Tyrants in Early English Drama

Special Session Panel
Modern Language Association
January 7, 2012

Co-organizers: Julia M. Garrett, Donald Jellerson
Panel Chair: Rebecca Bushnell

Early English tyrants have been curiously neglected during the past couple decades, at least in the realm of literary scholarship. Aside from Rebecca Bushnell’s foundational study, Tragedies of Tyrants (1990), only one other full-length study of the stage tyrant has been published recently (McGrail, 2001), along with a modest number of articles. Broader questions about tyranny, rebellion against oppressive rule, and theories of good sovereignty have received ample attention in early modern scholarship during this period, but the tyrant as a specific dramatic type has somehow evaded the critical spotlight. By contrast, the tyrant in theaters and on film continues to enjoy a robust career, in part because he conveniently speaks to the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric in contemporary geopolitical discourse (one wonders how soon we will have the opportunity to observe Richard III tricked out in Libyan garb). It should not be surprising that one area of literary studies which has recently enlarged our critical vocabulary for analyzing the tyrant is scholarship on the culturally alien figures that populate the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare, interpretations that situate the tyrant within a more globally comprehensive framework.

The three papers on
this panel propose a variety of historical and critical contexts for renewing scholarly interest in the English tyrant on stage. The panel begins by examining the very earliest figurations of the stage tyrant, those of the medieval mystery plays, specifically in the Chester Cycle. The second paper turns our attention to one of the most popular tyrants of the Tudor era, King Cambyses of Persia, whose dramatization offers a stark paradigm of features associated with tyrannical excess, features elaborated in later plays by both Marlowe and Shakespeare. The final paper takes up Shakespeare’s most nuanced portrait of the tyrant figure, King Leontes from The Winter’s Tale. Presenters bring a range of critical approaches to their analysis of this figure, including a historicist consideration of the Chester Cycle, an examination of the tyrant in relation to ethnographic and judicial discourses of the sixteenth century, and feminist analysis of late-sixteenth century complaint poetry in relation to episodes of sexual violation perpetrated by tyrant figures. All three presenters offer some commentary on the most familiar didactic function of the stage tyrant, as Bushnell has explained: to provide a “mirror for magistrates,” an object lesson to tyrannical social authorities on the tragic consequences of pride, corruption, and unbridled ambition.


Gerard David
(c. 1450/1460–1523)
The Judgment of Cambyses

(1498; right panel)

via Wikimedia Commons

Tyrants were the superstars of the early English stage, as Heather Mitchell-Buck explains in her paper, “’Against the Right’: The Tyrants of Chester Cycle.” Herod, Pharoah, Pilate, and Lucifer regularly appear in ambitious “history of the world” civic cycles as well as individual plays put on by traveling companies or parish actors. They were dressed in the most lavish costumes, assigned the longest and most elaborate speeches, and often supplied the actors who brought them to life with a substantial wage. This paper argues that these tyrants helped to ensure the enduring popularity of Biblical drama well into the Tudor period; their immoderation invited authors, actors, and audiences to participate in a discourse of virtue and self-governance that was applicable to monarchs and commoners alike. The continued popularity of these tyrant-figures throughout the sixteenth century, particularly in areas that proved resistant to the Tudors’ economic, judicial, and religious reforms, suggests an enduring frustration with royal power that claimed to rule in the name of the “common good,” yet never hesitated to achieve national obedience at the expense of local tradition. Chester Cycle, which was regularly performed as late as 1575, is preoccupied with issues of rule and governance, repeatedly questioning the acceptable boundaries of royal power. The cycle includes a small handful of the ranting, boastful figures denounced by Prince Hamlet. However, Chester’s tyrants are often more subtle characters who justify and disguise their desires with gestures towards the commonwealth. Herod states that while his proposed slaughter of the innocents is “agaynst the right,” he feels obliged to protect his realm from a pretender to the throne. The cycle also encourages its audience to think about the role of the subject as well as that of the sovereign. Such moments offer tantalizing glimpses of how conceptions of sovereignty and community were changing in the sixteenth century—to meet the needs of England’s crown, rather than England’s citizens—and help us to understand how such changes were shared and evaluated among a local audience.

