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been assumed by Will Kemp, the famous acrobat, dancer, and actor who
was a member of the Chamberlain™s Men between 1594 and 1599 and
played such roles as Peter in Romeo and Juliet, Dogberry in Much Ado
About Nothing, and probably others such as Bottom, Costard and
Falstaff. As one of the most famous clowns of the 1590s, Kemp had
an independent reputation as an improvisational entertainer who could
play instruments, perform jigs, as well as act, often in parts requiring
an emphasis on physicality and the assumption of a rustic or lower-class
persona.27 In 1599, when he left the Chamberlain™s Men, Kemp did
a celebrated morris dance from London to Norwich which was
commemorated in an illustrated pamphlet entitled Kemp™s Nine Daies
Wonder.
Even though Shakespeare probably did not create the part ˜for™ Kemp,
he would certainly have been familiar with the talents of Kemp and of the
other stage clowns from the 1580s and early 1590s and would have written
the part of Cade with their clowning skills in mind. These skills,
developed through decades of theatrical performance, were themselves
part of the particular resources of the stage upon which Shakespeare could
draw, and they were not innocent of political implication. Because actors
were drawn from the artisan class from which Cade derives, in the fused
stage body of Cade/clown, the theatre would have been showcasing the
bodily skills of its own artisan performers. And if Kemp at some point
did perform the part of Cade, he would have infused the part with a
particularly celebrated athleticism and comic skill. Many scholars have
argued that in the 1590s, in particular, the clown often returned to the
stage to dance a jig when the formal play had ended.28 It is enticing to
think of the implications of such a jig at the end of The Contention,
perhaps especially if performed by Kemp. Within the fiction of the play,
Cade is himself beheaded in Act V. But if, in the person of the clown,
he returned to dance a jig, then Cade/clown would be the only
decapitated character, of the many in The Contention, to undergo a kind
of onstage resurrection (an anticipation, perhaps, of Falstaff™s ˜resurrec-
tion™ at the end of 1 Henry IV). As so often in the Elizabethan theatre, the


27
For the fullest account of Kemp™s life and theatrical parts, see Wiles 1987; and also Grote 2002,
pp. 31, 231, who argues that Kemp definitely played Cade during the Chamberlain™s revival
of Part II.
28
Wiles 1987, pp. 43À60.
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeare™s Political Thought 143
presentational elements of performance carried within them the capacity
to disrupt and complicate the ideological thrust of representation.29
The character Cade may have died a traitor, seemingly ending his
political career in disgrace, but in the artisanal energies of the jigging
clown he lived on, a powerful exemplar of the skills and the persistent
presence of hard-handed men within the commonweal and within the
theatre. If the history plays are most centrally about kings, they are
enacted by commoners and assign commoners important roles within
their multi-vocal political explorations. In this and other ways, drawing
on the resources of the stage traditions he inherited, Shakespeare
submitted the political thought of his time to the test of embodied
representation.
It is important, then, when thinking of Shakespeare™s contribution to
political thought, to consider not only the ideas debated in his plays, but
also the particular vividness with which the stage brought them home to
the ordinary people who frequented the theatre and the degree to which
the political thinking they embodied was inseparable from the dramatic
forms and conventions through which they were expressed. The
commercial theatre was a public and popular London venue, and in
the 1590s, the English history play, which Shakespeare helped to establish
as a recognizable stage genre, became an important part of this theatre™s
repertory. It not only gave playgoers a sense of their national past, but also
let them experience a uniquely dialogic and complex exploration of
political ideas that circulated in different forms in other quarters of
the national culture. Written somewhat later than his English histories,
both Shakespeare™s Roman plays and tragedies exhibit a similarly com-
plex capacity to investigate ideas of tyranny, right rule, and popular
participation in the commonwealth. What is unique about the history
plays, I would argue, is not only how early Shakespeare penned the first
of them, but also how directly they insert political debate into an
explicitly English context. As theatregoers confronted their national past
in dramatized form, they were invited to understand it in the context
of implicit debates about the limits and powers of the sovereign or the
proper relationship of the people to their rulers. I would submit,

29
For a discussion of the gap between representational and presentational levels of performance,
see Howard 1994. For sophisticated discussion of how the actor™s body, his stage position
and performative skills affected early-modern theatrical meaning, see also Weimann 1978.
144 jean e. howard
therefore, that without attention to such venues as the public theatre, we
will never fully understand the way in which political ideas percolated
through Elizabethan and Jacobean culture and the perhaps unexpected
forms of their expression.
c h a p te r 8

Irony, Disguise and Deceit: What Literature
Teaches us About Politics
Steven N. Zwicker


