Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Review: Tyranny, Usurpation and the New Prince

by Alessandra Petrina

Doyeeta Majumder, Tyranny and Usurpation. The New Prince and Lawmaking Violence in Early Modern Drama (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019). ISBN 978-1-78694-168-8, 225pp. £22 (pb/ebook)

[1] Early modern drama is an area of study which, more than other genres (from lyric poetry to the political essay) is constrained by national, language and community division. The sixteenth century in Italy and England, to offer an obvious instance, saw widely different modalities of theatrical performance, and the production of plays, whether meant for the actual stage or for a purely readerly experience, changed accordingly. Within the British Isles, drama in English (written for a popular audience, often played by professional actors in commercial venues) and drama in Latin (written and performed within enclaves such as the universities or the Inns of Court) followed widely different trajectories. The same can be said, though with much more caution, if we compare playwriting in sixteenth-century England and Scotland; only, in this case, the analysis of obvious differences and of less obvious similarities is complicated by two further factors. One is the closeness, in linguistic and political terms, between the two countries, and the constant cultural interchange that took place in the period under examination; the other is the very different relationship the two countries entertained with the notions of Renaissance and of humanism, a difference which entailed a sometimes divergent attitude towards European cultural models.

Book cover of Tyranny and Usurpation, byDoyeeta Majumder[2] Given these premises, Doyeeta Majumder’s volume, a reading of ‘sixteenth-century political drama in juxtaposition with juridico-political theory’ (p. 190), deserves high praise for its courage and scope, as well as for the intelligence with which the scholar provides and controls an overall structure for potentially unwieldy material. Majumder takes into account different strands – Scottish drama played at court, Tudor drama, Elizabethan drama and the neo-Latin drama written and performed in London – and reads them through the lens of contemporary political theory. Niccolò Machiavelli and Jean Bodin, along with George Buchanan and Erasmus, enter the conversation, together with twentieth-century political theorists, from Walter Benjamin to Carl Schmitt. The linchpin of the discussion is the relation between the two concepts of tyrant and usurper, their closeness, and the subtle shifts in their meaning, as well as the potential ambiguities they generate. The result is a bold and at times highly original analysis of the development of the form. The choice of the dramatic genre as the central concern of the book stems from its author’s conviction that ‘dramatic literature, just as much as pamphlets and treatises, was one of the many generic modes in which political problems and ideas were being thought through in the sixteenth century’ (p. 9). In this analysis, political writing goes hand in hand with political drama, and this conjunction finds its climax in the study of a polymath such as George Buchanan, successfully writing in both genres. Well-researched, widely referenced, clearly written, the book appears, in its early chapters, to show a certain anxiety about its being over-clear, so that initially it reads like a diligent survey of some of the pivotal political plays of the Anglo-Scottish sixteenth century; but within this careful frame, the author finds room for pithy observations, and very soon the discussion acquires freedom and authority.

[3] At the same time, Majumder endeavours to read these texts against contemporary political events, focusing in particular on Mary Queen of Scots, a ruler who had the paradoxical fate of being a legitimate monarch that was perceived as a usurper/tyrant both in Scotland and in England, and on the debate surrounding her ascent to the throne and subsequently her succession. If this latter approach is less successful, it is probably because throughout the book its author is strongly drawn to discussing matters of political theory rather than to following the path of neo-historicism. Therefore, the references to contemporary history, though pithy and appropriate, are intermittent, while the discussion of the role of theatre writing in political reflection is solid and sustained throughout, supported by a vast and well used bibliography, and yields excellent results.

[4] As hinted at above, one merit of this book is that it discusses in parallel, through alternating chapters, the dramatic production of both England and Scotland, a combination that is very rare indeed. Majumder bases her overall analysis on the realization that, in considering the development of the theatrical writing of both countries in the sixteenth century, it is important to highlight how some Scottish plays, appearing at key moments and acquiring fame beyond the national borders, influenced and changed some of the ideological attitudes of English political writing for the theatre. Majumder starts from Tudor morality plays (with a special focus on John Skelton’s Magnificence, Nicholas Udall’s Respublica, and R.B.’s Apius and Virginia), developing around them a discussion that constitutes the core of the first chapter. These plays, concerned as they are with a definition of usurper and with the issue of figures of authority overstepping their boundaries and being susceptible to corruption, offer Majumder the opportunity to begin a reflection on the very nature of tyranny.

[5] The book comes into its own with chapter 2, which provides an analysis of Sir David Lyndsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. Majumder’s reading of the Satyre as a text intended for the Scottish parliament is subtle and persuasive; it sets this play within a humanist tradition that found its roots in the late-medieval genre of the specula principum, shifting its ideological axis, toward the end of the fifteenth century, as the balance of power shifted. Majumder also examines contemporary Scottish politics, offering through the observation of political events an excellent counterpoint to what is presented on stage. At the same time, she does not forget the sheerly theatrical value of Lyndsay’s work, the role of entertainment in something that may also give space to political discussion.

