The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.132 Monday, 16 March 2015
From: Bo Bergstrom <
Date: Friday, March 13, 2015 at 3:14 PM
Subject: Shakespeare and the Struggle for Power by Stanley Wells
[Editor’s Note: The following appeared in this The New York Review of Books. I will provide excerpts here; and if anyone wishes the entire article and does not have online access to The New York Review of Books, please contact me at
Shakespeare and the Struggle for Power
By Stanley Wells
March 19, 2015
Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time
by Garry Wills
Yale University Press, 414 pp., $30.00
The twin stars of Garry Wills’s immensely well-informed and wide-ranging book are Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, but it also boasts a glittering supporting cast of courtiers, poets, statesmen, and playwrights other than Shakespeare. The theatrical metaphor is inevitable because of the resemblances in the Elizabethan Age between the theater and the great stage of the world, where politics, drama, and the other arts interacted and reflected one another.
Wills writes that the aim of his book is “to look at the various kinds of imaginative construction that went into [Elizabeth’s] reign—at its make-believe love, make-believe monarchy, make-believe religion, make-believe locales, and make-believe war.” Drama is at the book’s center because the plays of the time are full of self-dramatizing characters “who put themselves on a stage to delight in their own performance.” Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard II, and Antony and Cleopatra, Marlowe’s Edward II and Tamburlaine, are just a few of the most obvious examples. And among these the “most grandiose self-presenters are men and women who seek or hold power.”
In real life, too, persons in positions of high power needed to use dramatic means to project their personalities, to exercise control, and even to sustain their personal identity. Elizabeth’s subjects put pressure on her, not least in the matter of marriage, but “the pressures on her changed over the years from urging her toward marriage to guarding her from marriage.” She negotiated her course in this as in many other difficult matters with consummate skill. As a result, during her long reign she won the admiration, even adulation, of a great number of extraordinary and diverse followers, many of whom figure in this book’s cast.
Of course, courtiers tend by nature to be sycophantic, and many expressions of praise for a monarch are insincere and self-serving. But Elizabeth was intelligent enough to preserve her integrity. She knew her own worth, writing in her private prayers:
I am unimpaired in body, with a good form, a healthy and
substantial wit, prudence even beyond other women, and
beyond this, distinguished and superior in the knowledge
and use of literature and languages, which is highly esteemed
because unusual in my sex.
Especially toward the end of her reign she received adulatory tributes from poets such as Edmund Spenser, dramatists such as George Peele, musicians such as Thomas Morley, and a great bevy of lesser courtiers. But she had strength of character enough to distinguish between true and false praise.
Like a great actor, she was a mistress of the art of self-projection, aware of her theatricality. Wills quotes her own words: “Princes, you know, stand upon stages so that their actions are viewed and beheld of all men.” Throughout her reign she presented herself to her people with the flair and manipulative self-knowledge of a virtuoso performer. She could rise to great occasions with a dignity and grandeur worthy of a tragedy queen. Addressing her troops assembled at Tilbury in 1588 to repel the invasion by the Spanish Armada when, William Camden wrote, “incredible it is how much she encouraged the hearts of her captains and soldiers by her presence and speech to them,” “she is reported to have worn a silver cuirass, with an attendant riding beside her with a silver helmet.”
In doing so she emulated the soldier heroes and even heroines—such as Shakespeare’s Joan la Pucelle, who fights “with the sword of Deborah,” and Margaret of Anjou, “she-wolf of France”—of the stage: acting companies had stocks of armor for their dramatic warriors. Wills has a fascinating and informative section on scenes in Shakespeare in which characters are required to don armor: “The cumbrous task of assembling it around the body is indicated by the number of lines spoken while the actors do it. Macbeth… spends twenty-five lines on the process, then breaks it off unfinished and tells Seyton to carry it after him.” When Cleopatra takes over the task of arming Antony from his servant Eros, he needs to “keep correcting her efforts as he teases her about it.” And in The Two Noble Kinsmen Arcite and Palamon “spend almost fifty lines arming each other.” The make-believe of the theater mirrored the reality of the battlefield.
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Wills is right to question what was said about the place of performance but not about its frequency. “No play by Shakespeare,” he writes, “can have been put on forty times in Elizabeth’s lifetime or even in his.” This is surely wrong: in the ad hoc theatrical system of the time plays could come and go with minimal preparation according to demand, as the theater records of Philip Henslowe amply demonstrate and as the Essex-inspired performance of Richard II itself shows.
Wills’s polemic is inspired by the desire to refute the idea that Richard II was put on as a subversive act, but he cannot deny, and does not try to deny, that the performance was commissioned by Essex’s followers the day before the uprising, or that the members of the company who performed it were hauled into court to give an account of themselves for doing so. It would surely be absurd to suggest that the insurrectionists simply wanted a good afternoon’s entertainment and just happened to alight on this play for the purpose. They would have done much better with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—or even with The Merry Wives of Windsor.
For all Wills’s interest in real-life theatricality, his approach to Shakespeare is essentially that of a reader rather than a playgoer. When he offers comment on performance it is based, so far as he tells us, on films or on other scholars’ accounts rather than on personal theatrical experience. This can result in clear misjudgments. Writing on The Taming of the Shrew, a play that allows him to vent his spleen against feminist critics, he comments that “Ann Thompson notes that Petruchio shares Kate’s deprivations of sleep and food” and that Petruccio “denies Kate meat because it is not good enough for her but denies himself because it makes him choleric: ‘And I expressly am forbid to touch it/For it engenders choler, planteth anger.’” And he criticizes John Cleese in the television version directed by Jonathan Miller (not, as he writes, by Peter Hall) on the grounds that he “slips when he later chews on a morsel of meat.”
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