Playing soldiers: martial subjects in early modern English drama, 1590-1660

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Pasupathi, Vimala Claeamona

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This dissertation considers the role of drama in staging the English preoccupation with “martial subjects”—military affairs, and more particularly, the individuals employed as soldiers of the crown. This study accounts for these characters’ prevalence at the playhouse and examines how their deployment on stage enabled competing, gendered articulations of Englishness and empire during a crucial seventy-year period in the development of national consciousness in Britain. Analyzing works composed, performed or printed between 1590 and 1660, I argue for the soldier’s centrality in an ongoing cultural discussion about the rights and responsibilities of the individual subject in state affairs. Military obligation remained a concern for both subjects and ruling elites, persisting whether England was at war with foreign enemies, at peace, or embroiled in civil disputes within a still-forming Great Britain. Dramatists staged the problem of military obligation as an urgent matter of national security and unity, re-membering threats to the national body politic in the bodies of those who took up arms on its behalf. For instance, in addressing England’s vulnerability to home-grown rebellion as well as foreign enemies, the plays in Shakespeare’s Henriad and John Fletcher’s The Humorous Lieutenant call attention to the unruly, recalcitrant soldiers called upon and coerced to arm for the defense of king and kingdom. As they do so, these works lay bare the vexed interdependence of monarchical authority and military power in early modern England; rather than test the country’s martial mettle, these plays test the limits of subject loyalty and royal responsibility. The tension between crown and citizen exposed in these limits is even more apparent in Caroline and Commonwealth works, J.W.’s The Valiant Scot and Margaret Cavendish’s Bell in Campo. Depicting intra-British conflicts and civil war, these plays present soldiers as both poison and cure for a nation whose borders are not so much ill-defended as they are ill-defined. Whether dramatists staged martial subjects in Elizabethan history plays or in commonwealth closet drama, they established soldiery as a dynamic institution whose shifting relationship to ruling elites had profound implications for all English subjects and the even for the future of the British empire.