Shakespeare September- Day 15: The Body Politic

When it comes to criticism and secondary reading for essays and dissertations, most of my sources are contemporaries of Shakespeare, rather than more modern readings of the plays. This was mainly because when I started my BA in English, I hated using critics. Literally, I don’t think I used a single critic or had one reference in my Bibliography which wasn’t a play until second year! Fortunately, I learned to love…well, like reading modern criticism and incorporating it into my argument, normally when I wanted to disagree with existing thought and propose a new reading of the plays. But thanks to great supervisors, I also realised there’s another way of incorporating secondary reading: contemporary sources. In terms of my period of study, these normally consist of sermons, pamphlets, surveys, other plays and pictures from the Renaissance. I could probably spend hours on EEBO, searching through pamphlets. And I have!

Today’s picture is one such source, which is a wood cutting from the late 1600’s. I’ve included this image, because I actually used it as the cover image for my Dissertation at MA, which was about the body politic and its revolting members in Coriolanus and other plays by Shakespeare. It’s sometimes hard to know whether to use pictures in essays and, if so, how to incorporate them into an argument. So I thought I’d briefly demonstrate how I do it, since I’ll be doing some criticism/analysis of the plays next week.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of the body politic, it’s serves as a metaphor, imagining a city as a body and its citizens as its members:

First Citizen

The kingly-crowned head, the vigilant eye,
The counsellor heart, the arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter.
With other muniments and petty helps
In this our fabric… (Coriolanus, I. 1. 98-102)

The image below presents us with a city lacking such order. This city and its other establishments are being attacked by their own members, resulting in a completely disrupted body politic, as the lesser, ‘Malignant Plotters’ and other harmful members have usurped the head. The head was thought to be the most important part of the body politic, with this role occupied by the King. James I makes this association himself, as he asks, ‘what state the body can be in, if the head, for any infirmitie that can fall to it, be cut off’.[1] Such a sorrowful ‘state’ has, therefore, befallen London in the 1600s, according to this anonymous wood carver.

‘The kingdomes monster vncloaked from Heaven: the Popish conspirators, malignant plotters, and cruell Irish, in one body to destroy kingdome, religion and lawes: but under colour to defend them’- Woodcut, artist unknown (London, 1643).

[1] James I, ‘The trew Law of free Monarchies’, in The workes of the most high and mightie prince (London: Printed by Robert Barker and John Bill, 1616), pp. 193-210 (p. 205).


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