Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power

Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power

by John D. Cox

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Ranging over all the dramatic genres in the Shakespearean canon, this book focuses on plays where medieval drama most clearly illuminates Shakespeare's treatment of political power and social privilege.

Originally published in 1989.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print


Ranging over all the dramatic genres in the Shakespearean canon, this book focuses on plays where medieval drama most clearly illuminates Shakespeare's treatment of political power and social privilege.

Originally published in 1989.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power

By John D. Cox


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06765-0



Politically and socially the most momentous change in the Renaissance is the growth of centralized power. Even in countries where this growth was not very successful, as in Italy and Germany, people acted as if it were. Machiavelli's penetrating analysis of power in action is based on what he saw of Medici control in Florence, even though the Medicis ruled only a small territory and Italy would not become a unified nation for another four centuries. Machiavelli's realism contrasts with the cultivated neo-Platonic idealism of the Medici court, but both are direct reflections of an emerging political model that emulated ancient Rome because of its impressive achievements in successful hegemony. The expansion of Rome was also the putative model for the unprecedented territorial expansion of European regimes, so that the innovative marvels of the New World were assimilated to an ancient pattern. An entire Brazilian forest (including imported Indians) greeted Henri II in 1550 when he made his neo-Roman triumphal entry into Rouen: the new and the old alike were pressed into the service of centralized power. In European countries like England, where this power was a reality and not merely a coveted aspiration, the changes it produced were enduring and profound.

Inevitably these changes were resisted, and resistance took many forms. Most obvious was the resistance of provincial power centers that were directly threatened by the gathering of the reins into royal hands. Another kind of resistance was produced by the Reformation, when the explosive foment of religious conscience within the church ignited hope of social change on a broad scale. Yet religious conflict became increasingly difficult to distinguish from conflicts of political survival or ambition, and Luther took the side of the princes against peasants while Calvin set up a centralized theocratic regime in Geneva. The self-styled imperial expansion of European power in the New World met with the resistance of sheer bewilderment and outraged injustice, whose only record is preserved for us in the annals of the destroyers. The Eskimo couple who were imported to England in 1577 by Martin Frobisher and invited to set up housekeeping on the banks of the Thames must have lived in a state of nearly constant shock, which is probably what killed them after only a few months of English hospitality. Such mute resistance to the expansion of European power was a matter of curiosity to Europeans. Yet New World opposition to Old World hegemony is not uniformly dumb: even in a context like the Spanish colonial settlements before the Reformation, one finds striking conscientious resistance to the neoimperial claims of the conquistadors.

Consider, for example, the case of Bartolomé de las Casas, the first secular priest to be ordained in the New World. A wealthy landowner and possessor (like all his fellow Spaniards) of enslaved Indians, Las Casas suddenly decided to emancipate his slaves in 1514. He narrates the incident in his own words:

The cleric Bartolomé de las Casas ... was going about preoccupied with his enterprises. Like the others, he was sending Indians of his repartimiento [encomienda] to the mines to extract gold, and to the fields to sow, and he was profiting by them as much as he could, although he always took care to support them as well as possible, to treat them gently, and to sympathize with their miseries. But he gave no more consideration than the others to remembering that they were pagan men and to the duty he had to provide them with religious instruction and bring them within the pale of Christ's Church.

Diego Valázquez ... left the port of Xagua to establish a town of Spaniards in the province, where one called Espíritu Santo was founded. And since, except for one in the town of Baracoa, there was not a cleric or friar in the whole island but the said Bartolomé de las Casas, when Pentecost came [Las Casas] decided to leave his house on the river Arimao ... where he had his estate and go say Mass and preach that Pentecost in Espíritu Santo.

Studying the sermons he had preached last Pentecost, or other sermons for that time, he began to turn over in his mind certain texts of the Holy Scripture. And if I have not forgotten, the principal one was from Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 34: "Tainted his gifts who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods; mock presents from the lawless win not God's favor. The Lord is the salvation of those sustaining themselves in the way of truth and justice. The Most High approves not the gifts of the godless, nor does he have regard for the offerings of the wicked; nor for their many sacrifices does he forgive their sins. Like the man who slays his neighbor is he who offers sacrifice from the possessions of the poor. He who sheds blood and he who defrauds his servant are brothers."

He began, I say, to reflect on the misery and servitude that those peoples suffered. In this connection, what he had heard and experienced in this island of Hispaniola benefited him — the preaching of the Dominicans that Spaniards could not in good conscience possess Indians, and that the Dominicans did not wish to confess and absolve those who held Indians, which the said cleric did not accept.

