Andrew Hadfield. Shakespeare and Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. xiii+363pp. ISBN 0 521 81607 6.

Curtis Perry
Arizona State University

Perry, Curtis. "Review of Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 15.1-7 <URL:>.

  1. Andrew Hadfield's important and learned new book, Shakespeare and Republicanism, offers up a slate of bold, interlocking arguments about the nature of Shakespeare's career, the politics of drama, and the political mentality of late Elizabethan England. In each of these areas, Hadfield's arguments will be at once bracing and controversial, and so the book will be widely read and widely discussed by both literary scholars and historians. I hope so, at any rate, since Hadfield's basic call to read Elizabethan fiction as part of a culture of lively constitutional debate is both persuasive and timely, a very useful intervention at a moment when literary critics have for the most part turned away from new historicist concerns with power and the state and historians interested in Tudor and early Stuart politics are increasingly turning toward literary data.

  2. The book is divided into two sections. The first section offers an overview of what Hadfield calls late Elizabethan "republican culture"—the sum total of all the different currents of constitutional speculation and literary representation that can be thought of as republican, either because of their relation to exemplary republican states or because of how they interrogate the limits of royal authority—and the second section argues that republicanism is a central problematic in Shakespeare's early writing and that Shakespeare was an important figure in English republican culture. 

  3. The idea of republican culture operates here as a very broad category, encompassing a wide range of political and literary concerns. English writers and readers, during the last 15 years or so of Elizabeth's reign, were avidly interested in the limits of monarchy, the nature of political authority, the problem of tyranny, and competing theories concerning the relationship between royal authority and counsel. And when these various kinds of political speculation are put together with the same period's demonstrable interest in Roman republicanism, in accounts of republican government in Italy and the Netherlands, and in writers (especially Lucan) whose work was suffused with republican values, then it begins to look as though "republicanism had set the political agenda" (95) for late Elizabethan England. 

  4. The question some readers of this section will have is this: does all this necessarily add up to republicanism? The answer obviously depends upon what one thinks of as the sine qua non of fully-fledged republicanism, since—as Hadfield points out—the term can name a belief system, a more nebulous set of values, or even a cluster of stories and topoi accessible from within other political belief systems. And to be sure, much of what gets described as republicanism here could also be understood in terms of political interests more obviously native to the soil—in terms of anxieties concerning the erosion of traditional liberties, or perceived imbalance within the balanced constitution, or the crisis of the aristocracy. To make matters more complicated, republicanism is a fairly slippery historical category, naming a tradition of thought about government and the polis that emphasizes different things at different times. Small wonder, then, that even historians aware of the culture of vigorous political speculation that Hadfield describes have been unable to reach consensus concerning the nature and extent of republican thought in pre-revolutionary England. Hadfield, for his part, is less concerned with distinguishing between different kinds of political thought than he is in establishing, by accretion, that late Elizabethan England was saturated with ideas and stories that can loosely be called republican in one way or another. Given the difficulties inherent in delimiting republicanism as a category of thought, this seems a perfectly satisfactory and persuasive way to approach the subject.

