There Will Be Errata: Gesturing Toward a Memoir


Detail from The Golden Bough, JMW Turner, 1834

by Albert Rolls

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
. . .
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
. . .
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known. . . .

—Anne Bradstreet

I have a book coming out, a retitled reprint of a book that was published in 2000 that I would have been better off sitting on, that is, I should have been more patient about sending the manuscript that I would turn into the book to a publisher, and been more savvy about the whole publishing process, which I did not research or even think about.

A book is a book, right?

I did this again in 2005, although I was more aware of what I was doing, signing a new contract for a related book, which serves as the appendix of the new book, just to give myself something to do when I didn’t have much going on. As it turned out, I managed to get a lot of publishing work in the years that followed.

The copyright owner of the thing about to appear, who agreed, actually very kindly, to do a paperback reprint (although Amazon at the moment has it listed as a costly hardcover) will remain the copyright owner until 2027. I am publishing it again, not because I think it will improve my standing in the academic community, the primary audience, or give that community the opportunity to take another look at the elements of the book that I still have affection for, that is, the parts I continue to believe are interesting. Indeed, I understand that no one will care or will care in a negative fashion, the way Evangelicals care about same-sex couples.

I publish again because I regard the creation of the recent version as something of “a penitential exercise”—to borrow, hubristically, Geoffrey Hill’s description of his rewriting of “In Memory of Jane Fraser”—a making amends for my youthful folly. The book, Renaissance Incorporations: Negotiating the Theory of the King’s Two Bodies, is, in fact, a better book, though perhaps its faults are too tightly woven into its strengths, if I may be allowed to assume the reader’s position and claim strengths for it when I should just keep my mouth shut and let the thing speak for itself, for most readers to tolerate fully.

What I did, wanted to do, was to read Renaissance texts, those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as if they were integrated into a cosmos that was held together with the laws of contagious and sympathetic magic. The project thus came to be grounded by Sir James Frazer’s theory of magic from The Golden Bough (1890)—which I go over probably in more detail than was necessary at the point in the game at which I came along—a work I supplemented with Foucault’s chapter on the sixteenth century thought in The Order of Things (1966), “The Prose of the World,” the first part of which, “The Four Similitudes,” I briefly summarize.[i] But I did not want, primarily, to talk about the natural world as perceived in the sixteenth century; I wanted to talk about communities, or to be more precise, communal bodies—couples, families, cities, and entire nations, or peoples.

That isn’t what I thought I was up to when I started work on the initial project, a paper that I wrote in my first year in graduate school on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which raised questions that I could not satisfactorily answer until I picked up Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies (1957) the summer after I turned in my first attempt at answering those questions. At first, I thought I could solve my problem by joining a Saussurian synchronic model with a diachronic model taken from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to discuss how the elements of the system in place at the beginning of the play get recombined into a new system as the plot proceeds and comes to a conclusion.

At least that’s how I remember it, now almost 25 years later. I am likely making it sound more sophisticated than it actually was, and the argument wasn’t executed too well, despite the reassurances of my professor. If it had been, I wouldn’t have continued thinking about the problem. Magic had very little to do with anything at that point, although I had already read Frazer, and around the time I was taking the Shakespeare seminar, I picked up Foucault’s The Order of Things. I was also reading a number of other thinkers that were being talked about a lot in English departments at the time, Barthes, Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault and Lacan among others, and while all these thinkers bring something to the argument of my book, Kantorowicz’s text, or the notion of the king’s two bodies, as well as my growing fascination with magical thinking, is what took the project in the direction that I thought it needed to be taken. I spent the mid-1990s—’93–’98—to get it to where I wanted it to go, or somewhere near there in any case.[ii]

The 1990s were not exactly a good time in Renaissance studies to take magic seriously if one wanted to claim any level of hipness and position oneself within what was, by that point, the voice of mainstream academic Renaissance criticism, that of materialist critical schools; the new historicists and cultural materialists in the circles I was hanging out in being the two biggest, although a number of others that made similar critical moves, as Louis Montrose explained in “New Historicisms”—an essay that appeared in Redrawing the Boundaries (1992)—were also active. There was dissent from voices within the mainstream: Brian Vickers in Appropriating Shakespeare (1993), for example, critiques the newer methods, sometimes powerfully, but his approach was less appealing to me—despite my understanding that some of his criticism ought to be attended to—than the new historicists, whom I wanted to engage on their own terms.

