Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.09.23 Hopkins, From the Romans to the Normans on the English Renaissance Stage

19.09.23 Hopkins, From the Romans to the Normans on the English Renaissance Stage

In her book on late sixteenth and early seventeenth century plays that deal with Britain's past between the Roman occupation and the Norman conquest, Lisa Hopkins discusses a wide array of materials from a variety of angles. Her central questions revolve around the playwrights' knowledge and representation of the past and the extent to which "ideas about the past shape concepts of contemporary national, cultural and political identities" (187). In two parts, containing three and four chapters respectively, Hopkins treats language matters, magic and religion, hybridity, as well as, centrally in the second part, queenship and gender. Of course Marlowe's and Shakespeare's plays figure, but it is in combination with the many more, lesser known plays about this age of King Arthur, Alfred the Great, Athelstan, and Boudica, among others, that this book becomes an invaluable resource for scholars and students interested in the ways in which the English Renaissance viewed its distant past.

The introduction provides an overview of the issues at stake and Hopkins lays out her inclusive understanding of her materials, explaining that she chose to include plays such as Henry VIII, Tamburlaine, and Doctor Faustus, that, "though not set in the period before the Conquest did nevertheless contribute to the ways in which the ancestors of the English and British were conceptualized" (2). She then embeds the plays' events historically, primarily referencing Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, without however going into detail as to whether or not this medieval text would have served her playwrights as a central source. She however makes clear that what the plays she studies are primarily concerned with, "[r]ather than seeking to make precise chronological distinctions [...] is scrutinizing a part of the past which they concur in regarding as crucial in the formation of English ethnic and national identity" (9).

The first chapter of Part I ("Legacies") is entitled "'Bisson Conspectuities': Language and National Identity in Shakespeare's Roman Plays." It is concerned with how different languages are represented and Hopkins argues that "the ways in which Shakespeare represents English as a language conditions the ways in which he represents early modern English and British identities" (32). One pertinent example is the phrase from Coriolanus which Hopkins chose as the chapter title and which she identifies as a "striking instance of Shakespeare's delight in coupling words of Latin origin with words of English origin" (34). This feature, "particularly insistent in the Roman plays" is used by Shakespeare to recall "the successive waves of invasion which had shaped the linguistic as well as the political history and contours of the British Isles," as well as to trouble "the idea of a link between Britain and the power and authority of Rome" (35). In Coriolanus especially, Hopkins claims, such couplings serve to associate Latinity with deception (39), but she identifies similar tensions in Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and, in addition, in KingLear and Hamlet.

Chapter 2, entitled "Profit and Delight? Magic and the Dreams of a Nation," is probably the most complex chapter of the book. It begins at the pre-conquest Christianisation and at plays that feature the medieval saints Dunstan, Augustine of Canterbury, Alban, and Cuthbert. These plays help introduce the premise that "[p]rotestantism [...] prevailed in the early modern period," i.e., that plays about "catholic" saints written by protestants naturally display religious tensions (53). Pitting miracles against magic that "gives people what they want," Hopkins then argues that plays portraying magic, such as Doctor Faustus, The Birth of Merlin, The Virgin Martyr, St Patrick for Ireland and others "offer a fantasized version of an England confident about both its past and its future, secure from both external invasion and internal disagreements about religion" (54-55). Tackling necromancy and resurrection, the theatricality and meta-theatricality of magic, questions of the respective worth of word versus image, she presents a wealth of examples and comes to the conclusion that "magic could in fact be seen as functioning not so much in contrast to miracle but as providing a smokescreen by means of which the idea of miracle can be negotiated both more safely and more probingly, and while raising fewer hackles, than it could otherwise have been" (67).

In chapter 3, "'A Borrowed Blood for Brute': From Britain to England," Hopkins turns to "the importance of hybridity to ideas of English national identity" (71) and to the figures of King Arthur, Brutus, Boudica, and King Alfred. With other scholars, she argues that representations of "fragmentation, rearrangement and uncertain identities" (83) serve as political commentary on the playwrights' own times. The treatment of King Arthur's childlessness in The Misfortunes of Arthur, for example, is a way of re-imagining the tensions between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. This is the most theoretical chapter, with nods to litoral and liminality studies (76-78), body and materiality studies (78-83), and disability studies (90). It is also extremely rich in examples of how the cultural context of the authors may have influenced their choice of topics and of how their treatment of their subject matter was politically relevant. In view of the importance of the playwrights' medieval source materials, this chapter might have profited from some additional attention to tracing findings such as the "reasonably established tradition" of Arthur being buried at Glastonbury further back than its mentions in early modern plays (78).

