Monarchs and the Many-Headed Multitude: Political Relationships in Early Modern English and Scottish Literature

Keyser, Emily, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Maus, Katharine, English, University of Virginia
Kinney, Clare, English, University of Virginia
Rush, Rebecca, English, University of Virginia

What relationship did early modern English and Scottish people intuit between themselves and their monarch? And how did they imagine that their government, and other governments, should respond to those who were governed? This dissertation explores these questions through a study of the literature of two influential writers: the first king of England and Scotland, James VI and I; and William Shakespeare. In the former’s poetry and the latter’s drama, I track the expectations and tensions that worked on inter-hierarchical bonds at the end of the sixteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth century. I turn to literature and not the historical records of material life because I am after the senses of possibility—the theory—that my two thinkers had for these interactions.

Questions of popular power and civic participation have recently animated the field of Shakespeare studies as related corollaries to new investigations into early modern republicanism. While this dissertation considers republican thought, particularly in the third chapter, I come to my questions through a study of absolutist theory, which I argue had its own important way of conceiving of the relationship between a king and his subjects. Often caricatured as a stringent belief in arbitrary power, James VI/I’s absolutism invested deeply in the concepts of duty, obligation and mutual privileges shared between monarch and people. In my first chapter, I read James’s early poems a medium through which he reached readers/subjects, and I suggest that James used poetry to help himself better articulate the obligations inherent in his role as a Scottish king. In my second chapter, I consider how medieval and early modern acclamation, which names a theory of populist support for kings and a component of the English coronation ceremony prominent in James’s own Whitehall crowning, posited a diachronic relationship between the monarch and subjects that is a direct precursor to early ideas about political representation. I trace this link through Shakespeare’s history plays and Coriolanus. In my final chapter, I show that at the height of Shakespeare’s career, when he wrote Julius Caesar and Hamlet, he was invested in the ontological-political problem of defining “who counts as the people” in a realm struggling with whether and how to enfranchise certain populations.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Shakespeare, King James VI/I, political representation, sovereignty, drama
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