Reimagining Early Modern Popular Politics — Embarking again

What am I doing now?

Popularity books

Having done a fairly thorough lit search, I have found that so much has written recently on Elizabethan popular politics as evidenced by Shakespeare’s plays and by other authors and genres as well, that it is a pretty rich niche within Shakespeare scholarship. The trend is to work more to redefine the whole Shakespearean rhetorical situation and includes the “rehabilitation” of the crowd, which is consistent with a view recent expressed by my generous commenter to this blog, psi, who said re the political dodginess of the history plays,  “Elizabethan audiences habitually looked for parallels between historical (or mythological) narratives and the events of their own lives.” Also, many are analyzing the political and social contexts and genres–including the differences between public and private political expressions (which bring to mind the closet dramas, which I did not remember existed until I was talking to a local friend who did her dissertation on one, by transcribing it for the first time), commonplace books,  as well as the tensions that surround the authorship questions about pseudonyms, anonymity and censorship.

This quest brought me back to a book that I have to get from interlibrary loan and had started to read last year, Breight’s Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era. This was recommended to me by a fellow doubter online. (Please identify yourself, if you read this and that was you!) While it was not received well in some circles, partially because he allies himself with Oliver Stone at some point and invites the ‘conspiracy’ connotation, his historiography is interesting because it is grounded in archival research. So I am going to reread and reappraise this source while I still have it.

Also, the scholar I visited in my last post, Doty, is working on his book (there is also his diss to look at to see how he got where he is now) and has a more recent article mainly about politics and the plays’ audiences that figures in the characterization of the idea of “popularity” and how it plays out in the theatre. For the time being, I may have to narrow all of this to sources relevant to Essex, particularly RII, or I will never finish a short paper on the way to what could easily be a book.

Another idea that has occurred to me is how often some people I have talked to forget how new this brand of plays were as a medium and a genre, and how we often look at the reality surrounding them without remembering that aspect. Policy and enforcement regarding the plays and the theaters was a work in progress as well, written and under constant revision by somewhat conflicting authorities. In this chaos, much staging got to happen, it seems, because it is not possible always to fight fire with fire (candle allusion acknowledged). The plays were ‘the thing.’ I once wrote about how early novelists propagandized to promote their new genre and its culture at the same time they were developing them, and that aspect of the plays certainly comes into the equation here.  And so, off I go to read about the history of the histories (and the trouble they got some writers into), the history of the word “popularity,” and the history of what was happening in the theaters. However “abstract and brief,” these chronicles point to this genre and cultural phenomenon’s evolution as well as that of its premiere author’s various stances and status. Looking at this trend in popularity scholarship explains a lot about what people are currently thinking about the theoretical author of the plays and how they might be (or not quite) getting it right.

Works Alluded to

Breight, Curtis C. Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1996. Print.

Doty, Jeffrey Steven. “Popularity and Publicity in Early Modern England.” Dissertation. The University of Iowa, 2008. ProQuest. Web. 19 May 2013

Doty, J. S. “Shakespeare and Popular Politics.” Literature Compass, (2013) 10.162–174. Wiley Online Library Web. 20 May 2013

© Michelle Maycock 2014

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