Politics and Play: The National Stage and the Player King in Shakespeare's Henry V and Macbeth


This article examines the intersection between theatrical and political discourse in early modern England. It argues that that the dialog surrounding early modern discourses of monarchy intersects specifically with theatrical notions of performance by means of the social contract implicit in English Common Law. The link between the political stage and the theater is perhaps most transparent in the metaphor of the theatrum mundi. Because the theatrum mundi requires the active participation of the audience, they must always be included in the theatrum mundi as participatory citizens in its illusory world. They are drawn into the conversation between stage and state on the very nature of sovereignty and on their own role within the construction and operation of the larger body politic; that coversation also appears in Macbeth’s correlation of “life” to the “poor player” (5.5.24).
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, this appears most obviously in Henry’s scenes of disguise, in which the king himself offers the theory that kings only rule by the grace of “ceremony . . . general ceremony” (4.1.236), that is, through the power of monarchical performance. In Macbeth, we see the opposite of Henry’s performance; Macbeth’s ambition renders him incapable of participating in the “ceremony” Henry describes. Ultimately, the plays seek to articulate that performance determines the power and authority of the king, and that it is within the power of the populace-audience to accept and authorize their ruler based on the type and quality of his (or her) performance.

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