You might be offered a dinner in a New England restaurant or an overnight stay in a Midlands pub, a room furnished with a four-poster bed, an oak wooden dresser or even a fishing rod. What would these have in common? They are all adorned with the branding Shakespeare by their manufacturers, proprietors, retailers. In one manner or another, the sixteenth-century dramatist has become deeply embedded in our experience of global culture in the twenty-first century and we don’t necessarily have to pass by the box office in a theatre or browse the library shelves to encounter his name. Indeed, in many areas of the globe, an encounter with Shakespeare in image, text and performance may be easier than with a native writer from earlier centuries! Shakespeare, Violence and Early Modern Europe is born out of more than thirty years as a researcher and an academic keeping company with the bard in theatres, libraries, archives, conferences and the university classroom. For generations, Shakespeare has been seen to create thinking space in which to understand the ways we produce our everyday selves and lives and so it was inevitable that I turned to his writings, in this case his history plays, and his culture in order to explore an ongoing area of perplexity for me: how our experience of life in human society, and its representation through art, continues to exploit violence to excite the appetite of the onlooker, the beholder, the witness.
This particular enquiry chose six of Shakespeare’s historical plays (but as always there is an embarrassment of riches in the corpus) as well two test cases from amongst the Elizabethan elite (Sir Walter Ralegh and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex) to ponder the Renaissance anticipation, experience and remembrance of aggression on theatrical and political stages for the seemingly irrepressible pleasure of readers, audiences, spectators, then and now. Emphases in the selected playtexts and accounts of Elizabethan court favourites in Shakespeare, Violence and Early Modern Europe force us repeatedly to travel across time and space: an interrogation of the historical and geographical implications of an act, or acts, of violence remains thematic to all these subjects. Thus, it seemed timely in the final phase of the book to turn to the cross-border, cross-generational interests produced in these readings of Shakespeare, Ralegh and Essex and to a wider consideration of continental Europe remembering, recreating, remaking the age of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I in the theatre and print culture. As this book demonstrates, such readings were offered to audiences and readers from the North Sea to the Mediterranean in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Inevitably, in different locations, in different times, the currency or character of the violence depicted is found to alter radically – physical, verbal, psychological, erotic, judicial, religious, to name but a few – but in each case, then as now, we are compelled to reflect upon the function and status of brutality, trauma, enforced control in terms of the uncomfortable possibilities of power assertion, complicity, pleasure principles and commonplace experience… and, indeed, that our horror of violence may be a reassuring fiction.
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