  5. This is obviously an argument with major consequences for the way we read Elizabethan drama. If we think of late Elizabethan England as a society profoundly engaged by constitutional inquiry, we will of necessity be less likely to treat political aspects of its drama as merely atmospheric—providing backdrops for stories about identity—or as ideologically inert. Accordingly, the second section of Shakespeare and Republicanism offers a series of politically nuanced readings of Shakespeare's Elizabethan plays and poems, including those, like Titus Andronicus and Hamlet that have not typically been read through the lens of constitutional politics. Titus, as Hadfield argues, begins with a question of succession in which Saturninus's claim, based on hereditary succession, is chosen over the republican-sounding rhetoric of Bassianus, and then shows how this choice leads to tyranny and, with the rape of Lavinia, a parodic rehearsal of the story of the rape of Lucrece and the founding of the republic. Hadfield is certainly correct to argue that the play is suffused with constitutional questions, and also that "concentration on the dramatic pyrotechnics of Titus have blinded many readers to its explicitly political messages" (166). The account of Hamlet begins by noting similarities between the basic Hamlet story and Livy's account of the Lucius Junius Brutus, who feigns imbecility in order to further his revenge against his uncle Tarquin, the last Roman king. This comparison establishes a republican interpretive framework that Hadfield uses to explain several aspects of Shakespeare's play, including Claudius's recognition of the popularity of both Hamlet and Laertes and the play's general interest in the problem of tyrannicide. Hadfield also offers valuable readings of Julius Caesar and Lucrece, texts with obvious investments in the story of the rise and fall of the Roman republic that here become central to arguments about Shakespeare’s self-presentation as republican poet and about his ongoing engagement with republican questions. Hadfield notes, in fact, that "Shakespeare narrates more of the [Roman] republican story than any other dramatist working in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, as well as applying the lessons of a history of the republic to the English crown" (57).

  6. In addition to providing fresh, republican readings of Shakespeare’s plays, the second section of Shakespeare and Republicanism explores “Shakespeare’s desire to fashion himself as a republican author” (100). There is an interesting tension in the book between this argument—which implies that republican authorship was a mantle to which an author might lay claim in the 1590s, and thus perhaps that republicanism was clearly demarcated and easily recognized—and the highly inclusive way that Hadfield describes republican culture as the intersection of a whole range of concerns and discourses in part one of his study. The question is this: to what degree is Shakespeare’s republicanism something either recognizably programmatic or crucially distinct from other kinds of constitutional thought within the late Elizabethan political imagination? This question comes to the fore in Hadfield’s third chapter, which treats the first tetralogy as “Shakespeare’s Pharsalia”: his attempt to recreate Lucan’s republican epic of civil war out of the materials of native history. Though Shakespeare’s plays and Lucan's poem have plenty in common—especially, of course, their shared preoccupation with civil war—textual evidence of Shakespeare’s desire to allude specifically to Lucan here seems comparatively thin to me. If Shakespeare really wanted to signal his republican authorship by invoking Lucan, I imagine he could have made much more explicit use of this source. There are some allusions to Caesar and the Roman civil wars in these plays, some major thematic concerns shared with Pharsalia, and some moments in Shakespeare where the language can plausibly be called “Lucanesque” (116, 117), but these points show neither that Shakespeare was systematically invoking Lucan nor that contemporaries would necessarily have intuited such a connection clearly enough for it to have helped establish Shakespeare as a republican author. At the same time, as Hadfield demonstrates, there is plenty in these plays that can be thought of as republican in the looser sense established in the opening chapters of the book.

  7. Shakespeare and Republicanism ends with a chapter surveying Shakespeare’s ongoing engagement with republican ideas after the late Elizabethan “republican moment” with which the book is primarily concerned. And it is certainly true that Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays continue to ask all manner of searching questions about the limits of royal authority and to be imaginatively engaged with the matter of Rome. This book, then, focuses on Shakespeare’s Elizabethan output not because these are necessarily his most republican plays, but because they are part of a historical moment characterized by a heightened spirit of constitutional inquisitiveness in which a great many strands of republican or quasi-republican thought come together to form a critical mass. Fair enough: the historical argument strengthens the literary one and vice versa. But those of us who make use of Shakespeare and Republicanism, and who take up Hadfield’s exciting invitation to read early modern literature through the lens of republicanism, will have to address a number of questions raised implicitly here about the relationship between early modern literature and political thought and about the relationship between Shakespeare and the age that often bears his name. What is the significance of republican stories, ideas, and motifs in plays written after this republican moment? If there are many such plays written later, what does it mean to say that the republican moment passed? Do the contours of Shakespeare’s own career dovetail with or obscure the larger literary histories of the kinds of republicanism Hadfield here describes? Is the republican moment examined here an isolated surge of constitutional inquiry or part of a larger intellectual history with other connected moments later on?

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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).