Here is the problem: the texts studied by historians of political thought
are almost invariably systematic and discursive; they are rarely poems
or plays or novels, and who could blame historians for such a choice.
The careful unfolding of political thought is rarely the business of
playwrights, poets or novelists, and who could blame them for failures
of analytic rigour or argumentative transparency as they make their
specialized, interested, often polemical, at times uncertain, ironic, and
rarely even-handed interventions into political systems “ that is of course
not their job. There seems then a gap difficult to bridge between interests
and texts “ on the one side, historians who are anxious to get on
with their business and go to places where they can work efficiently and
without the distractions of figuration, uncertainty or irony; and on
the other, students of literature who feel an obligation to explicate the
political ideas that so often erupt in their texts with a sense of their
genealogy, force and currency, their status and character in the master-
pieces of political thought, but for whom those masterpieces are rarely
objects of devotion. The recognition of this gap is no great insight
into disciplinary divides, but our own moment of heightened inter-
disciplinarity and an awareness of the early-modern implication of
politics in aesthetics suggest the importance of probing such divides
and of considering the ways in which reading literature enhances our
understanding of politics.
My aim in this chapter is, then, to think about literary language
and literary strategy, and especially about irony, and to ask what irony
and figuration enable language to do, and why such doing might
interest students of political thought. This effort will take the form of
a series of panels or expositions that runs from Tacitus through Dryden,
Donne, Marvell and Congreve, texts that I have arranged neither as
a strict chronology nor teleology, but as a display that unfolds irony™s
full armoury of complication and compromise. I begin with a scene
145
146 steven n. zwicker
from Tacitus because of its brilliance and its deep ironies but also for
the ways in which it raises questions about the function of irony in the
exposition of political themes, and for the display it makes of the body
politic “ a trope that preoccupies early-modern writers at the centre
of this study. I also choose Tacitus for a beginning because he raises the
problem of genre and allows us to ask whether irony may have a greater
affinity with some genres than others, and whether we might be able
to contemplate irony™s performance more fully in literary texts than in
those of political theory or political philosophy.
Of course the equivocal generic status of the Annals “ the way it
seems to hover between literature and history “ and the extraordinary
subtlety of Tacitus™ prose may well suggest that irony and figuration,
indeed subtlety of mind and inwardness of expression, are not the
exclusive property of those genres we identify as literature, and that fully
to understand relations between irony and politics we might want to
explore, and with an equal attentiveness to irony and figuration, the
discursive prose of political history and political philosophy. But for the
moment I want to affiliate irony and figuration with what we con-
ventionally think of as literature even while allowing that such affiliation
is made for experimental or argumentative purposes. The generic uncer-
tainty of the Annals suggests too how difficult it is to make a hard and
fast distinction between literature and the discursive modes that we
associate with political history, political philosophy and political theory.
In another setting and for different purposes we might situate poems,
plays, novels, histories and philosophical prose along a continuum that
allows both proximities and gradations of difference. Here I want to
stress distinctions and to argue that the freedom and indeterminacy and
the pleasures of the literary text, the pleasures, that is, of fiction “ of
repetition, variation and the unsettling of anticipated returns “ allow
a different quality of life for language than that warranted and organized
by tract and treatise.1

˜more of ostentation, than of upright meaning™
Early in book I of the Annals Tacitus records, or should we say imagines
or invents, the language, ceremonies and circumstance of Tiberius™s
accession to power, and the psychological currents released by the event.2
1
On literature and pleasure see Barthes 1975.
2
The episode, Annals, i, 11“12, can be most easily consulted in the Loeb Library edition: Tacitus
1931, pp. 265“9.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 147
We are still uncertain whether ˜records™ or ˜invents™ is the right word since
the status of this text as history is in doubt, though its literary quality
is not. As Tacitus™s most recent editor remarks of the scene: ˜a literary
masterpiece . . . but at the same time very imperfect history™.3 Elsewhere
Tacitus had described Tiberius as a master of dissembling who ˜studied
nothing save anger, hypocrisy, and secret lasciviousness™; here he depicts
political change with an acute sense of its dangers. But Tacitus also
heightens the ambiguities that surround the shift in power, the tempta-
tions of ambition and compliance, and the desire and fear that bound
Tiberius to those who would suffer or profit from the new regime.4
When Augustus™s funeral rites had run their course,
. . . earnest Supplications were address™d to Tiberius; who, on his side, spoke
ambiguously concerning the Greatness of Empire, and the Diffidence he had
of his own Abilities; Saying, ˜That nothing but the Soul and Genius of Augustus
could support so great a Burden of Affairs; and that having sustain™d some
part of them during the Life of the Emperour, he was sensible by his own
Experience, how difficult and dangerous it was to charge his Shoulders with
the Weight of Government. That in a City, which abounded with the Choice of
great and able Persons, all Things ought not to be intrusted to the Management
of one; since Publick Functions were better exercis™d, when many join™d their
Cares and Labours.™ But there was more of Ostentation, than of upright
Meaning in these Discourses. And besides, if Tiberius, whether by Nature or
by Custom, spoke obscurely even on those Subjects, where he had no occasion
to dissemble, his Words at this time became more intricate and doubtful,
when he studied altogether to disguise his Thoughts. Then the Senators,
who were all equally afraid of seeming to divine his Meaning, broke out into
Tears, Complaints and Vows; holding out their Hands to the Gods, and to the
Image of Augustus, and embracing the Knees of Tiberius . . . . In the mean
time, the Senate still descending to the most abject Supplications, it happen™d
that Tiberius said unwarily, He found himself uncapable of Governing the
whole Empire, but if it pleas™d them to commit some part of it to his
Administration, whatsoever it were, he would accept it. Then Asinius Gallus
laying holding of the Word, ˜And what part of it, O Tiberius™, said he, ˜wouldst
thou undertake?™ He not expecting such a Question, and not having his
Answer in a readiness, for a while stood silent: But having recover™d the use of
his Reason, answer™d ˜That it was unbecoming of his Modesty to choose a Share
of it, when he had rather discharge himself altogether of the Burden™. Asinius,
who discover™d in his Countenance, that he had stung him, replied, ˜That the
Demand which he had made, tended not to the sharing of that Power,