Foucault, a major influence on those schools, provided me with a point of entry. If Renaissance thinkers, as he notes in The Order of Things, were obliged “to accept magic and erudition [or mysticism and materialism] on the same level” (32), then the opposition between magical and materialistic thinking was an anachronism. The material world, including the social world, would have been perceived through a system organized around magical thought, “the grid . . . which sixteenth-century learning laid over things” (Foucault, 22). Couldn’t those elements of Renaissance discourse that we were being taught that were undermining Renaissance orthodoxy, political or otherwise, have emerged within, or at least been accommodated to, an episteme in which magical belief systems were not superstitions that needed to be eradicated for the sake of progress but an everyday fact of life? Couldn’t subversion—a term thrown about so much that even the most conformist of souls could feel comfortable with it—have taken place without foreshadowing the modern era? The outcomes had not yet been determined for those whose texts we were studying, but those making names for themselves in the field seemed determined to see an almost metaphysical prescience in the sixteenth-century texts they were reading.

The first chapter, “When the New Historicisms Become Powerful,” argues that to approach the period as if it were dominated by a struggle between the subversive, the elements of the culture that “now conform to our own sense of truth and reality” (39) as Greenblatt defines the term in “Invisible Bullets,” his highly influential essay on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, and the orthodox, basically E. M. W. Tillyard’s Elizabethan world picture—definitions that most materialist critics implicitly accepted even if they did not fully agree with Greenblatt’s argument—was to retroactively refashion the age into an imperfect reflection of our own.

The “fields we know, situated in Earth’s three Dimensions,” after all, “have also their counterparts in Time,” to cite Thomas Pynchon’s formulation (M&D, 190). To make this argument, I primarily focus on “Invisible Bullets.” My interest here is not simply the content of Greenblatt’s essay, however. My interest is the maneuvers that allow Greenblatt to make his argument, which I argue involves employing the strategies of “testing, recording, and explaining,” the very strategies that Greenblatt condemns Hal/Henry V for employing to manipulate his way securely to the crown. There is on irony there but perhaps not a damnable one. The real problem is that the terms of the argument oblige Greenblatt to characterize Renaissance voices, whether they are subversive or orthodox, as representatives of modernity: they all serve the transition from the late medieval world to the modern world. Orthodoxy for those defending the established order comes to seem like a faux category developed for the purpose of establishment figures to hold onto their privileges, a facet of Greenblatt’s thinking in “Invisible Bullets” that links it to the work of other materialist critics, even those who contested the conclusions of his essay, which was the problem with materialist critical schools that I sought to address and hoped to correct.

Greenblatt and his peers were, it is true, working with evidence, so simply pointing out an irony and calling attention to a structural flaw in the argument wasn’t going to prove anything with definitiveness. Maybe the irony of the period was that those in power undermined their own legitimacy through the methods they employed to maintain their privilege. Wasn’t the whole order necessarily illegitimate and the purpose of our criticism to demonstrate how the perception that such was the case was beginning to emerge? But for that to be the case, Renaissance thinkers, both professional and otherwise, had to perceive their cosmos through the lens of a modern episteme. It must have been impossible for the evidence that Greenblatt and his peers use to corroborate their theses to be interpreted through the lens of a premodern episteme. My critique of “Invisible Bullets,” then, also involves contextualizing Greenblatt’s evidence within a mode of perception that made magical thinking tenable. My intent was to prove not that resistance to the established political/cultural order was unthinkable but that it was thinkable within a pre-modern episteme. For instance, Tillyard, citing the Church Homily Of Obedience, had treated the idea of a fixed social order as an epistemological assumption, an idea it was useful for materialist critics to accept because all the evidence that people aspired to achieve or did achieve social mobility subverted the period’s order. I argued that that idea was a surface manifestation of an underlying structure, the one Foucault describes, that could and did produce other, if related, world pictures.

