Politics in the theatre of Jacobean England 1618-1625: satire and commentary in a climate of censorship

Charnley, Julie (2018) Politics in the theatre of Jacobean England 1618-1625: satire and commentary in a climate of censorship. MRes thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

This thesis is concerned with political engagement on the late Jacobean stage. This topic is studied with particular reference to Thomas Middleton’s The Old Law (c.1618), Philip Massinger’s The Bondman (1623), and John Fletcher’s A Wife for a Month (1624). Thomas Middleton’s highly controversial work A Game at Chess (1624) will also discussed.
I argue that despite the scrutiny placed on new plays by the Master of Revels, the censorship of the Jacobean stage did not seem to directly prohibit a great many subjects. The controversial topics of assassination, usurpation of power, treason, and rebellion are all explicitly dealt with and often soliloquised upon in a variety of plays. These topics were all permissible assuming the proper execution.
I will begin this thesis by discussing likely the most well-known victim of Jacobean censorship in A Game at Chess. I will discuss A Game at Chess in its wider political and theatrical context and explore why the censorship of this text is not representative of Jacobean censorship as a whole. Middleton and his contemporaries were in fact adept at including topical references and criticising what they saw as social ills without forcing the hand of the censor. Having discussed why A Game at Chess was censored, I will move on to discussing the methods Middleton and others used to write about politics without falling victim to censorship.
In Middleton’s The Old Law, the virtuous and sympathetic protagonist directly defies the law and questions whether a citizen is obliged to obey an unjust law or a tyrannical prince. These controversial ideas are conveniently discarded when it is revealed that the Duke implemented the law in order to draw out corruption in his court. I will argue that in The Old Law Middleton directly engaged with changing ideals of masculinity in the period and that these changing ideals reflect an attempt by people like James and Middleton to bring masculinity more in line with James’ politics regarding royal authority and international diplomacy. Matters of state were frequently allegorised through depictions of familial and domestic relationships and The Old Law utilised these metaphors to great effect.
Philip Massinger’s The Bondman is a work that is much more forthright in its treatment of contemporary politics. The Bondman’s first act glorifies warfare and portrays a close connection between nobility and warfare. After the first act, however, I argue that Massinger was more concerned with the politics of class in England than war. The play depicts a slave revolt occurring as a result of poor governance by the nobility. I argue that Massinger’s depiction of inverted social order conforms to Bakhtin’s notions of the carnivalesque. In particular I will show how Massinger uses inversion of social order to both offer release from the prevailing social system whilst ultimately strengthening it.
In the chapter covering A Wife for a Month I will detail some of Fletcher’s methods in avoiding suspicion when writing about tyrants and corruption. Fletcher’s previous encounters with censorship ensured that he was well aware of the need for subtlety in political writing. Fletcher, like his contemporaries, used personal relationships as a microcosm for the relationship between king and subject. Fletcher depicts Frederick as an absolute ruler who is encouraged by his advisor to forcefully exert his authority in order to impose his will. The other characters at court continually criticise this position and are seen to be keenly aware of the degraded state of their society. Characters such as the Queen and Evanthe (the target of Frederick’s lust) often assert that the King does not have authority over the will of the subject and that his acts must be validated by the law and by parliament. Despite these assertions the play does not show any evidence of these other authorities; in The Old Law legal discourse and documents play a prominent role and The Bondman depicts a debate in the senate but A Wife for A Month depicts resistance to tyranny and corruption purely through the acts of individuals.
The texts already mentioned are not an exhaustive list of the important plays in the politics of late Jacobean drama but they do demonstrate some of the key players in the period and how they engage with contemporary events, even in plays that are not overtly political in nature like A Game at Chess. In the years just before and during the 1620s dramatists were active and engaged with issues concerning their society and this engagement could and did often lead to censorships and arrests. The King was often at odds with the ideals of his people and this came to a head in the 1620s when James’ policies of peace-making on the continent came into opposition with the desire of many to wage war on Spain. James’ belief in his absolute authority as monarch also caused friction between him and his English subjects, who valued parliamentary authority. The tensions of Jacobean society and the conflicting ideals of its people, its government and its king proved fertile ground for dramatists despite censorship of the theatre.

Item Type: Thesis (MRes)
Qualification Level: Masters
Keywords: Renaissance, theatre, James I, Jacobean politics, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, A Game at Chess, The Bondman, A Wife for a Month, The Old Law.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN2000 Dramatic representation. The Theater
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Supervisor's Name: Streete, Dr. Adrian
Date of Award: 2018
Depositing User: Ms Julie Charnley
Unique ID: glathesis:2018-30600
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 03 Jul 2018 10:23
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2018 07:29
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/30600

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