Julia Garrett’s paper, “Tyrannous Justice in Cambyses and Shakespeare,” examines the tyrant figure in light of early ethnographic discourses found in travel literature and the encyclopedic texts called “cosmographies” being published throughout Europe during the sixteenth century. In many of the cultural profiles in these texts, the measured administration of justice, or lack thereof, is an important demarcating category for distinguishing between more civilized cultures, and alien, barbaric ones. More specifically, disproportionate relations between crime and penalty, especially if those penalties involve torture, mutilation, or death, signify the more savage nations. These concerns with judicial discourse and cultural difference, ones that offer an additional dimension to the “rhetoric of opposition” that Bushnell identifies as grounding political theory of the time, supply the context for analyzing Thomas Preston’s Cambyses, King of Persia (1560). Preston’s play marches us through a relentless series of scenes of cruelty and slaughter, but the most extravagant episode of brutality features Cambyses’s execution of the judge Sisamnes––a scene featured in the work of numerous other writers and Renaissance artists. In this gruesome “mirror for magistrates” anecdote adapted from Herodotus, Cambyses orders that, as the penalty for gross corruption, the judge will be executed and then flayed, all witnessed in horror by Sisamnes’s son, selected as his father’s judicial successor (in other accounts Sisamnes is flayed alive, and his skin is used to adorn the seat of justice, a grisly device for reminding the son of the penalty for such a betrayal of the office). It’s an unusually complicated exemplum because the figure who serves as the instrument of justice does so in horrific fashion, and then casually carries out a rapid series of further atrocities: child-murder, fratricide, incest, sexual enforcement, wife-murder. The argument then examines how these themes of tyrannous conduct, alien cultural values, and judicial struggle are taken up by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. To provide a transition to the final paper of the panel, the argument closes by considering how muted versions of the most common narrative motifs of the tyrant––the slaughter of the innocents, intrafamilial murder, the tyrant’s obdurate refusal of wise counsel, a trial scene that exposes his willful manipulation of judicial process, and his eventual shaming––also appear in The Winter’s Tale, which draws much of its emotional power from the successful chastening and humanizing of this durable dramatic figure.

To unpack the relationship between gender and tyranny, Donald Jellerson’s paper, “‘The tyrant…tires me an aunt’: Complaint, Tyranny, and The Winter’s Tale,” reads the play against the backdrop of the literary “complaints” on which it draws. Shakespeare’s play addresses precisely the same problems as late Elizabethan complaint poetry does, and in closely related terms. Drawing on Ovid’s Heroides and the popular Mirror for Magistrates volumes, the genre of female-voiced complaint became commonplace in the latter half of the sixteenth century. In complaint poems, women from legend and history rise from the dead to chastise the tyrants who tormented them in life. Complaint poems thus measure tyranny according to how men in power treat their female subjects. The poems depict a tragic world in which the beauty and desirability of women enter into lethal combination with the ungoverned fears and desires of men. In the degraded world of complaint, chaste women fall and powerful patriarchs become tyrants. Complaint poems realize patriarchy’s worst nightmare: in Stephen Orgel’s apt phrase, “that all women at heart are whores,” and “all men at heart are rapists.” The contest between tyranny and chastity in complaint reveals the fragility of the patriarchal contract between men in power and the women whose bodies are supposed to guarantee pure patriarchal lineage. Shakespeare draws on this set of concerns in The Winter’s Tale. Both complaint poems and the play show us the patriarchal contract broken; both imagine functional patriarchy degraded into dysfunctional tyranny. Reading The Winter’s Tale in light of literary complaints elaborates both the gendered terms of such a crisis and that which becomes necessary to resolve it. These correspondences are rich enough to suggest that The Winter’s Tale can be productively interpreted as dramatized complaint. Questioning the legitimacy of his offspring in the first act, Leontes fears that his wife’s supposed adultery will corrupt his rule: he fears the “issue” will “hiss” him to his “grave” with “contempt and clamour” (1.2.188–89). Yet he will learn that his own tyranny, evidenced by his mistreatment of Hermione, promises to erase patriarchal futurity just as certainly as adultery does. Taking its cue from a vocabulary developed in complaint poetry, the play suggests that it is not only women’s unchastity, whether imagined or real, that promises to void the patriarchal contract; it is equally the tyranny of the men who torment them. Tyrannical behavior itself is a form of unchastity that promises to yield, in Leontes’s words once he realizes his mistake, “shame perpetual” (3.2.235).