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To some perhaps my name is odious,
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machevill,
And weigh not men, and therefore not men™s words
(Prologue, ii. 5À8).2
But it is Shakespeare, in Richard III, who creates a villain hero who,
˜set[ting] the murderous Machiavel to school™,3 embodies the new
philosophy as a means to power and a principle of rule and not just
as the signature of an exotic Italian villainy. Similarly, in play after play

1
Guy 1993, pp. 13À46; Kelley 1993, pp. 47À79; Peck 1993, pp. 80À115.
2
Marlowe 1966, p. 9.
3
Shakespeare 1997, p. 336 (3.2.193). All further quotations from Shakespeare™s plays will be taken
from this edition.

129
130 jean e. howard
Shakespeare explores what I would call the problems of political rule.
In Macbeth and Winter™s Tale he anatomizes the tyrant;4 in Richard II
he considers the difficult issue of resistance to a sitting king;5 in Henry IV,
Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V he traces the education of a prince; in King Lear
he examines the dangers of dividing a kingdom, of the king™s separation
from good counsel, and of the evil of flatterers; in the Roman plays
he explores the possibilities of republicanism, in a number of plays
(Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V) he meditates on
the role of ˜the people™ in the body politic.
These are all themes and topics that appear in the non-dramatic
political writing of the period, and they form the bedrock of
Shakespeare™s political imagination. Almost from the first moments of
his career, he seems not to be able to avoid thinking politically, if by that
one means thinking in terms of how power is exercised within the
complex social structures of the household and the kingdom. And yet, as
many have noted, it is hard to pin down anything that we might call
˜Shakespeare™s own politics™ though he has been labelled a ˜traditionalist™,
˜a monarchist™, and a sympathizer with republican thought.6 In truth, one
does not quite know where to have him. That is fundamentally, I think,
because even more than most dramatists Shakespeare does not use his
plays to elaborate a consistent political position. He never wrote an
overtly polemical play like John Bale™s King Johan, for example.7 Nor did
he write a prose treatise in which he offered advice to a monarch or
a great man on affairs of state.
The popular stage, however, was important to the elaboration of
political thought because it provided resources for juxtaposing one
strand of political thinking with another and for subjecting each
to critical examination, partly by the creation of contrapuntal and
multi-vocal dramatic effects that simulated the structures both of
debate and of cultural struggle and negotiation. The stage gave
political ideas embodiment and put them in motion and in conversation.

4
Bushnell 1990.
5
Kantorowicz 1957 famously analysed this play in terms of a split between the mystical and
natural bodies of the king, the one which never dies, the other which is both mortal and fallible.
For a critique of this reading of the play see Norbrook 1996.
6
Dzelzainis 1999, pp. 100À16, explores some of the reasons why critics have taken a sceptical view
of Shakespeare™s political originality and consistency before going on himself to place
Shakespeare within the new humanism of the second half of the sixteenth century.
7
For an excellent discussion of the profound animus to Catholicism that informs Bale™s
representation of John™s reign, see King Johan 1969, introduction.
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeare™s Political Thought 131
The first book of criticism I wrote, Shakespeare™s Art of Orchestration
(1984), explored how Shakespeare built plays, how he made them, so that
they would have effects on audiences.8 I would not write the same book
today, but it still represents my deep commitment to understanding the
link between the many things a play might ˜mean™ and how it is made:
the way it draws on what, for example, Rosalie Colie called ˜resources of
kind™,9 generic templates that pre-exist the author™s employment of them;
on resources of language, such as the rhetorical tradition of the
Elizabethan grammar schools; and, perhaps more than any other, on
resources of the stage, on prior traditions of structuring embodied action
and voicing thought in relationship to other voicings. Whatever strands
of political thought entered Shakespeare™s imagination from his culture,
they were both expressed through the transforming medium of the stage
and partly derived from it. Shakespeare did not invent drama concerned
with political matters. Fulgens and Lucrece, Respublica, Gentleness and
Nobility, Health and Wealth, Gorboduc and Jack Straw À these are but a
handful of the many plays on the sixteenth-century stage that dealt with
right rule, the role of counsel and the possibility of popular rebellion.10
Shakespeare certainly knew some of this drama first-hand; and he
certainly knew, in general, the possibilities for making plays on the
Elizabethan public stage À what I like to think of as the toolkit of
resources he had been bequeathed and to which he added much in the
course of his long and fruitful career.
When, in fact, Shakespeare started out to be a stage writer, his very
earliest works included a number of his English histories and political
tragedies like Titus Andronicus. In short, he was drawn both to comedy À
the genre in which he worked his whole career in one form or another À
but also, immediately, to history and tragedy and thus to the dramatic
representation of kingship, of struggles within the body politic, of
counsel, consent and rebellion. While the formal elegance, the sustained
lyricism and the formal shapeliness of Richard II™s examination of the fall
of one king and the rise of another has long been considered to mark
the moment when Shakespeare reached a certain stage of maturity as a
dramatist of the political world, I want to go back to the beginnings,
to look at earlier plays, especially The First Part of the Contention of the
Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (also known as The Second Part

