Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra

By Yachnin, Paul | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview
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Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra


Yachnin, Paul, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


What might Antony and Cleopatra tell us about English political culture of around 1606, and what might it tell us about Shakespeare's theater's relationship with that culture?(1) In this essay, I want to suggest answers to these questions in terms of the new historicist focus on the "theatricality of power and the power of theatricality," but I want to avoid and critique two related assumptions which, I will suggest, have undermined new historicism's attempts to historicize texts such as Shakespeare's plays. Overall, I want to be able to enlist in this analysis of Antony and Cleopatra the powerful new historicist practice of interpreting "literary" texts in terms of large-scale discursive formations which cut across kinds of discourse usually kept separate in conventional criticism, but I want also to make that practice more historical by insisting on both the historically specific differences among kinds of discourse and the importance of writerly intentionality and readerly understanding--by insisting, that is, that the operations of minds are as pertinent to our accounts of the past as are the operations of power.

The first new historicist assumption which I want to critique is that all texts in any given culture at a particular historical juncture tell fundamentally the same story (so that one need not take into account the differences among individual texts, kinds of texts, or the interpretative fields in which texts are inscribed).(2) At stake here, of course, is the question of the agency of writers and readers, the degree to which the historically specific meaning of any text is constituted by the ways in which it is meant and received; and beyond that, at stake is the proper recognition of the relations between, on the one side, the minds of writers and readers and on the other, the inscription of texts in particular interpretative fields, a process which is certainly not in anyone's control. Whereas new historicists typically read texts in terms of a transpersonal sociodiscursive system which is seen to do its work at a level below the horizon of consciousness of writers and readers, I am interested in the never fully autonomous ways in which writers intend and readers understand the meaning of texts at particular historical junctures and in terms of particular interpretative fields.

The second assumption to be examined is that subversion is always already contained, since, according to new historicists, subversion is to be seen, not as deployed by individuals in order to achieve certain political ends, but as the unseen harbinger of future social formations.(3) This second assumption is already giving way to much more open-minded interpretative practices, but the first, grounded in the deconstructive rejection of agency and intentionality, continues to exercise a counter-productive hold on much new historicist criticism. Moreover, the increasingly outmoded idea that history operates "over the heads" of people is not really separable from the practice of reading all texts belonging to a particular historical juncture as if they told the same basic story--the first rejects intentionality with regard to the production of culture, broadly defined; the second rejects intentionality with regard to the production of writing, especially literary writing.

In the interests of contesting this model of a unified, transpersonal, and "mindless" discursive field, I will interpret the commercial-theater play Antony and Cleopatra as a text whose politics of loyalty had connections with but also differences from texts such as King James's 1603 speech to Parliament, Francis Bacon's courtly and progressivist The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), or Ben Jonson's "patronage" poem, "To Penshurst" (ca. 1612). In part, my argument is that the material conditions of the production and reception of texts condition how they mean, what kind of "weight" they are accorded. Words played by an actor at the Globe meant differently from words intoned by the king before Parliament; printed words meant differently from written words, and printed words in a play-quarto differed from words in a tract dedicated to the king and from words in a folio; and not all folios carried the same cultural weight.

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Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra
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