A Sovereign Menagerie: Political Theology, Charismatic Authority, and the Animal Turn in Early Modern Drama
Etchison, John Weslee
Campana, Joseph A.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation contends that in order to properly understand how core political notions like sovereignty, authority, and agency were construed in early modern England, we must examine critically the deployment of nonhuman life in popular texts of the period. Engaging a body of recent work that posits the theater of Shakespeare’s time as uniquely evocative of pressing contemporaneous issues, I analyze plays by Shakespeare and his peers to illustrate the political significance of early modern animal tropes. My reading of these plays draws from scholarship in animal studies as well as a broad range of genres from early modern print culture, including natural histories, political philosophies, theological texts, conduct books and manuals, and even cheap print joke books. In one way or another, these texts situate nonhuman life as a vital co-contributor to human political experience. Renaissance drama consistently stages dilemmas of sovereignty within different contexts. I argue that representations of sovereign figures—which I extend to include rulers and tyrants as well as citizens and criminals—and depictions of dilemmas of sovereignty—including the establishment and maintaining of charisma or legitimacy—must be understood with respect to depictions of nonhuman life. In chapters that explore how early modern thinkers define the categories of “animal,” “monster,” “beast,” and “vermin,” I examine the ways these operational taxonomies of nonhuman life inform and are informed by socio-political and economic rites and rituals. Specifically, I analyze depictions of the etiquette of the royal hunt, metaphors of butchery, theories of commodification, and modes of dissimulation to prove that nonhuman identities are central to the legitimacy, authority, and most importantly charisma of different figures of sovereignty in the works of William Shakespeare, John Webster, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton. In sum, my project expounds upon those ways that early modern animal studies has considered the political lives of nonhumans, by explicitly interrogating what sovereignty looks like in relation to these different existential categories. Moreover, through my insistence that sovereignty is available to diverse forms of hierarchized life, this dissertation also deconstructs common understandings of how sovereignty functions at different scales and in different contexts to re-imagine a pliable theory of sovereignty that is attentive to the intricacies of class, gender, and species difference, while remaining attuned to the implications of establishing an expansive, intersectional definition of political community.