8
Howard 1984. 9 Colie 1973.
10
There are many books dealing with this material, but perhaps none so influential as
Bevington 1962.
132 jean e. howard
of Henry VI), to talk, not about Shakespeare™s political thought as if
it were separable from particular traditions and conventions of theatrical
representation, but precisely about the dramaturgy within which anything
we can call his political thought was embodied. If Shakespeare was not a
programmatic political thinker, he was, nonetheless, gifted at what
I would call the dramaturgy of politics in action.
It is often said that his early history plays are baggy monsters, desperate
attempts to carve from sprawling chronicle sources something resembling
a coherent two-hour traffic for the stage.11 I do not wish to defend the
formal comeliness of these early plays as much as to suggest that they are
built on discernible dramaturgical principles of considerable effectiveness,
many of which persisted in more elegant form in Shakespeare™s later
histories, and which are the means by which he was able to put politi-
cal ideas in motion and in conversation. Take The First Part of the
Contention. It is in many ways an anatomy of the sources of social
disorder in a kingdom. Its general themes are to some extent dictated by
Shakespeare™s sources which were unanimous in depicting Henry VI as a
weak king and his reign as a disaster for England™s control of its French
domains. But The First Part of the Contention focuses not on losses
abroad, but on social disruption at home. And from the beginning,
Shakespeare had at his disposal a device from the morality play of
flanking a protagonist with good and bad counsellors to give a basic
structure to his material. In The Contention, Henry is a young king, and
he rules surrounded by a bevy of advisors and courtiers. But from the first
scene À involving the announcement of the terms of Henry™s disastrous
marriage to Margaret of Anjou À those counsellors divide into two
camps. Some, like Warwick and Salisbury, support the Good Duke
Humphrey in his attempts to keep the king from folly, including the folly
of this marriage. Others, led by Cardinal Beaufort and the Duke of
Suffolk, plot to bring down Gloucester and control the King. Until the
middle of the play, when Gloucester is murdered in his bed, one
overarching tension is thus provided by the dialectic between good
counsel and bad, and the triumph of the latter in Act III leads directly to
the decisive plunge into a disastrous civil war.
In the 1475 morality play, Mankind, the protagonist is flanked by Mercy
on one side, and by Mischief, New Guise, Nought and Now-A-Days

11
Among those critics who see the complexity of these early plays, in terms both of dramaturgy
and political content, see Rackin 1990; Riggs 1971; Manheim 1973.
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeare™s Political Thought 133
on the other.12 As David Bevington has pointed out, gradually these
allegorical figures give way in the course of the sixteenth century, in
plays such as King Johan, to historical figures.13 Sedition, Mischief, and
Insolence become Pandulphus or, in Shakespeare™s case, Beaufort and
Suffolk. But what persists is a structure of juxtaposition by which one
can see the struggle for the good of the commonweal determined by the
rhetorical skill of the counsellors and the ethical judgement of the king.
And, of course, when Henry decides at a climactic moment to require
from Gloucester his staff of office as Lord Protector, the young king™s
essentially tragic fate is sealed. The play thus has a before and after
structure, before and after the fall of Gloucester, before and after Good
Counsel holds sway.
This pattern, of structuring action around the choice between those on
the one hand and those on the other, deeply informs much of
Shakespeare™s political drama. It is as true for King Lear, poised between
good daughter and bad, Kent and Oswald, as for the young Prince Hal.14
It is a structure derived from the dramaturgy of the moralities but
secularized to put considerable emphasis, as in humanist discourse, on the
monarch™s capacity for virtue, for wise choice, and for a receptive
response to critical counsel. That Shakespeare™s kings so often fail to rise
to the implicit standard encoded in the structure both makes for good
drama and also contributes to the sense, emphasized by some critics, of
his drama™s frequent, implicit scepticism about the operations of
monarchical power and his experiments with representing other models
of kingship, those based, for example, on more Machiavellian principles
which subordinate ethics to successful manipulation of power and
appearances as seen in the play in question by the rise of the Duke of
York: instigator of Cade™s rebellion, author of the fiction of Cade™s royal
birth, and devious manipulator of those around him.
But Shakespeare™s political dramaturgy in The Contention is more
complex than I have so far indicated. Competing dramatic structures
supplement the before and after template that pivots around Gloucester™s
fall. Throughout The Contention, Shakespeare alternates low scenes with
high, scenes involving the common people, often but not uniformly
presented in a comic vein, with scenes devoted to affairs of state under-
stood as the prerogative of the nobility, of the king and his counsellors.

