The Long View: Debating ‘Commonwealth’ on the Jacobethan Stage

“I come to talk of commonwealth affairs.”

This is how the Duke of Gloucester barrels onstage in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II, bursting into a group of noblemen to counter accusations against his name. In this dramatic entrance, the beleaguered Duke uses an early modern term – ‘commonwealth’ – which stood for the very concept of governance, right down to its contested structure and concerns. The term is all the more powerful for its deployment in a play intimately concerned with poor government and civil war. Drama in this period was a vehicle to explore political ideas, and  scrutinise the actions of monarchs and their greater subjects: the theatre was a place where the very terms of state were under question.

This play was not exceptional in staging political debate. The vogue for history plays in the 1590s, and for classical tragedies in the 1600s, meant that politics was debated onstage in many dramas. By staging plays built from the politics of the past, drama interacted with history, which was then the scholarly discipline concerned with the best way to rule. The views expressed by individual characters, and the conflicts between them, acted as a physical argument between different visions of what the state should be. Playwrights’ use of the discourse of ‘commonwealth’ is a characteristic example of the way in which politics was put up for debate onstage during the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign, and throughout that of James I.


Contested language and contested theory

In the early modern period, political language was a game of connotation and context-driven meaning, with the same word often referring to different ideas. The term ‘commonwealth’ represented a swathe of overlapping and conflicting ideas. In its mediaeval sense, ‘commonwealth’, or ‘common weal’ referred to a sense of welfare and inclusivity. ‘Weal’ or ‘wealth’ meant the common interest, the concern of the people: in order to preserve the nation, rulers had to consider the commonweal. Therefore ‘commonwealth’ in this older sense also intimated ideas of common bonds, such as in citizen communities in London in the sixteenth century, expressed in plays such as Dekker’s The Shoemakers Holiday. Moreover, the OED notes that ‘common weal’ became transformed into meaning ‘the whole body of the people’: the mediaeval vision of common welfare had been subsumed into an inclusive vision of the polity, with common bonds shifting into an imagine community as totality. ‘Republic’ was often translated as ‘commonwealth’, where republic is a state in which the interests of the people are vested.

This inclusive view of the polity was also seen in the metaphor of the “body politic”, which the OED defines as ‘a nation regarded as a corporate entity’. In the body politic, every member of the polity is included in the political nation. In Thomas Smith’s 1560s publication De Republica Anglorum, one of the major monuments of commonwealth theory, ‘mutual societie’ defines the common wealth: the yeoman’s ‘communion with his master’ goes both ways, as moral duty and responsibility. For Smith, the ‘common doing’ is everything.

The ‘body politic’, from the frontispiece of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse (1651)

In this metaphor, disease is used to critique the state of the polity. If communality was not preserved, the ‘politicke bodie’ would would sicken, proof of the wider structure failing to act together: in Henry VI part I, civil war is described as a sickness which ‘gnaws the bowels of the common wealth’. The national community are bound together in common aim – the common weal – until disorder breaks loose.

However, over the latter half of the sixteenth century, the term ‘state’ came to refer to the apparatus of authority. ‘Commonwealth’ began to be used as a term to refer to this vision of the state, a more elite version of the term overlapping and conflicting with its earlier sense of inclusivity. The use of ‘commonwealth’ to refer to the state represented a conflict between community and governance. This struggle, between inclusion and exclusion, was one that would find potent expression on the early modern stage.


A popular theatre

These debates took place on the public stage, then a popular medium. History plays were inherently caught between inclusion and exclusion, both because of their subject matter, and because commoners performed the private debates of kings and earls onstage, in addition to quarrels among their own class. The theatre was the only place where sumptuary legislation, which regulated what members of different classes could and could not wear, did not hold. With actors maligned by city authorities, men considered barely better than vagrants wearing kingly robes were a hair’s breadth from lese-majeste.

The layout of the playhouse meant there was a crowd of commoners in the audience, ringed around the stage. Debates over the political place of commoners onstage, which often lacked common characters, had an audience who stood for that oft-excluded group: jokes and remarks about the maltreatment of the people would have a different impact on the groundlings to the richer men and women watching from the gallery. In this way, the theatre itself stood for the political nation’s divisions, classes segregated by galleries and the railings that held the groundlings in their own space.


