History: Civil Butchery

  • John Michael Archer
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


According to Richard Helgerson, as we have seen, “Shakespeare’s history plays are concerned above all with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power.” Citizens did not interest Shakespeare much, except as the contrasting ground against which his monarchs and aristocrats defined themselves. We must turn, as Helgerson does in an unrivaled survey, to the Henslowe history plays to distinguish the victims of sovereignty among the urban middling sort. On the whole, Helgerson is right insofar as we stick to what he terms “image” or “representation” in the theater.1 But if we return to the language of Shakespeare’s history plays, we uncover an underworld of citizen speech that brings the plays closer to many in their original London audiences than the hieratic stage action at first suggests. Furthermore, citizens and citizen-types do appear in the histories, however circumscribed or caricatured their roles seem in comparison with the suffering creations of the Henslowe authors. There is a shift between the first and second tetralogies from London settings to London language, although even in the “Henriad” Eastcheap remains a key location and reference-point.


Sovereign Power Citizen Subjectivity Citizen Culture History Play Single Combat 
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    See Annabel Patterson, who also notes that bees were thought to “swarm” when they followed a new leader out of the hive, abandoning their ruler: Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p. 86. On swarming, see Elyot, p. 7.Google Scholar

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© John Michael Archer 2005

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  • John Michael Archer

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