“Publicity” and the Plays that Comment on Essex’s Ambitions

A Discussion of Jeffrey S. Doty’s “Shakespeare’s Richard II, “Popularity,” and the Early Modern Public Sphere.” Shakespeare Quarterly 2010

Doty returns what he feels is the neglected theater to the discussion of the early modern public sphere as a context in which political rhetoric played to all levels of society. In arguing that “in Richard II, Shakespeare draws attention to how the commons see, judge, and participate, both cognitively and emotionally, in political life,” Doty makes interesting points that can be transformed by changing the identity of the author, and show the complex nature Shakespeare’s cautionary tales of ‘power gone wrong’ aimed at the people, the Queen and her council, Essex’s friends, and the ambitious Earl himself.

The central issue of Doty’s analysis is the evolution of the concept of “popularity” and how Shakespeare’s plays Richard II and Henry IV Part I develop and comment on this then new, controversial and dually defined concept. Doty explains, using a quotation about publicity copied within the theater into a playgoer’s commonplace book as a starting point, that these plays invited analysis of the function of power in the public political sphere. He posits that these audience thought-processes were informed by the emotional appeals the factions’ politicians and peers were making in public, and by Shakespeare by holding up Richard, Bolingbroke and the commoners for judgment by the audience. He analyzes the interpretations of Bolingbroke as the allegorical Essex as a figure inspiring “popularity.” I take it a bit farther to say that Essex made himself a bit of a celebrity (I have to research that term) and I am also wondering when “notorious” came into the vocabulary.  Doty captures the playwright’s interesting and, I think, evolving orientations with respect to his audiences in the public sphere, ones in which he seems to propagandize less, and to weigh the force of a theater-going public’s judgments about affairs of state even more. Pointing out that Richard rises in sympathy as he falls, examining Bolingbroke’s Essex-like trajectory, and analyzing the depiction of commoners’ reactions both within the play and in the theater crowd, Doty seems to confirm Hammer and others’ assessment that the plays criticize both sides, Essex and his enemies, point out the weaknesses of the various factions’ positions, and support the Queen herself as she formerly was, before the privy council faction held sway.

I learned much from this article, from common-placing theory to the origins of the term “popularity,” which it has inspired me to possibly explore further when I have time to do the reading pointed out to me through this article and the literature search it inspired, because there are some new books to peruse. I also need to analyze the OED entries for “popularity,” as Doty has a tendency to use passive voice and drop the subject who was using the term; this may be because we just don’t know that much. But at the beginning of reading the article, I copied the OED entries, and it seems that there are some interesting attributions to consider.  Doty was very helpful in making statements about Shakespeare the politically-involved commoner, that could easily be rewritten and argued against to inform an Oxfordian version, of a more autonomous, rhetorically sophisticated Shakespeare who was seemingly more and more able to offer a more informed, seasoned and objective critique of the power struggles of the 1590s. That he could do this without being hauled in on sedition was a function of his rather more unique position as the masked earl behind works the crown was long accustomed to. I have more work to do on this article; but I wanted to get down my impressions, as other things may have to intervene.

Jeffrey S. Doty. “Shakespeare’s Richard II, “Popularity,” and the Early Modern Public Sphere.” Shakespeare Quarterly 61.2 (2010): 183-205. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.

© Michelle Maycock 2014

1 thought on ““Publicity” and the Plays that Comment on Essex’s Ambitions

  1. “Shakespeare who was seemingly more and more able to offer a more informed, seasoned and objective critique of the power struggles of the 1590s. That he could do this without being hauled in on sedition was a function of his rather more unique position….”

    Right. He seems to have been immune from the usual unwanted attention that playwrights got for meddling in public policy on the stage. More particularly, modern readers have difficulty understanding just how sensitive the state was to the potential threat posed by histories, dramatic or narrative, that intentionally “paralleled the times.” As you know, John Hayward’s History of the Reign of King Henry IV (1599), actually as much about Richard II as about Henry IV, landed Hayward in jail, and the 1599 bishop’s ban specifically *banned* the publication of “histories” because the government was afraid that any history would be some kind of oblique but intentional commentary on the current state of affairs — which is to say, at that time, the succession (primarily). Elizabethan audiences habitually looked for parallels between historical (or mythological) narratives and the events of their own lives.

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