The nature of kingship is a central theme of many Early Modern plays: What is the source of princely authority, and what are its limits? How should the ideal ruler behave, and what if a monarch is corrupt or incompetent? Are there circumstances under which subjects can or even should resist their ruler?
This course will offer an overview of some central concepts of Early Modern political thought, such as the “divine right of kings”, Machiavellianism, Republicanism and Resistance Theory, as well as explore the Early Modern public stage as a space for contemporary political debate. Starting with the genre of the “history play,” particularly popular during the 1590s, we will look at central plays of the genre, such as Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s second Tetralogy (in excerpts), to explore how Early Modern playwrights responded to contemporary political and cultural developments in their works. In addition, we will investigate the classical roots of contemporary political discourse with one of Shakespeare’s “Roman plays” (Julius Caesar). Finally, we will turn to Shakespeare’s later imaginations of kingship in Hamlet and King Lear in order to investigate the changes in political climate that came with the shift from Elizabethan to Jacobean rule.
Our exploration of these texts will be supplemented by a wide array of historical sources reflecting contemporary attitudes on kingship and sovereignty, such as speeches, sermons, pamphlets and the writings of influential humanist and political thinkers such as Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Erasmus.