3
Goodyear 1972“1981, i, p. 176.
4
The classic study of Tacitus™s presentation of Tiberius is Syme 1958, i, pp. 410“11.
148 steven n. zwicker
which could not be divided, but to draw the Acknowledgment from his own
Mouth, that the Commonwealth, being but one Body, could only be governed
by one Soul™.5
Sharply observant of tactics and obscurity in others, Tacitus himself
proved a master of the difficult style, a brilliant tactician of dark sentences
and equivocations. Perhaps the cultivation of ambiguity had made him
more alert to the ways in which utterance could shade and conceal as
well as reveal intentions and to the multivalence of language itself, its
unsteadiness and uncertain character; or perhaps Tacitus™ extraordinary
sensitivity to the performance of irony in others shaped his own style.
In either case, this passage is a superb analysis of the devices of rhetoric,
of the mixed messages of power, and of the intricate play between the
nature of rule and the linguistic conditions in which, at this moment of
change, its fundamentals are acted out. The unitary, even organic nature
of political authority was a concept already sustained by a substantial
body of commentary.6 What Tacitus adds to our understanding is an
awareness of the subtlety and force with which the language of the
organic and indivisible body of the state might be deployed in a scene
of risk and danger, and on all sides. To Tiberius™s assertion that he
aims but at one place within the whole, Gallus responds with a question
that takes at face value the argument of modesty and incapacity, not,
seemingly, to catch Tiberius out and curb his power but merely to draw
from Tiberius “ so Gallus claims and Tacitus reveals exactly how tactical
is this claim “ an acknowledgement of the properly unitary nature of
authority in the state. Here is a scene of multiple deceptions in which
false modesty, a not very well hidden craving for acclaim, and the
manipulation of political and moral commonplaces are answered by an
¨´
equally false na±vete that takes words at face value and substitutes the
pretense of one kind of incomprehension for another.7 ˜And what part
of it, O Tiberius, wouldst thou undertake?™ Gallus asks, and by asking
exposes Tiberius™s intricate fabric of dissembling “ or perhaps self-
delusion or real self-doubt. In the end Gallus would resolve the whole
through the comforting escape of a commonplace that neutralizes the

5
Tacitus 1698, i, p. 35“38. The translator of Book 1 of Annals was John Dryden; on the character
and politics of the many-handed translation of the three volumes and on Dryden™s translation
in particular, see Zwicker and Bywaters 1989.
6
On this theme, see Goodyear 1972“1981, i, p. 180, n. to I.12.3.
7
For Syme, the entire scene was ˜a solemn comedy™; Syme 1958, i, p. 411. A dissenting view
of Tacitus on Tiberius™s ˜sincerity™ is presented by Woodman 1998, pp. 43“53, and, as well,
Woodman™s translation and annotations: Tacitus 1998, pp. 9“10.
Irony, Disguise and Deceit 149
dangerous thrust of his seeming innocent query and naturalizes Tiberius™s
ambitions for rule.
What Tacitus allows us to hear, and it is quite audible, perhaps in fact
heightened, in the turns and counterturns of Dryden™s late seventeenth-
century translation, is the unsteadiness of language, the difficulty of
controlling meaning, the leakage of implication between intended
argument and unintended effect, and the subtlety and flexibility with
which maxims or commonplaces, political idioms and languages, form
the means of negotiating status and power. It is not that these idioms and
languages have no overt or stable set of meanings, but rather that such
meanings are complicated and compromised, their valences altered by
the stream of duplicity, fear and desire in which they are immersed. The

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