1st Edition

Staging England in the Elizabethan History Play Performing National Identity

By Ralf Hertel Copyright 2014

    Applying current political theory on nationhood as well as methods established by recent performance studies, this study sheds new light on the role the public theatre played in the rise of English national identity around 1600. It situates selected history plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe in the context of non-fictional texts (such as historiographies, chorographies, political treatises, or dictionary entries) and cultural artefacts (such as maps or portraits), and thus highlights the circulation, and mutation, of national thought in late sixteenth-century culture. At the same time, it goes beyond a New Historicist approach by foregrounding the performative surplus of the theatre event that is so essential for the shaping of collective identity. How, this study crucially asks, does the performative art of theatre contribute to the dynamics of the formation of national identity? Although theories about the nature of nationalism vary, a majority of theorists agree that notions of a shared territory and history, as well as questions of religion, class and gender play crucial roles in the shaping of national identity. These factors inform the structure of this book, and each is examined individually. In contrast to existing publications, this inquiry does not take for granted a pre-existing national identity that simply manifested itself in the literary works of the period; nor does it proceed from preconceived notions of the playwrights’ political views. Instead, it understands the early modern stage as an essentially contested space in which conflicting political positions are played off against each other, and it inquires into how the imaginative work of negotiating these stances eventually contributed to a rising national self-awareness in the spectators.

    Introduction: Performing National Identity on the Early Modern Stage; Part I Territory; Chapter 1 Plotting England: The Transformation of Territory into Homeland; Chapter 2 Mapping the Globe: The Cartographic Gaze and Henry IV Part 1; Part II History; Chapter 3 Making History: Staging the National Past; Chapter 4 Nationalizing History? The Anglica Historia, Richard III and the Appropriation of the English Past; Part III Religion; Chapter 5 Performing Religion: Belief and National Identity; Chapter 6 The New Faith of the Nation: Religion in King John; Part IV Class; Chapter 7 How Common Is the Commonwealth? Class and National Identity; Chapter 8 ‘Infinite numbers’: Nation and Class in Henry VI Part 2; partV Gender; Chapter 9 Women on Top: Gender and National Identity; Chapter 10 The Private Is Political: Gender and Nation in Edward II; Conclusion: Early Modern Englishness and the Transformative Power of the Performative;


    Ralf Hertel is Professor of English Literature at the University of Trier, Germany.

    'Hertel has valuably shown that the English history plays of the 1590s addressed the issue of national identity with caution, dialogically, open-endedly, and, like Macmorris, in the interrogative mode.' Seventeenth Century News 'Staging England in the Elizabethan History Play is much more than a book of literary criticism: it investigates many different cultural domains ... it provides many penetrating insights into a plethora of crucial socio-political issues and it possesses the rare quality of being equally enjoyable for both specialists and non-specialists. ... We can be grateful to Ralf Hertel for helping us look at very familiar plays in a new and refreshing light.' Notes and Queries 'Hertel shows how nationalism on the Elizabethan stage represented variously a present ideal, a stabilizing bulwark against destabilizing forces, and the promise of a homogenous and conflict-free future. In addition, his study represents a thoughtful consideration of how dramatists used the stage as medium to express, interrogate, and critique prevailing nationalist paradigms.' Theatre Journal