Curtis C. Breight. Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1996. 348 pp. ISBN 0 312 16406 6 Cloth.
Chris Fitter
Rutgers University-Camden

Fitter, Chris. "Review of Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 8.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_fitt.html>.

  1. In the film Braveheart, that festival of inane brutality, Mel Gibson, as he lies helpless in the last stages of disembowelment, yet finds the capability, bereft of his viscera, to cry boomingly aloud: "Freedom!" In the reign of Elizabeth, according to the Tillyardian and conservative view of the period that is still sometimes echoed, the many scores of men and women whose torture during interrogation we know to have been officially authorized may likewise have been able to comfort themselves with the rallying exclamation: "At least I’m living in the Golden Age of England!" The rosy conservative view of Elizabethan politics has of course been long under attack, yet most critics still posit a widespread contemporary "consent" to governance by her regime. Even the opposing "liberal" construction of that era has so far largely centred on such consent, as substantially engineered by a putative "theatricality" of power: thus the New Historicism enjoys a comfortably middle-class and literary interest in power as a lavishly aestheticized realm, focusing on gorgeous display, auratic ritual, the quelling mystique of costume. Breight’s book, conversely, aspires to be a machiavellian classic: a landmark demystification of the nature, capacity and intentions of the apparatus of state power in Elizabethan England, and a revelation of the meditation of such darker truths in the drama of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Opening by situating both conservative and New Historicist approaches in their respective historical matrices, it subjects each to devastating critique. The Golden Age model of a gallant, vulnerable virgin Queen menaced by a bullying superpower is suggestively linked to the Cold War creation of an ideological myth of "innocent" origins, sustained both by academic historiography and popular cinema; and is a myth easily exploded by noting those realms other than drama in which the 1590s achieved a new historical high: famine-levels, war-casualties and witchcraft prosecution. The New Historicist model of "theatrical" power has been founded on the axiom of an Elizabethan state substantially lacking coercive power, unequipped with standing army, police force or efficient bureaucracy: a description, argues Breight, that is deeply falsifying. He turns for his own framework to "restoring the cultural primacy of realpolitik," drawing on wide reading, archival research, fascinating use of Renaissance Catholic pamphleteers, and fresh readings of drama to sketch on the one hand the unfashionable realm of class-relations, poverty and seething popular disaffection, and on the other the operations of a machiavellian administration that maintained political control by terror and physical elimination of dissidents.

  2. Breight’s synthesis of recent work by Roger Manning, A.L.Beier, Paul Slack and others on mass destitution and its subversive voice is valuable in itself as a clearly written, cogent and powerful argument for a level of popular political dissidence generally denied or overlooked by most critics and historians, who still curiously assume that the lack of formal political parties signifies consensual Elizabethan masses, and the absence of class-consciousness. Yet it is Breight’s unequivocal model of a greatly expanded and audaciously machiavellian state power that is original, and the heart of the book. Elizabeth herself is peripheralised in this paradigm, in which the "new men," above all the Cecils, create a systematic "national security state," achieving efficient mass-coercion less by ideology (let alone theatrics), than by surveillance, fear and militarism. Far from being handicapped by the lack of a standing army, Breight argues, such a body would have been too dangerous. Instead the regnum Cecilianum developed an ideological remilitarization of England, drawing militias, highlighted by trained bands, from the ranks of the prosperous, while raising levies for overseas expeditions largely from the underclasses. "Beginning in 1585 some 200,000 men were coerced, literally and/ or economically, to subserve the dubious aims of foreign policy and the somewhat understandable aims of privateering" (172). By modern analogy, "Elizabethan losses during the war period [were] about fifty times worse than American casualties in Vietnam" (232). Moreover levies functioned consciously as expedient mass-deportations of penurious and disaffected males, decimating domestic opposition; and thus foreign policy, far from being the scenario of a plucky victim subject to bullying, was a matter of frequent provocation of Spain as a calculated tactic of both imperial ambition and expanding state power. Drawing on the studies of Ronald Pollitt, James Heath and others, Breight further argues that the Cecilian regime developed surveillance and terror to reinforce domestic control: the extension of treason laws, creation of Provost Marshalls, expansion of judicial torture, invention of an espionage network, fabrication of pseudo-plots, staging of kangaroo-court treason trials, springing of mass house-to-house searches in London producing huge and detailed intelligence documents, and sustained promotion of both propaganda and paranoia (executions reached 800 per year by the last years of the reign), were all manifestations of an aggressively expansionist state apparatus. So much for the mythos of popular rule by a vestal Queen bereft of coercive power.

  3. Into this context of Elizabethan Cold Wars against domestic dissent, and Hot Wars on the Continent, Breight places Marlowe and Shakespeare. The Massacre at Paris is interpreted as being seditiously congruous with the depiction of an oppressed, reluctantly militarized English nation in the Catholic propaganda of such writers as Richard Verstegan, pouring out in 1592. A lengthy chapter reviewing the complex evidence on the death of Marlowe speculates, with due tentativeness, that the playwright, pace Charles Nicholl, appears more likely to have been demonized and assassinated at the behest of Burghley than of Essex. Suggesting parallels between Gaveston in Edward II and attacks on Burghley, it exposits that play as encoding Catholic anti-government propaganda at a time of national tension and momentous struggles at court. Three chapters on Shakespeare persuasively focus the Henriad, and most successfully Henry V, in terms of the profound English hostility to military levies, the devastating casualties and mass desertions that would, Breight suggests, have led to the vocal execration of the Falstaff of 2 Henry IV. Theatres themselves, after all, became places of impressment. Shakespeare emerges here as centrally sympathetic to the commoners’ plight and perspectives, and extensively ironic toward the ideological manoeuvrings of the kings and corrupt commanders who coerce them.

  4. This study is flawed, unfortunately, by vulnerability to accusations of intemperance and polemicism. Elizabethan terror, for instance, seems to have been real enough for Catholics, vagrants and the poor, but scarcely for the propertied classes with whom the Crown worked carefully, even timidly, in negotiating parliamentary subsidies and personal loans, and for whom the regime, as Breight admits, functioned largely as a benevolent partner. The marginalization of Elizabeth, too, seems overstated, for like her grandfather, she liked to oversee a vast amount of administrative detail, and though doubtless vacillating and manipulable, jealously reserved all key decisions to herself. (Her determination to be rid of Archbishop Grindal, for instance, though it threatened to break new constitutional ground, could not be overcome even by the combined forces of Burghley, Walsingham and a Privy Council majority, who campaigned unsuccessfully over years for his re-empowerment.) Nevertheless, Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era is genuinely a major work, providing an indispensably detailed and pugnaciously revolutionary context for the interpretation of Elizabethan drama and culture. It will be hard for the proverbial open-minded reader to conceive of power and plays in the age of Shakespeare in the same way again.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 30 March 1998)