[6] Chapter 3 focuses on George Buchanan, discussed here in a double role, as a dramatist and as a political theorist. The choice is especially rewarding, not only because Buchanan has been given, over the past decades, far less attention than he deserves, but because the reading of his play Baptistes against the much later political tract De Iure Regni apud Scotos allows us to gauge the development of Buchanan’s political position as well as offering a well-thought-out analysis of a fascinating instance of the use and adaptation of biblical texts to discuss contemporary politics. The analysis allows us to see the use Buchanan makes of the dramatic structure to keep up a sustained intellectual debate with his readers – using, for instance, Herod’s dilemma to present us with an instance of arguing in utramque partem, as Majumder notes (p. 82). Both texts are also persuasively linked to contemporary events, on which they act as commentaries. This excellent chapter also shows the range of Buchanan’s truly European humanism, and how it led him to establish a sense of the state as a cultural artifact: this is a fundamental realization that changes the nature of sovereignty (from a divine appointment to the result of a social contract), by implication modifying profoundly our perception of the concepts of tyranny and usurpation. The recurring references to Machiavelli are useful to navigate this complicated sea.

[7] As chapter 4 moves back to English writing and focusses on Gorboduc, we begin to recognize a familiar pattern of staging English history according to the structure of Senecan tragedy, a pattern that would become a distinguishing characteristic of the early stages of Elizabethan drama. Seneca’s influence resonates also with the ideological structure of these plays: as Majumder notes, ‘the poetics of composition crucially inflect the politics of the play’ (p. 114), a statement that might be taken as the raison d’être of the whole book. The idea is further elaborated by connecting this influence with Buchanan’s intuition about the role of the state: ‘the formal changes from homiletic to historical drama exemplified in Gorboduc are also underpinned by the crucial “poetic” turn that impelled political writers to conceive of the state and sovereignty as a product of human “poiesis”, independent of transcendental legitimization’ (p. 117). In this chapter, more than in previous ones, the subtle distinction between tyranny and usurpation is made clear: political drama has by now moved away from the medieval inheritance of allegorical drama. Divine intervention no longer plays a role in punishing the tyrant, and this entails a new responsibility as well as a new theatrical relevance for the subjects: no longer simply sufferers and suppliants, they have the potential to become rebels, and even if their action may be looked upon with loathing, Gorboduc is fundamental in staging the possibility of its happening. The new tyrant will have to negotiate human forces; the way is open for the Shakespearean prince, as well as for the hostile, sometimes unpleasant mob we see in plays such as Coriolanus. These new forces gradually supplant the supernatural: as Majumder notes, even if later plays, such as those of Shakespeare, would feature supernatural forces, such as the witches in Macbeth, ‘even if they instigated or prophesied political action they were liminal figures who were incapable of the agential functions performed by their morality play predecessors’ (p. 133).

[8] The final chapter astutely avoids what would have been an impossible task – a view of the enormous production of political plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries – by focusing on a very special case study, that is, a comparative observation of the various representations of king Richard III through three plays dedicated to him, written between 1579 and 1592. Richard III embodies the paradox of the tyrant whose dethroning entailed the victory of a new prince who was hailed as the nation’s saviour, but was at the same time by definition a usurper. Therefore, in these plays the punishment of the evil or tyrannical king no longer comes directly from divine sanction, but through (or by) a human agent; such an agent possesses a theatrical personality and recognizability, since in turn he is motivated by (however well-directed) ambition. This allows the playwright to use the Machiavellian reasoning on the ‘new prince’ no longer as an incitement to Satanic evil, but as a practical manual of political behaviour. The comparison between the three texts works also in terms of more traditional literary criticism; in the analysis of the Shakespearean character the influence of Walter Benjamin’s study on the German Trauerspiel is most deeply felt and most useful. Only in the Epilogue does the book offer more wide-ranging considerations of Shakespeare’s history plays, focusing in particular on the second tetralogy; this section might open the way to further studies, and reflect the development of its author’s interests.

[9] There are occasional linguistic slips, as in ‘the two Buchanan’s political views’ (p. 71), or ‘the unlike pair of political theorists’ (p. 74); throughout, Majumder refers to the Machiavellian ruler with the phrase ‘principe nuove’, while the correct form is ‘principe nuovo’. The reading is sometimes slowed down by lengthy and ungainly footnotes. These very minor glitches, however, do not detract from the overall quality of this monograph. As I was reading this work, my mind irresistibly went back to another monograph devoted to a similar topic (Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant. Shakespeare on Politics) which appeared a year before Majumder’s. The contrast between the two may be instructive, as Majumder never falls for the obvious, the appealing, or the well-known, and never eschews complexity, but pursues her topic with rigorous attention, tracing a line of reasoning that throws light on less-known plays as well as offering a re-assessment of very well-known ones. This study offers an important contribution to our understanding of political drama in the sixteenth century.

University of Padova, June 2023

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