Representations of kingship in early Tudor drama (1509–1547)

Trainor, Mark William Thomas (2023) Representations of kingship in early Tudor drama (1509–1547). Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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During Henry VIII’s reign from 1509 to 1547, the concept of kingship underwent radical changes which reflected the wider reinterpretation of monarchical power in sixteenth-century Europe. Henry VIII’s kingship in particular changed from a personal monarchy which relied on the subjects’ consent to an absolutist kingship which gained control over the English Church through the Act of Royal Supremacy. Henrician literature offers insight into how intellectuals around Henry VIII’s court perceived the king’s changing authority in this transitional period. In particular, the speculum principis or mirror for princes genre, employed for political instruction by scholars, poets, and playwrights, demonstrates how intellectuals tried to influence Henry’s actions by engaging in cultural propaganda directed at the governing elite and the king himself. Writers relied on the established conventions of courtly counsel according to which good kings were supposed to listen to the advice of their subjects and to allow debate about their kingships. For instance, John Skelton’s (1463-1529)’s Speculum Principis (1501),Desiderius Erasmus’s (1466-1536) The Education of a Christian Prince (1517), Thomas Elyot’s (1490-1546) The Boke Named a Governour (1531) and Thomas Starkey’s (1498-1538) A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset (1529–1532) and A Preface to the Kynges Hyghnes (1536), act as examples how writers “co-opted the authoritative voices and traditions of previous generations in order to speak truth to the increasingly irresponsible and unheeding power of Henry’s ‘imperial’ sovereignty” (Walker, Writing under Tyranny 25). The concerns expressed in political theoretical works were echoed in a number of plays composed by playwrights associated with the Tudor court between 1519 and 1539. Tamara Atkin asserts that Renaissance dramatists had “extended the medieval practice of using drama to influence and shape public opinion,” especially in regards to Henry VIII’s kingship (9). In line with these developments, Skelton’s Magnificence (1519), John Heywood’s (1497–1580) The Play of the Weather (1533), and John Bale’s (1495–1563) King Johan (1538/9) demonstrate how playwrights dramatize the speculum principis genre to explore in detail different aspects of royal authority, the role of counsellors, the threat of tyranny, and the emergent concept of an English empire. While scholars have extensively examined Henrician political interludes, no study has hitherto explored systematically the relationship between these early Tudor political interludes and the contemporary mirror for princes treatises associated with the Henrician court. Moreover, very few studies to date (Salter, Carlson) have analyzed Skelton’s Speculum Principis or examined the influence of Erasmus’s, Elyot’s, and Starkey’s political theories on Henrician drama and its definitions of ideal kingship (Dodds, Conrad, Mayer). Likewise, Skelton’s, Heywood’s, and Bale’s plays have not been compared to each other in order to delineate the evolution of the concept of royal authority throughout the Henrician period. In this thesis, I will provide a comparative analysis of Skelton’s, Heywood’s, and Bale’s plays in conjunction with contemporary mirror for princes treatises by Skelton, Erasmus, Elyot, and Starkey to explore how humanists, scholars, and playwrights associated with the Tudor court defined royal authority in relation to Henry VIII. I will argue that Skelton (Magnificence), Heywood (The Play of the Weather), and Bale (King Johan) each demonstrates how courtly scholars during Henry VIII’s reign use the speculum principis genre and morality play structure to advise this English king on how to properly develop his kingship in their respective opinions, either defining, implicitly subverting, or confirming his royal authority over the commonwealth.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters)
Item ID: 16211
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references (pages 115-124)
Keywords: Henry VIII, Henrician drama, speculum principis, early modern literature, Tudor kingship
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > English Language and Literature
Date: August 2023
Date Type: Submission
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Henry VIII, King of England, 1491-1547; Monarchy--Great Britain--History--Sixteenth century; Kings and rulers; Church and state--History--Sixteenth century; Power (Social sciences)--History-- Sixteenth century; Literature and society--History--Sixteenth century; Political plays, English--History and criticism; Drama--15th and 16th centuries; Political ethics--Early works to 1800.

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