12
Mankind 1907, p. 2. 13 Bevington 1962, p. 132.
14
For discussion of the morality underpinnings of King Lear see Mack 1965.
134 jean e. howard
This, too, is a technique adopted from the morality drama, and is found
in plays such as Lusty Juventus with its alternations of vice and counsel
scenes. It is a technique that in the secular historical drama becomes, in
Dermot Cavanagh™s fine phrase, a way of staging ˜an argument with
history™ or, put differently, a way of using dramatic form to embody
political debate outside a debate form.15 Consider briefly, for example,
three of the incidents involving commoners in the first half of the play,
the dark comedy in 2.1 of the false ˜miracle™ of Simpcox, the man who
claims to have been cured of his blindness at St. Alban™s shrine; the
incident in 1.3 in which several commoners misdeliver petitions to Suffolk
instead of Gloucester; and the subsequent moment in 2.3 when one
of those petitioners, Peter Thump, engages in combat with his master,
Horner, over Peter™s accusation that Horner had said the Duke of York
was heir to the throne.
Much could be said about each of these episodes, but I want to say two
things about them collectively. First, they expand the implicit conception
of the political nation on the stage to include figures such as apprentices
and commoners like Simpcox and to put their actions in a complicated
relation to those of surrounding actors. In regard to the first of these
scenes, for example, the petitioners who believe they are addressing their
grievances to the Good Duke Humphrey are taking part, as much as
Cardinal Beaufort or Warwick, in affairs of state, though from a different
position. They make complaint against Suffolk for unlawful enclosures
and against those who treasonously espouse the legitimacy of York over
that of the sitting King. They come as suppliants, certainly, expecting
redress, and not as governors, but their actions happen within a
predictable structure of mutual obligation by which their loyalty is to be
matched by a corresponding care for their grievances. Inattention to their
ancient rights of petition, such as that expressed by Suffolk, who tears up
one of their documents, rends the fabric of the body politic as it is
established in the play. When this same Duke later masterminds the death
of Gloucester, it is members of the commons who burst into the court
under the aegis of Salisbury to demand his banishment (3.2.243À71).
What the ˜low scenes™ do first, then, is to force consideration of the
commons as political actors in the sense of those who have a role in the
operations of the commonweal, who must sometimes be sternly
governed, as when Simpcox attempts to blear the eye of justice with

15
Cavanagh 2003, p. 12.
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeare™s Political Thought 135
a false miracle, but whose ancient rights must also be defended. This
technique, of examining the actions of the great in view of the lives, the
rights and the actions of the common people, is one Shakespeare
continued to pursue in his later histories, though perhaps in no other play
does he explore with such imaginative force the consequences of a
breakdown of the bond uniting people, counsellor and king with the
eruption of Jack Cade™s rebellion.
The second consequence of this alternation of high and low scenes is to
produce certain critical or ironic effects, enabled by the arguments they
set in motion and the questions they elicit. In 1.3, for example, the actions
of the commoners, bringing their petitions in orderly fashion before
the man they assume to be the Lord Protector, contrast sharply
with the subsequent disorderly behaviour of members of the court.
The commoners™ part in the scene is immediately followed by a con-
versation between the adulterous Margaret and her lover, Suffolk, and
that, in turn, is followed by a fierce dispute among the court faction over
whether York or Somerset will be sent as regent to Ireland. Irony emerges
from the juxtaposition of orderly behaviour among the low and the chaos,
disorder and competition among the high. More complex still is the
actual combat later carried out between Peter and Horner. It is an event
wedged in between the moment when King Henry strips Gloucester of
his staff of office (2.3.23) and the scene (2.4) when Gloucester™s wife passes
in shame through the streets of London for her part in unlawful
conjuration. The frame events stage the fall of the house of Gloucester,
a fall masterminded by York and Suffolk, the Queen and Beaufort.
The comic battle between master and man, by contrast, reveals the truth
of the apprentice™s accusations in that they fight a single combat, and the
master loses. In this case, treason has been revealed and defeated among
the lowly while it continues to flourish at court.
The continuing irony to which the actions of the ˜high™ are submitted
by these juxtapositions corrodes the latter™s authority and privilege as does
the very form that the fight between Horner and Peter assumes. They
fight, not with swords, but with sandbags fastened to staffs, and Horner is
horribly drunk. Master and man perform a travesty of a courtly ritual À
trial by single combat À that simultaneously seems to mock the rituals of
the privileged and to move the locus of honourable action considerably
downward on the social scale. Collectively, the juxtaposition of high

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