the Romans came to, that they would be better
off without kings ever again.
Lucreceâ€™s rhetoric, as Colin Burrow points out, â€˜is a textbook example
of political oratory in this [i.e., Elizabethan] periodâ€™, designed to counsel
the monarch against a destructive course of action.45 Lucrece explains that
she sues for â€˜exilâ€™d majestyâ€™s repealâ€™ (i. 640), and her pleas are
unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the lines point to a very different future.
Lucrece means here that Tarquin is exiled from himself in his duty as
king. But we all know that Tarquin and his line really are banished from
Rome at the end of the poem, and that even a protracted war with the
newly established republican armies fails to restore the dynasty.46 The
eventual effect of Tarquinâ€™s base desires is to make Romans value their
freedom even more: â€˜The hard-won liberty of Rome was rendered the
more welcome, and the more fruitfulâ€™.47 Lucreceâ€™s failure at this stage
does not imply that resistance to tyranny is futile; rather, it suggests that
the rhetoric of counsel may have to be abandoned in favour of more
drastic Ã€ that is, republican Ã€ measures.
On Shakespeare and Buchanan, see Norbrook 1987. Buchanan 1690.
45 46 47
Shakespeare 2002, p. 52. Livy 1960, pp. 84Ã€5. Livy 1960, p. 89.
124 andrew hadfield
The Rape of Lucrece contains a series of ironies, or displacements, that
require us to read its status as myth and history with due care and
attention. Lucrece speaks for more than half of the poem and develops
a sophisticated understanding of political issues in the course of her
argument with Tarquin and subsequent meditations on her unhappy fate,
yet she concludes that argument is futile and that she is too polluted to
carry on living (ii. 1021Ã€2, 1700Ã€22). Her death, not that of the king,
paves the way for the establishment of the republic, with men acting
to expunge the faults of men over the dead body of a woman.48 Yet the
real establishment of the republic occurs through the words of Lucrece
and the intellectual journey she undertakes.
The second story is a little more complex and involved, but is easy
enough to recognize. The republic ended and imperial Rome began
when Octavius Caesar assumed control after defeating the republican
forces led by Brutus and Cassius. Just as the republicans had to fight
a series of wars with the forces of the Tarquins to retain control of the
body politic they wished to control, Octavius had to defeat his former
ally, Antony, now in league with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. When
he managed this feat, he was left in sole command and assumed the
title of Augustus. The Roman Empire was born. Augustusâ€™s triumphant
moment, as all readers of Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch would have
known, was all too brief, and he was succeeded by a series of horrible
tyrants whose names were a byword for cruelty and excess Ã€ Tiberius,
Caligula, Claudius and Nero Ã€ eventually killed off by a popular coup,
leading to the rule of the Flavian dynasty. The cyclical nature of Roman
history was, as always, apparent.49
The events leading up to this political transformation were just as
important as elements of the story in the Renaissance imagination. The
decay of the values and morals of the republic led to a bloody civil
war between the former allies, Pompey and Julius Caesar, which Caesar
won. The story of this struggle was told in Lucanâ€™s epic/anti-epic
poem, Pharsalia, their author becoming a republican martyr when he
participated in a plot against Nero, and was forced to commit suicide.50
Caesar then seized control of Rome, and, although he was not actually
crowned, he became its sole ruler, following in the footsteps of the
dictator, Sulla. Caesar was then assassinated in a republican coup
Kahn 2003, p. 271. Holland, 2003.
Lucan 1992; compare Norbrook 1999, pp. 23Ã€62, 83Ã€92.
Republicanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain 125
by Brutus and Cassius, who hoped to restore the values of the Roman
Republic, but only succeeded in unleashing a further wave of destructive
A large number of the most significant writings that told the history
of Rome narrated these events and their consequences. They encapsulate
the common perception that its history was a cycle of diametrically
opposed forms of government. There were other significant narratives,
moments and images too, and a list might include the attempted coup
of Sejanus against the emperor Tiberius, narrated in a variety of
Roman histories, including Tacitus and Dio Cassiusâ€™s Roman History,
and represented in Ben Jonsonâ€™s Sejanus His Fall (1603);52 the conspiracy
of Catiline, governor of Africa, narrated in Sallustâ€™s well-known work,
and represented in Jonsonâ€™s Catiline His Conspiracy (1611);53 the suicides
of Lucan and Seneca during the reign of Nero, the first narrated in
Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetoniusâ€™s Twelve Caesars, the latter also in
Suetonius, but more importantly in his letters, and through the profound
influence of his tragedies on early-modern drama;54 the murder of
Cicero at the hands of Mark Antonyâ€™s agents in 43 bce, as his work
was ubiquitous and impossible to avoid in Elizabethan England, the
biography being most readily available in Plutarchâ€™s Lives.55 Taken
together these stories and events represent a general historical picture.56
The historical lesson given declares that the republic is a far more
desirable form of government than the empire, although the latter
may be preferable in times of decay and corruption, taking its political
cue from Aristotleâ€™s belief that tyranny could be a plausible form
of government if the world had become bad enough.57 The republic is
thought to be not always strong enough to incline men to virtue and so
sometimes be vulnerable to the attack of the wicked, desperate and
corrupt, such as Catiline, whose attempt to seize power was thwarted by
the republican hero, Cicero. Eventually, if the guardians of the republic
are not vigilant enough, an oligarchy will seize power and end the
republic, promoting their own interests at the expense of the general
citizens. Of course, the danger of imperial government is tyranny, as
Rome soon discovered, when the reign of the problematic but essentially
Crook, Lintott and Rawson 1994.
Tacitus 1956, pp. 153Ã€221; Jonson 1990; Worden 1994.
Sallust 1963, pp. 151Ã€233; Jonson 1972.
Suetonius 1957, pp. 209Ã€42; Barbour 1998.
55 56 57
Jones 1981. Miola 1983. Aristotle 1946, pp. 243Ã€50.
126 andrew hadfield
public-spirited Augustus was followed by those of Tiberius, Caligula and
Nero. And, as the works of Tacitus so frequently demonstrate, secrecy,
plotting and conspiracy become the way of life under the rule of a tyrant.
Roman history shows that it is better to try and make the republic
function properly, and then to defend it against its enemies, than to throw
oneâ€™s lot in with the imperialists. Everybody knows where the assassi-
nation of Julius Caesar leads, but it is not clear who is really to blame: the
assassins who despatch the putative tyrant, or Caesar and his followers,
who have already killed off the republic by promoting their champion at
the expense of everything else, including the republic?
Shakespeare narrates more of the republican story than any other
dramatist working in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, as well as
applying the lessons of a history of the republic to the English crown.
Having told the story of the birth of the republic in The Rape of Lucrece,
he then narrated the story of the death of the republic in Julius Caesar
and Antony and Cleopatra, which show the rise of Julius Caesar leading
eventually to the assumption of power by the colourless Octavius Caesar,
the future Augustus. The play concludes with Octavius arriving in
Egypt to find the dead Cleopatra and Antony, announcing that â€˜Our
army shall / In solemn show attend this funeral, / And then to Romeâ€™
(5.2.362Ã€4).58 Octaviusâ€™s bland lines depend on the audience knowing
exactly what has passed and what the future holds in store for Rome.
And, perhaps, there is a pointed contrast to the concluding lines of
Hamlet, a play that contains a king with the name of one of Augustusâ€™s
successors, Claudius, whose underhand behaviour leads to the end of
his familyâ€™s rule in Denmark. There, Fortinbras, another foreign martial
king who arrives on the scene to find a mass of dead bodies, arranges
the funeral of Hamlet before assuming power himself in an equally
Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot. (5.2.406Ã€8)
In Hamlet, the audience cannot possibly have any idea of what the future
will hold for Denmark, and whether the burial of the dead will bring
peace and political stability or a renewed cycle of violence.