It wasn’t that the idea of pre-modern social mobility couldn’t me imagined, I show, but that certain elements of the culture didn’t want it to be regarded as acceptable. In fact, even Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governor (1531), another of Tillyard’s sources, acknowledges the possibility, even the desirability, of social mobility. Attributing absolute power to monarchs was also not necessary, even when developing mystical theories of power. Indeed, the theory of the king’s two bodies could be, and was, employed to limit a monarch’s power,[iii] though not every two-bodies theorist acknowledged that such was the case, and even the idea of legitimate usurpation could be imagined, was implicitly imagined in legal circles, although Elizabeth I and other monarchs obviously sought to de-emphasize that fact.

After establishing that a variety of world views could be developed, I go onto theorize that Shakespeare’s plays can be read through his understanding of two-bodies theory, which Shakespeare alludes to throughout his career and which is, along with being a theory about how power is maintained, a theory about how communities are held together. I read two-bodies theory not as a single concept but as a theory built out of a number of elements that were organized in various ways by those who employed or discussed it. To demonstrate that such is the case, I take a look at texts by, among others, Edmund Plowden, Edward Forset, James I, Stephen Gosson, John Webster, Philip Sydney, and Shakespeare, offering a brief reading of Coriolanus to outline the Shakespearean view. Following Kantorowicz, I take the theory as it is developed in the court cases reported by Plowden as a starting point, but I explore in more detail than previous studies its elements and how they fit together, demonstrating, dare I say unequivocally, the theory’s anti-absolutist possibilities. That isn’t to say that absolutist thought couldn’t be grounded in the two-bodies theory; it is to say that the theory wasn’t necessarily absolutist.

Indeed, as Plowden Reports illustrate the monarch’s actions were confined to the law in his or her capacity of a natural body but above the law in his or her capacity of the body politic. The monarch’s ability to be in some respects above the law is complicated by the body politic’s status as the collective body of the people, meaning determining if a monarch was acting in his/her capacity as the body politic took place, at least ideally, in dialogue with the collective, or its representatives, the court or the parliament, for example. A monarch’s ignoring the necessity of dialogue—or the need to forge a unity between the king’s Body as a collective being and the king’s body natural—was for the monarch to treat his natural body as the body politic and thereby become a tyrant. James I, who seems to have sought to unite his political body as soul, or “metaphysical entity” as I call it, in his natural body rather than in the collective body wouldn’t have put it that way, and Forset, author of A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique, seems to want it both ways. He acknowledges that Sovereigns should “at the making of Statutes and ordinances, assemble for consultation and consent, a full assistance of the noblest and choisest advisours that the State affourdeth: thereby drawing supplies out of their politicall bodie, to make good what wanteth in their naturall” (17/377). He also notes “both prudently and lovingly do those Soveraignes governe, who neither taking to themselves that absolutenes of sole power in law-giving, which by some (being indeed of too hard a temper) is colourably, claymed to be originall and hereditarie to their places” (16–17/376). He nonetheless suggests elsewhere in his treatise that the king’s natural body should function, independent of the collective, like the political body.

The third chapter turns to the first full-length reading of a play, Shakespeare’s Richard II, arguing that it is “the tragedy of a king who comes to recognize that he has suffered a demise” (120), that is to say, his political body separates him from his natural body even though he remains alive; he thereby loses his legitimacy, creating a vacuum filled by Bolingbroke, who courts the people, fashioning an alternative political body—although one that incorporates elements of Richard II’s—a possibility Philip Sydney had given voice to in “A Discourse of Syr Ph. S. To the Queenes Majesty Touching Hir Marriage With Monsieur,” where he warns Elizabeth that her marriage to a Catholic prince will provide England’s Catholics with a head and allow them to formed into an oppositional political body and threaten the country’s peace. Bolingbroke’s courtship segues into A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, the focus of the next chapter. Egeus’s description of the courtship of Lysander and Hermia, after all, has structural similarities to Bolingbroke’s courtship of the common people, but for the relationship to become licit the Athenian body politic, or the commonwealth’s policy, a term used to define the political body in the Duchy of Lancaster case, must be altered.

