Feigning a Commonwealth: The Roman Play and Public Discourse in England, 1594-1660

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Of some eighty Roman history plays written or performed in English between 1550 and 1635, forty-three are extant. The task of studying the political resonances of the whole corpus (rather than focusing solely on Shakespeare and Jonson’s Roman plays) remains to be undertaken. This dissertation begins that task with a selection from the fourteen to sixteen extant plays about the Roman Republic, focusing on three key moments: the founding of the Republic, its death throes, and the reign of Tiberius, when Romans looked back nostalgically to the Republic. The five plays examined here presented a model of republican political culture that contrasted with the monarchical ideology of late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England. The spirit, principles, and actions of the republican heroes who inhabited the stage may well have inspired audience members, both those whose reading of classical texts had familiarized them with the historical events presented on stage and those encountering that history for the first time.

Three of these plays—Heywood’s The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall—were composed for performance at public theaters and remained popular well into the seventeenth century.  Kyd’s Cornelia and Chapman’s Caesar and Pompey were published but never performed.  All five plays share a sense that a republican form of government, more than any other, promotes nobility of character and enables human beings to live fulfilling lives.  They also share a complex vocabulary that centers on the association of tyranny with slavery:  the tyrant is a ruler who treats his subjects as a master treats his slaves.  While only one play, Cornelia, appears to condemn monarchy outright (as a violation of the Roman constitution), all appear to suggest that monarchy can easily slide into tyranny.

In the early seventeenth century, these plays, and the history they presented, would have called to mind contemporary concerns about the corrosive effects of royal favoritism and the growth of the royal prerogative.  More radical perspectives, closer to the Roman republican model, would emerge as differences between the king and Parliament escalated into open conflict in mid-century.