The idea of welfare as a critique of Elizabeth’s ‘black decade’

The 1590s were brutal. Rising food prices and falling wages due to harvest failures saw a crushing decrease in the quality of life for the majority of the commons, while even the victory over the Armada had turned sour, with demobbed soldiers left destitute by the state they had fought to defend. The disastrous Irish campaign, and the charismatic Earl of Essex’s attempted coup (and his subsequent execution for treason) merely added more woe to the final years of Elizabeth’s reign.

In the wake of socioeconomic hardship, an obsession with the threat of popularity and dreaded social revolt saw an increasing focus on state security. This state, however, was an exclusive one, focussing on the apparatus of authority being kept in the hands of a group of ‘public’ men, than on more inclusive visions of commonwealth. Such attempts to exclude the people from the state was a key part of the plays Richard II and Henry IV Part II by Shakespeare, which present the effects of considering the commonwealth by rulers.

Shakespeare’s Richard II presents a polity being destroyed by poor rule. The scene with the Gardener, who speaks of the nation as a garden that has been left unweeded, presents a disordered commonwealth where ignoring the welfare of the people has caused ruin. In the one instance of the commons speaking in the play, the Second Man describes England as a garden with ‘her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined’, after the Gardener remarks that the ‘too lofty’ must be pruned from the garden’s ‘commonwealth’. The commons – speaking, crucially, in the verse reserved for elite – align the misrule of Richard with disorder in the commonwealth. The Gardener conceptualizes Richard as a bad gardener who has failed to ‘lop away’ ‘superfluous branches’: by allowing the flatterers Bushy, Bagot and Greene to manipulate him, he has failed to care for the commonwealth, leaving it in disorder.

Richard is ultimately desacralized by his poor rule: when Bolingbroke’s faction come to depose him, their arguments are based in the language of the commons’ welfare. England’s body politic sickens, but Richard is deposed before it can worsen any further. Shakespeare effectively presents the question of commonweal onstage, with Richard’s exclusive view of governance facing off against a more inclusive one that demands consideration of popular welfare.

Similarly, in 2 Henry IV, the idea of sickness in the land acts as an analogue for the diseased body politic: Henry IV says to his trusted advisor Warwick

Then you perceive the body of our kingdom,

How foul it is, what rank diseases grow,
And with what danger near the heart of it.

The land is conceptualised as ill due to internal rebellion, using the metaphors of the body politic to present the nation as fraught by rebellion. But in this play, the king sickens with his land. As Henry remarks of his ‘poor kingdom, sick with civil blows’, he is visibly ailing, the king himself becoming a diseased body. Henry’s rule is acceptable due to his prior consideration of the commonwealth: earlier it is remarked that the whole country ‘in a general voice’ had called for his accession to the throne, clearly demonstrating that he has courted the people’s interests. He is presented as a Fisher King-esque character, inextricably linked to his realm through the use of the body politic image. Shakespeare allows Henry to claim the land as a whole, recognizing his dominion over the land in exchange for his considering the common weal. Nonetheless, is clearly a poisoned chalice.

In these plays from the last years of Elizabeth’s reign the idea of the commonweal is a potent vision onstage. Shakespeare places the older meaning in tension with the newer, and leaves Richard as a damning lesson on what happens to those who neglect more inclusive visions of politics.


Roman ideals: attacks on tyranny during the reign of James

Under the first Stuart, tyranny became a key fear, owing to the king’s writings advocating absolutism (such as Basilikon Doron, published in 1599) and his disregard for parliament. With classical plays in vogue by this point, both Jonson’s Sejanus and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus question the nature of rule through discourses of ‘commonwealth’. In response, both playwrights stage a commonwealth where politics has been corrupted. Commonwealth rhetoric acts as a sharpening focus for political debate within the retelling of Roman history: the transplanting of this discourse acts as a potent assertion of the classical past as accurate representation of the current political situation.