And once, while he possessed Indians in this island of Hispaniola, as thoughtlessly and ignorantly as later in the island of Cuba, he wanted to confess to a Dominican whom he found in a certain place. But the Dominican did not wish to confess him. When he asked why not and was given a reason, the cleric refuted it with frivolous arguments and vain solutions, although with a certain seeming probability, so that the Dominican said to him: "I have concluded, father, that truth always encounters much opposition and a lie has many helpers."

The cleric then yielded, because of the reverence and honor he owed the religious, who was a venerable and very learned person, much more learned than the father cleric. But as for giving up his Indians, the cleric didn't care for his opinion.

So it was worth a great deal to him to remember that dispute of his, and even the declaration he had made to the religious, in order to attain a better view of the ignorance and danger he was in, holding Indians like the others and not hesitating to confess those who possessed them or intended to possess them....

After he had spent a few days with these thoughts and had each day become more and more sure, from what he read of [natural and divine] law, and from the events he witnessed — applying the first to the second — he decided for himself, convinced by truth, that everything done to the Indians in these Indies was unjust and tyrannical. He found that all he read tended to confirm this, and he was accustomed to assert that, from the first hour when he began to dispel the darkness of that ignorance, he never read a book in Latin or Spanish — and there were an infinite number in forty-four years — in which he did not find either an argument or a text to prove and corroborate the justice of these Indian peoples and to condemn the injustices, wrongs, and injuries done them.

Finally, he decided to preach that. And in order to freely condemn the repartimientos or encomiendas as unjust and tyrannical, and because if he retained his Indians he would then have in his hand a reproof of his sermons, he decided to give up his Indians and surrender them into the hands of the governor, Diego Velázquez. Not that they would be better off in Velázquez's power, for the cleric treated them with more compassion ... and he knew that if he relinquished them they must be given to an oppressor. ... But as ... he would never escape defamations like "After all, he has Indians; why doesn't he give them up since he asserts it is tyrannical to hold them?" he decided to surrender them completely.

For all this to be better understood, it is well to recall here the partnership and close friendship between this father and one Pedro de Rentería, a prudent man and a very good Christian. ... As they were not only friends but partners in their estate, and both had their repartimientos of Indians combined, they agreed between themselves that Pedro de la Rentería should go to the island of Jamaica, where he had a brother, to bring back swine to raise and maize to sow, and other things they did not have in Cuba. ... And for this journey they chartered one of the king's caravels for 2,000 castellanos.

Now as Pedro de la Rentería was absent and the father cleric had decided to give up his Indians and preach what he felt he ought to ..., he went one day to the governor, Diego Velázquez, and told him what he felt about his own condition, the governor's, and that of the others. He declared that they could not be saved in that state, and that to escape from the danger and do his duty by his office, he intended to preach this. Therefore, he had decided to surrender his Indians to him. ... So Velázquez could consider them unclaimed and do with them what he would.

But the cleric asked him as a favor to keep that a secret and not to give the Indians to someone else until Rentería returned from his stay on the island of Jamaica. For the Indians and the estate, which both held indivisibly, would suffer loss if someone to whom Velázquez gave the father's Indians should undertake them and the estate before Rentería came.

The governor was perfectly astounded at hearing such a novel and, as it were, monstrous matter. First, because the cleric ... was of the opinion of the Dominican friars, who had first brought up that business, and that he should dare proclaim it. Second, that he should so justify it and should have such contempt for temporal wealth when he was so well prepared to become rich shortly. ... And the governor said to him: "Reflect oh what you are doing, father, lest you repent. For by God I would wish to see you rich and prosperous, and therefore I do not accept your relinquishing your Indians. And that you may think better of it, I give you fifteen days to consider it carefully, after which you may return to tell me what you decide."

The father cleric replied: "Sir, I receive great honor from your desiring my prosperity, along with the other kindnesses that your honor does me. But count the fifteen days past. And please God, if I repent of this purpose that I have made known to you, and wish to possess Indians, and if you because of your love for me want to entrust or to give them to me anew ..., may it be God who will severely punish you and not forgive you this sin. I only ask your honor that all this may be secret and that you do not give the Indians to anyone until Rentería comes, so that his estate will not be damaged."

So Velázquez promised him that and kept his promise. And from then on he had much more respect for the said cleric. ... And all the others in the island began to hold a new concept of him, different from what they had held before, as soon as they knew that he had given up his Indians — something considered, then and always, as the strongest possible evidence of saintliness. So great was, and is, the ignorance of those who have come to these parts.

