Shakespearean Tragedies

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Liberty and Sovereignty in Four Shakespearean Tragedies: Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Richard II, and Julius Caesar

The purpose of this conference is to investigate the ideas of liberty and sovereignty in four historical tragedies by Shakespeare: Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus. Written during the last, deeply fraught decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, these plays were the product of a climate of uncertainty, political and economic crisis, religious dissension, and international and domestic discord. By summoning the history of feudal England and ancient Rome, Shakespeare engaged with the pressing issues of the day such as the unresolved succession, tyranny, rebellion, usurpation, and civil strife. Yet the topical relevance of the plays did not stop them from being hailed by later generations as timeless literary masterpieces.

In terms of their political philosophy, these four tragedies have been variously read as defenses of divine-right kingship and as endorsements of republicanism, as exhortations to obedience and as apologies for resistance, as assertions of royal prerogative and as affirmations of the liberty of the subject. They have also been viewed as complex meditations on the nature of sovereignty, power, and personal freedom that cannot be reduced to simple statements of political principle. Among the questions to be addressed are: What are the sources of political authority? What does Shakespeare’s presentation of the relations between rulers and ruled suggest about the rights of sovereignty and the claims of liberty? What problems does the advent of tyranny pose for the theory of sovereignty? What are the differences in the ways power is acquired and exercised across the four plays?


The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (The Oxford Shakespeare), ed. with a glossary by W.J. Craig M.A. (Oxford University Press, 1916).

Session I: Richard III.

Richard III has stood for many as the archetypal usurper and tyrant. How does Richard III’s tyrannical conduct create widespread discontent and even alienate some of his supporters? Where does sovereignty rest in Richard III? Is sovereignty simply another term for those who possess ultimate authority, or are other principles of legitimacy important? How legitimate is resistance and rebellion to a duly enthroned monarch, even though his action are seen as tyrannical by most of his subjects? What are the motivations of those who oppose and eventually defeat Richard?

Session II: Titus Andronicus.

The play opens with contention for the throne in the period at the end of Roman empire: one claimant invokes primogeniture, another stakes his claim on merit, and a third is the people’s choice––the popular and successful general Titus Andronicus. Where does sovereignty reside in Titus Andronicus, with the prince or the people? What is the relationship between the schemes of revenge and political allegiance? What about the relationship of political power and violence in the play? Is the willingness to use violence ultimately constitutive of power, or does the use of violence represent the limits of politics?

Session III: Richard III and Titus Andronicus.

This session compares and contrasts notions of sovereignty and liberty in the two plays. In particular, we will explore issues of the succession of authority and the ways in which the respective constitutional frameworks served––or failed to serve––political and personal freedom. Richard III ends with the defeat of Richard at Bosworth. To what degree is Richard III’s defeat by the founder of the Tudor dynasty portrayed as a providential triumph of justice? Titus Andronicus ends with a makeshift restoration of order, although one that seems doomed to collapse and destruction from both internal contradictions and external threats. Do the means by which power is attained ultimately shape the nature and legitimacy of the rule?

Session IV: Richard II.

Set historically prior to Henry IV, Parts one and two and Henry V, Richard II presents a weak monarch whose mistakes leads to his downfall. What issues does the play raise about bloodlines, merit, and the law as sources of authority? Is it possible for there to be a weak tyranny? Is Richard II a weak tyrant? Is he fundamentally evil? Does the play justify resistance to a duly constituted monarch on the grounds of ineptness and inadequacy?

Session V: Julius Caesar.

Set at a turning point in the history of Rome, Julius Caesar chronicles the demise of the republic. Can the ideal of liberty only be fully realized in a republican regime? What is the relationship between the sovereignty of the people and liberty? Is Caesar’s government a tyranny? Or does his one-man rule promote stability and the greatness of Rome? Is Brutus’s paean to liberty mixed with private motives? What is the relation of civil war to liberty? Does the end of Caesar’s rule necessarily point in the direction of the Augustan Empire?

Session VI: Richard II and Julius Caesar.

This session would provide an opportunity to compare these plays as well to bring them into dialogue with the two earlier discussed works. What is the effect of a transfer of power through force and violence on sovereignty? Is Julius Caesar fundamentally different from Richard II as leader? What do these changes in leadership mean for the relative constitutional orders in England and Rome? Julius Caesar and Richard II.