"I Am Arbaces, We All Fellow Subjects": The Political Appeal of Beaumont and Fletcher's 'A King and No King' on the Restoration Stage
Flores, Stephan P., Essays in Literature
Scholars have surveyed the Beaumont and Fletcher canon and related the plays' plots, themes, and dramatic strategies to Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline, and Carolean dramatic practices, and recently critics have addressed the psychologically compelling effects of the tragicomic genre on characters' sexual dilemmas and the plays' symbolic relation to James I's court and his absolutist politics.(1) However, the later effects of conflicted social and political relations on Restoration productions of such plays as A King and No King and the cultural significance of interdependent relations among sexual desire, gender, and politics in the plays have gone largely unremarked. Among the most popular of over thirty plays from the Beaumont and Fletcher canon revived during the Carolean period (1660-1685), A King and No King appealed in fascinating ways to playgoers' preoccupation with shifts in the political order and challenges to their cultural identities under the restored monarchy of Charles II.
The play ascribes conflicts among the elite to excessive passions, particularly the sexual and social aspirations of King Arbaces and his family. I shall argue that as Beaumont and Fletcher strive to regulate their characters' transgressive desires, they also show how such desires proceed from the patriarchal and absolutist inclinations of the court. Gradually and fitfully, the play destabilizes conventional and coercive oppositions between reason and passion, virtue and vice, and king and subject, suggesting finally the political construction of such polarities, and hence the possibility that one's identity, desires, and cultural position may be changed and negotiated. A King and No King's appeal to early Carolean audiences is intimately related to the way the play represents issues that were less negotiable for their Jacobean predecessors: the challenges of redefining and reclaiming their positions and privileges under a monarch whose authority was under debate and not absolute. The play was first produced in 1611, less than a year after the breaking of the Great Contract between James I and Parliament over his illegal impositions. Jacobean society's dismay over James's absolutist practices resembles the concerns of many after Charles II's restoration, when the memory of Charles I's rule and the rebellion against it was painful, and the hopes that reciprocity between king and subject had been miraculously restored were anxiously high and soon disappointed.
I suggest, then, that the attention to A King and No King issues not only from its generic qualities but largely from playgoers' heightened unease over restoring and refiguring their own compromised positions and identities. The successful revival of A King and No King occurred during a period of acutely contested social, political, religious, and economic entitlements and obligations, a time when the elite were particularly anxious over the effects of social mobility and political preferment. The responses of the king's subjects to dramatic transformations both on and offstage were conditioned by their experience of Charles I's regicide, the civil wars, the stunning restoration of Charles II, his subsequent notoriety for licentious sexual relations, and his struggles to negotiate political settlements and royal prerogatives with the Cavalier Parliament. Such an audience, led by the elite classes yet socially and politically heterogeneous, may have found A King and No King even more pressing and topical than their Caroline and Jacobean precursors. After all, the play depicts a passionate and arrogant ruler who is fortunately redeemed from sin, virtually deposed from and restored to kingship, and educated in the limits of his absolutist designs. It is likely that Carolean playgoers responded readily to Arbaces's conflated roles as subject and king because of Charles II's constrained political prerogatives and because of his well-known sexual penchant for women at court and playhouse. …