Up until this point in the book, I have been presenting the body politic, in the words of Francis Barker, as “a relation of subordinate correspondence . . . between the father who is as king in his family and the king who is as father in the state,” a relation that places the subject in a “condition of dependent membership in which place and articulation are defined not by an interiorized self-recognition . . . but by incorporation in the body politic which is the king’s body in its social form” (27–28). The primary metaphor that I employ to illustrate this relation between the monarch as body politic and the member or subject is that between langue and parole in Saussurian linguistics, arguing that body politic serves as the cultural langue of the commonwealth just as God serves as langage, a third term employed by Saussure, of the cosmos. In the fifth chapter, I move beyond that metaphor, arguing that the emergence of Henry IV generates an alteration, at least in Shakespeare’s thought, of the subjects’ relation to the monarch and thus of the nature of the subject. I, therefore, switch metaphors, employing Lacan’s triad of the real, imaginary, and symbolic, using the mirror stage to explore the dynamic of these three registers and then employing them to explain the altered workings of the body politic in the new historical situation, arguing that Henry IV’s failure is that he fails to understand his position in the new situation and Henry V’s success is achieved through acquiring that understanding from Falstaff, whom the king may throw off but only after incorporating his essence. Hal, in this view, “out-Falstaff[s] Falstaff, and as a result, Falstaff’s presence no longer seems relevant; nevertheless, evidence of his influence turns up in Henry V in a heroic context, a context which illustrates Henry V’s incorporation of the principle Falstaff embodies in I Henry IV, despite his rejection of the man Falstaff becomes in II Henry IV” (238).

The last chapter turns from Shakespeare to John Donne’s Anniversaries (1612), the relevance of which becomes evident once one comes to see that Elizabeth Drury, or “she,” the only word used to refer to her in the poem, functions much as the body politic functions in other texts that I discuss. She, however, is gone, and the poem attempts to teach us to how to mitigate that loss, asking us to become her representative as a community so that the perfection she embodied can be reproduced within us as a collective body. Of course, the paths I take to get to the various conclusions I make—among them that Hal’s ability to assume authority “comes from his ability to align himself with the voice of Woman” (219)—along the way is more complicated than these few words will allow me to demonstrate. So read the book and decide if it was worth your time afterwards.


[i] This describing others thought in detail is a problem throughout: my intent was to establish the terms of my argument within the book so that neophytes could know what was going on without having to read a bunch of other books. More than one person has told me I shouldn’t have concerned myself with such things. I won’t mention the issue again. If you decide to read the book though, be prepared.

[ii] I spent another year tinkering with the text, and when I signed my second contract in 2005, I corrected another flaw for the introduction to the second book, a correction that has been integrated into the book that will appear later this year.

[iii] The point about two-bodies theory limiting a monarch’s power is the one that has been cited in the literature the most, that is, more than once, if not much more.

A brief note on the text reads, in part:

This book—which grew out of the dissertation with the title Renaissance Incorporations: Negotiating the Theory of the King’s Two Bodies that I submitted to NUI, Galway, in 1998—was published in 2000 as The Theory of the King’s Two Bodies in the Age of Shakespeare. When I was offered the chance to do a paperback edition, I suggested restoring the original title, which Angus Fletcher had alluded to in his preface, and considered doing some revisions, improving my presentation of the evidence where appropriate. The result is a revised version of the original book with a couple of references to scholarship that has since appeared, though I have refrained from entirely reworking the argument in response to more recent scholarship or to my own qualms about the writer I was when I first published it. . . .

The changes, I hope, justify the change in the published title.

About the Author:

Albert Rolls is an independent writer, scholar and researcher. He is also Editor-in-Chief at AMS Press.