This secret was revealed in this way. The said cleric preached on the day of the Assumption of Our Lady, in that aforementioned place Espiritú Santo, and discussed the active and contemplative lives, the subject of the gospel for that day, touching on the spiritual and temporal acts of charity. It was then necessary for him to show them their duty to carry out and perform these acts among those people, by whom they were so cruelly profiting, and to reprove their neglect and omission of these acts. For this, it became pertinent to reveal the secret agreement that he had made with the governor, and he said: "Sir, I give you license to tell everyone you want to what we agreed on in secret. And I will permit myself to tell it to those who are present."

Having said this, he began to declare their ignorance, and the injustices, tyrannies, and cruelties they were committing among those gentle, innocent peoples; how they could not be saved while holding the Indians in encomiendas, nor could the one who distributed them; the obligation to restitution by which they were bound; and that he, from understanding the danger in which he lived, had given up his Indians — and many other things on the subject.

All were astonished, and even frightened, at what he told them. Some were repentant, others behaved as if they were dreaming — hearing something so novel as a declaration that they could not, without being considered sinners, possess Indians. They did not believe it, as if it were said that they could not make use of the beasts of the field.

Las Casas repeatedly describes what he is resisting as "tyranny," yet very little in his account seems political in the modern sense, and his motives resist the kind of analysis we are accustomed to bringing to human behavior. Writing in the first person about himself as if he were a third person ("the cleric"), he attaches such importance to an event we would now think of as private and subjective that he makes it central in his history of the first seventy-five years of Spanish colonization in the New World. This is anything, in short, but an objective or impersonal account, and this is not what we normally think of as written history. Yet, on the other hand, it is not how we usually think of autobiography either — written in the third person, with total disregard for the affective life, as if the subject were an intelligent machine for whom a momentous and materially ruinous life decision is a matter of detached intellectual analysis. As a historian, Las Casas includes too much, making his own experience the center of a vast, heterogeneous, and complex series of events; as an autobiographer he includes too little, depicting himself as motivated purely by the weight of reason in resolving what was, by any reckoning, the major crisis of his life. That event, moreover, while being clearly a religious event of a life-changing order, occurs in the experience of a man and a culture already steeped in religious belief and practice. As a conversion, it involves a change not from unbelief to faith but from one order of faith to another within the same religious context. This is what Las Casas' auditors found so unsettling when he preached to them on Pentecost, 1514. Their astonishment and fear, their disorientation — "as if they were dreaming" — derives from his persuading them that what had always given them cosmic assurance, direction, and meaning was in fact the source of doubt, misdirection, and moral chaos in their lives, "that they could not, without being considered sinners, possess Indians."

Yet for all its religious motivation, Las Casas' experience is undeniably social and political in its impact. In many ways his change of direction closely resembles the much better known experience of Martin Luther, which was happening at almost exactly the same time: both are highly cognitive; both take their impetus from careful study of authoritative sacred texts; both involve a change in the quality of faith rather than a change from unbelief to faith; both resolve agonies of conscience in the convertite's life; despite their order as highly cognitive experiences, both conversions strike us in retrospect as deeply involved with the affective life of the individual; both result in immediate and extreme action that runs directly counter to almost everything the convertites had stood for prior to their conversion. The difference for Las Casas, however, is that his conversion results not in new cognitive formulations, as Luther's does, but in social action that has the potential to destroy the social order he has known and by means of which he has prospered. It is almost as if Luther had been converted to the social equality of the German peasant, in addition to justification by faith. In 1516, the same year Thomas More published his Utopia, Las Casas drew up exhaustive and far-sighted proposals for political and social reform in the Spanish colonies. In 1520, he sought to put his proposals into practice at Cumaná, a colony on the coast of what is now Venezuela; in 1537, he demonstrated the success of his proposals regarding the peaceful (as opposed to forcible) conversion of as yet uncolonized Indians in Tuzulutlan; in 1543, he accepted royal appointment as the bishop of Chiapa, where he again attempted the radical reform of the colonizers' treatment of native peoples. Returning to Spain in 1547, at the age of seventy-three, Las Casas embarked on a vigorous life of disputation and publication on behalf of the people he had actively championed in the New World. His public debate with the humanist Juan de Sepulveda, in 1550, is a model of Thomistic theology being used to oppose a neo-Aristotelian defense of slavery as a natural institution. Las Casas' Most Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (written in 1542, published without license ten years later) is a highly polemical but widely influential indictment of Spanish exploitation in the New World. Translated into six other European languages by 1626 (English in 1583), it became the single most important source of information about colonial barbarity in the New World. Because of it, Spain still retains a reputation for unrivalled cruelty in her colonies, whereas if other European nations had had a Las Casas, they would all stand under the same indictment, or worse.


Excerpted from Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power by John D. Cox. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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