In Sejanus, the ideal of the republic-commonwealth is used to indicate the evils of the emperor Tiberius and his flatterer Sejanus. The heroes of the play are all designated as republicans, demanding ‘where now is the spirit of godlike Cato?’, using a republican figure as a much longed for saviour from the horrors of tyranny. These men are all humiliated, unjustly condemned and killed by Tiberius and Sejanus, and the latter remarks ‘all Rome hath been my slave’. This usurpation of the whole polity for the ruler’s ends is a recurrent theme: during the chilling trial scene, the dissidents are charged for crimes against the ‘Commonwealth’, when really their only crime is to have defied tyranny. The exclusive version of the commonwealth has superseded the inclusive one: in the final scenes of the play, one of Tiberius’ minions reads a letter to the Senate which asserts his control over the whole commonwealth, his power strong enough to hold sway in his absence.

An 1800 painting by Richard Westall of Volumnia pleading with Coriolanus not to destroy Rome – Folger Shakespeare Library

In Coriolanus, however, we are presented with a crowd of starving plebeians left out of the governance of Rome. They mass onstage repeatedly, demanding bread and welfare, even reaching the point of riot in Act III. The play was probably written between 1605 and 1608, with the Midlands Rising of 1607 a contemporaneous example of the commons massing in defense of their welfare. Unlike the absent commons in the Elizabethan plays, the people’s cries for bread in Coriolanus are legitimised by their rhetorical sophistication: from their first entrance they speak the same language as the politicians. The First Citizen bandies commonwealth rhetoric back and forth in defence of his class’ rights, able to out-jibe the patrician Menenius, giving weight to his arguments in favour of an inclusive commonweal, while the older man is made to look elitist and long-winded, his exclusive views clearly not in vogue.

Exclusion is a constant theme in the play. The patricians actively exclude the plebeians from politics: the claim that Menenius has ‘always loved the people’ is disproven by his continued disparagement. Brushing off the ‘beastly plebeians’ in I.i with the epithet ‘my incorporate friends’, he mocks their common bond, referencing city commonwealths through the choice of ‘incorporate’, and displaying his scorn for a communitarian vision of politics. Furthermore, the plebeians are never present for true political decisions: the vote-giving ceremony in Act III is merely a sop to legality. However, it is the protagonist who is the most exclusive. From his first entrance, Coriolanus is violently anti-populist: having been mentioned by the restive plebeians as ‘a very dog to the commonalty’, he strides onstage, demanding

What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?

This image of sickness presents the commonalty as infection to the body politic. Coriolanus refuses to dignify their political function, mocking them during the voting ceremony, repeating the word ‘voices’ until it becomes a meaningless set of sounds, highlighting how little regard this man has for the people he is supposed to serve: he laughs ‘Your voices! For your voices I have fought,’ a claim unsubstantiated by all previous events in the play. Later, when banishing the plebeians and their city, he begins with the blistering ‘you common cry of curs’, the alliteration propelling his insult towards the  commoners in the pit who acted as an extension of the crowd of plebeians onstage. ‘Common’ makes it obvious that Coriolanus does not respect the people, while ‘cry’ focuses his complaint on their voices: Coriolanus is the very expression of exclusive Roman politics.

The use of Rome as a setting allows both playwrights to convey the corruption of republican ideals: Jonson and Shakespeare each stage a commonwealth that has been corrupted, by a tyrant such as Tiberius in Sejanus, or by the self-interest of public men like the senate and tribunes in Coriolanus. Rome is England, an ideal destroyed by current governance.

The discourse of commonwealth was an extremely powerful political tool in the early modern period, and dramatists of the period deftly used it in order to critique the politics of their age. Perhaps one of the best indicators of the potency of drama in this contestation of political discourse is the reaction of the authorities to it. While critical opinion remains divided on the extent of state censorship of texts in the period, it is clear that the state had a vested interest in keeping certain things off the stage and out of print. The deposition scene in Richard II was never printed during the reign of Elizabeth, and Sejanus had Jonson up before the Privy Council for treason: the former, perhaps, indicates an awareness by printer or acting company that to print such a thing would be extremely ill-advised, perhaps incurring the Master of the Revels’ wrath and refusal to print the play, or even causing a reaction from the royal authorities with results such as the latter. These incidents indicate just how powerful the communication of politics could be via drama, something that remains true today.

The debate over commonwealth had some of its greatest battles in the playhouses of London. These three playwrights put the contentious question of the state onstage, making each side of the debate fight before an audience of commoners in the pit, and earls and kings at court.

Lucy Clarke

After graduating from Oxford with a degree in History and English, Lucy is studying for a Masters in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London. Her main area of research is the role of early modern drama in social and political discourse.

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