Chapter 4, "Queens and the British History," is the second chapter that centrally discusses Shakespeare plays. It begins with the sentence "British Queens are a problem" (99) and thus sets the tone for Part II of the book ("Ancestors and Others") that is concerned with questions of gender, power, and procreation. In plays set in the pre-Conquest period, Hopkins argues, "queenship is always potentially disruptive to the narrative of emerging national identities" (100). She presents a wide array of examples, from Hamlet, Macbeth, Cymbeline, and King Lear, but also from lesser-known plays such as Sir Clymon and Sir Clamydes, Arviragus and Philicia, A Shoo-maker a gentleman, and the Valiant Welshman, among others. These plays' fictional and semi-historical queens and princesses are read as commentaries on Elizabeth I's reluctance to marry and provide an heir to her throne (101, 107), on the questionable legitimacy of Mary, Queen of Scots' offspring (105), on the "dangerously and intractably foreign" Henrietta Maria (107), or on Elizabeth's rhetoric in the context of Mary's execution (112). Hopkins concludes: "Queens may play an important role in the national story, but it is a role with which early modern playwrights are fundamentally uncomfortable" (114).

In chapter 5, entitled "Dido in Denmark: Danes and Saxons on the Early Modern English Stage," Hopkins discusses Queen Anna of Denmark as the focal point of representations of Danish, Saxon, and east German women in early modern plays. She claims that the "Danes are difficult for Renaissance drama to deal with" because "they pose a religious threat" to the point of being represented as Muslims (120), Danish women potentially "distract kings from the business of ruling" (121), and Danish men are presented as "sexually susceptible as well as prone to drunkenness" (122). Hopkins then discusses Hamlet in this light, suggesting that both Gertrude and Ophelia are represented as "typically Danish, for Danishness is fundamentally represented on the early modern stage as radically hybridized" (124). She then turns to representations of Dido in plays such as Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, Burnell's Landgartha and others, interspersing this discussion with the representation of Saxons and Germans as connected to ancient Troy. In these plays, "today's Saxons and Danes are tomorrow's English, and everyone is ultimately descended from Troy" (138). This chapter provides an intriguing insight into such complex and at times confusing connections being made in the plays and Hopkins comes to the conclusion that the "representation of Danish and Saxon women thus offers a way for Britain to understand itself as an island nation with a proud heritage, but also as a nation that is fundamentally and importantly connected to Europe" (138).

In chapter 6, "Valiant Welshwomen: When Britain Came Back," Hopkins returns to the Welsh as an important element of the "myth of the essential continuity of the island's inhabitants" (143), to King Arthur, and to plays such as The Valiant Welshman, Cymbeline, A Shoo-maker a Gentleman and Henry VIII. In this chapter, which is rich in cross-references between Shakespeare plays and lesser known ones, she argues that Wales is symbolic for both "marginality and connectedness" (146) and that this status is inherently linked to the representation of Welsh women. Wales, Hopkins claims, was "particularly notorious for the insubordination and incivility of its women" (158). However, the association of women with Welsh territory works differently than an association with any other territory because, instead of connecting femininity with weakness, it "gives prominence [...] to its dynastic and symbolic potential" (160), thus presenting women such as Innogen and Anne Boleyn as "authorizing ancestral figures" (163).

"Athelstan, the Virgin King" is the focus of chapter 7. Hopkins discusses early modern plays that feature him and argues that "they find him a flexible, suggestive and culturally resonant figure who could be used to discuss a number of important issues, including succession, the status of the monarch, and the relationship of early modern English identities to the histories that produced them" (167). Athelstan is a fitting addition to this Part II of the book that focuses on gender, rulership, and procreation exactly because of his celibacy, which Hopkins connects to Elizabeth I's childlessness (171) as well as to challenges "to the authority of the Stuarts" (172). She then explores the association of Athelstan, especially in The Welsh Ambassador, with legends of the Freemasons, placing the play alongside the interwoven Guy of Warwick story as it appears in several early modern plays. Hopkins comes to the conclusion that Athelstan "is a figure who enables early modern writers to ask fundamental questions about what England is, who should rule it, and on what terms" (182).

Hopkins concludes her compelling study with the statement that there "is a recurrent acknowledgment that a purely British identity is no longer possible (if indeed it ever was), because bloodlines have been diluted by wave after wave of invasion, but there is also a sense of a link between land and identity" (191). Hers is a book that presents a wealth of material and offers intriguing insights on questions of identity, succession, legitimacy, but also on how early modern writers viewed the distant past and gave it political significance. Personally, I would have wished for some more engagement with the medieval sources of the plays, but that may be material for another book.