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The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage.

Lisa Hopkins. The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage.

Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. vi + 162 pp. index. bibl. $79.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6263-1.

Hamlet's gratuitous observation to Horatio in the graveyard scene about "Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay" is but one place in the vast Shakespearean canon where the poet-playwright can be seen to be taking up the discourse of governance and warning against the growing political dangers posed by the caesaro-papist aspirations of English and Continental monarchs. Hopkin's book views Shakespeare as deeply engaged with this profoundest of early modern British political problems regarding the power and body of the monarch as well as highly conscious of the traditions and limits of literary representation and genre. This double concern leads Shakespeare to design his works as interventions in, as well as reflections of, early modern British identity and culture in the context of post-Reformation England and its imperial aspirations among the theater of nations and an increasingly global marketplace. But what to do about persistentlegacies of the past especially as these relate to long-lived traditions of classical and Catholic Rome in terms of law, literature, and religion? In what sense, if any, could a translation or transfer of an imperial right to command (translatio imperii) have taken place from Caesarian Rome to the Holy Roman Empire and now to Protestant England with its ambition for rule across the whole of the British isles and beyond into the New World? And above all, as Hopkins explores for its manifold connections to early-modern state formation and culture, what to do about Caesar, especially the ghostly versions of his legal body still alive or being resurrected in the royal courts of Europe as monarchs in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, with James Stuart first among them, claiming to be another Augustus, having an absolute divine right to rule the way the princeps of Roman imperial law had, from a position above the law, whatever pleasing him alone making for law? Shakespeare would certainly have known how the classical poets had responded to such political tyranny, asserting that even the very gods have laws, "leges in superos datas," as Seneca, for example, has the Chorus in Hercules on Oeta sing as a teaching of Orpheus, first of poets, to the barbarous Getae and, by implication, to those who would be absolute Caesar.

Six of Hopkin's seven chapters examine how Shakespeare addresses the crisis that had gathered round the resurrected name of Caesar right from the start of his dramatic career with Titus Andronicus on through to Hamlet, The Winter's Tale, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline. A middle chapter argues that Marlowe had led the way in English drama for non-conformist, anti-Caesarean views of monarchy, conflating the Scythian barbarian Tamburlaine and the classical Julius Caesar, for example, and thereby allowing, "for an ironic, subversive interrogation of the extent to which Rome mattered to early modern England and how much weight could still be attached to the idea of translatio imperii, which helped underpin the cultural authority of monarchy" (55). Her last chapter focuses on a group of plays that offer conspicuous parallels between Charles I and various members of the Julio-Claudian family, especially the Emperor Claudius, fusing British and Roman identities to express dissent against the king's intolerance of it.

A major unifying thread connecting these chapters, some of them previously published as articles, is, in the words of Richard Harvey's (1593) history philadelphus that Hopkins often cites, how "dangerous a position it is to refuse the offspring of Brute." And yet this is precisely what Shakespeare and Marlowe do in play after play, calling into question official Tudor and Stuart genealogies of power that allegedly stretched back to Brutus, Aeneas's great-grandson and alleged founder of Britain. Throughout her adroit readings ranging throughout many early-modern Roman plays on the London and university stages, Hopkins remains true to her credo, "historicizing without being bound by a scheme" (3). The studies of Clifford Ronan and Andrew Hadfield especially inform and enable her work although she departs from Hadfield's republicanist view of Shakespeare by arguing that Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus, for example, "pits ideas and models together" (14) without offering solutions or taking sides. She does, however, posit that an anti-imperial, "anti-James" agenda emerges (110), arguing that Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline play off English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish identities by way of their conflicting relations to Rome and Romanitas. Hopkins shows how, like the devil, a Caesarian sense of things can often be found lurking in the details, whether it be in the ostrich feathers worn in official Jacobean portraits of Pocahontas and Prince Henry or the love of the dance known as la volta shared by Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Furies called down to dance "lavoltas" upon the "whorish fortitude" of the Roman Empress Messalina (105), (136).

Besides for her having written this lively, well-researched, provocative little book, Hopkins is also to be congratulated for having her graduate students at Sheffield Hallam University each edit a Renaissance Roman play and making their work available online (


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Author:Dimatteo, Anthony
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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