The comparison between the plays should also alert us to the fact that
the influence of Roman history on Shakespeareâ€™s imagination was not
All references are to Shakespeare 1997.
Republicanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain 127
simply confined to the works he wrote using the relevant source materials.
Early in his career Shakespeare was confident enough a dramatist to
produce a play, Titus Andronicus, written sometime before 1594, possibly
much earlier, that invented a Roman history.59 Titus would appear to be
set in very late Rome, as the empire was being overrun by the barbarian
Goths and shows either the last chance of the empire to revitalize itself
through the establishment of its republican government, or that it has
decayed too much to be saved.60 Later on, he meticulously analyses the
electoral process in Rome in Coriolanus, relating the Roman constitution
to electoral practices he may well have observed in London.61
But if Shakespeare seems to have exhibited a particular interest in
the history and meaning of republican Rome, he was by no stretch of
the imagination alone. Many of his contemporary writers, including
Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney,
Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, George Chapman and Fulke Greville
were also extremely aware of the importance of republican politics
and history, even if some were less than enthusiastic about its viability
as a political form. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that
only argument and belief are what matters in early-modern political
Republicanism and early-modern literature are interlinked in two
fundamental, interrelated ways. Literary texts adopt and adapt stories
from republican history and literature. They also contain republican ideas
with which they engage. Not only were there a great number of literary
texts inspired by republican ideas and history, but there were also
works, such as Shakespeareâ€™s Lucrece, which represented key republican
moments, alerting readers to the need for close and careful reading of
the text in order to determine its political significance. Such literature
is perhaps best read as one of the arts of persuasion, like the speeches
of Cicero, not as an autonomous, free-standing artefact.
We are back to some familiar issues of definition. If we define
republicanism in terms of a political or historical culture that insists on
a clear sense of its existence as a programme, or as an articulated political
language, then we risk a historical narrative that sees it emerge almost
ex nihilo (like Sin from Satanâ€™s head in Paradise Lost) unless we speak
in terms of a proto-republicanism, which perhaps risks confusing and
blurring the issues and forcing us to distinguish between two things
Shakespeare 2000, pp. 69Ã€79. Rhodes 2003.
Kishlansky 1986, ch. 1; Barton 1994, ch. 1.
128 andrew hadfield
which may well be virtually the same (like the of idea of a sort of â€˜pre-sinâ€™
in the Garden of Eden in the same poem). If we define republicanism
in terms of a literary culture of poetry and translation we risk an all-
inclusive definition that fails to distinguish between the allusive and the
substantial, the real and the imagined. However we try to sort out this
problem it is clear that we are not going to get much further unless we
debate these issues from the perspectives of different disciplines. Scholars
of early-modern literature need to try and see their work as part of
a larger intellectual culture if they wish to continue using words such as
â€˜politicalâ€™; historians and political theorists need to consider more literary
texts as evidence in their work. And we all need to stretch our definition
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeareâ€™s
Jean E. Howard
Like a prism, Shakespeareâ€™s plays are shot through with the political
thought of his time; but like a prism, they omit no single ray, but refract
a multitude of colours. In the much-cited 1993 volume, The Varieties of
British Political Thought, 1500Ã€1800, John Guy, Donald Kelley and Linda
Peck delineate many of the recurring topics that informed political
thinking before the Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century.1 The role
of counsel in good governance, the proper education of a prince, the
body politic as concept and informing metaphor, Tacitus, Ovid, and
republicanism, resistance theory, Machiavelli and the new statescraft:
these are but a few of the topics discussed throughout the sixteenth and
early seventeenth centuries, and hardly one fails to make an appearance
in Shakespeareâ€™s works.
Of course, Shakespeare might not to everyone seem the most obvious
source of political reflection on the Elizabethan stage. After all, it is
Marlowe in The Jew of Malta who brings Machiavelli on stage, vaunting
his free-thinking ways: