The Tyrant’s Vein: Misrule and popularity in the Elizabethan playhouse

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The fashion for tyrants on the Elizabethan stage reflected a sort of affinity between tyranny and theatre. How did the two things fit together? A tyrant is not a true king, but only seems to be one, and so is like an actor playing a king. Because he has no right to the throne, he must assert his rule by personal and rhetorical force - the actor's resources. Moreover, a tyrant is understood to be a figure in whom appetite conquers reason, self-control gives way to desire - as happens (according to hostile accounts) in the theatre. This logic applies particularly to popular theatre, where the tyrant is sustained by his dynamic relationship with the audience. In comparison with the tyrants of academic or humanist drama, who are uneasy and isolated, the tyrant on the common stage is energetic and happy amid the crowd. He is the imagined monarch of the theatre's populace - their representative, their creature, affiliated to them not by political forms but by the symbolic repertoire of festivity: misrule, inversion, masquerade. In this way, people without rights recognize themselves in the unrighteous ruler: arguably, that is how tyranny works in reality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)61-84
Number of pages24
JournalReview of English Studies
Issue number303
Early online date24 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021

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