Shakespeare, the King's Playwright


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Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613

Alvin Kernan

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Soon after James Stuart became king of England in 1603, William Shakespeare, while still working in the public theater, became the royal playwright, and his acting troupe became the premier playing company of the realm. How did this courtly setting influence Shakespeare's work? What was it like to view, perform in, and write plays conceived for the Stuart king?

In this fascinating and lively book, one of our most eminent literary critics explores these questions by taking us back to the court performances of some of Shakespeare's most famous plays, examining them in their settings at the royal palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court. Alvin Kernan looks at Shakespeare as a patronage playwright whose work after 1603 focused on the main concerns of his royal patron: divine-right kingship in Lear, the corruption of the court in Antony, the difficulties of the old military aristocracy in Coriolanus, and other vital matters. Kernan argues that Shakespeare was neither the royal propagandist nor the political subversive that the New Historicists have made him out to be. He was, instead, a great dramatist whose plays commented on political and social concerns of his patrons and who sought the most satisfactory way of adjusting his own art to court needs.

Alvin Kernan (1923–2018) was Senior Advisor in the Humanities at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He is the author of many other books, including The Death of Literature and The Playwright as Magician, both published by Yale University Press.

A selection of Readers’ Subscription

"There have been many thousands of books written about Shakespeare, but how many have said something which is both new and true? Not many. Kernan's book belongs to that privileged minority category by putting Shakespeare squarely into his social and political context, as a client working for a demanding patron, the King. This stress on court theater throws striking new light on the career of England's greatest playwright, not only as a popular commercial artist but above all, as a man caught up in a world of courtly clientage and patronage."—Lawrence Stone

"For all its sophistication . . . this is not the book of an academic sophisticate. It has none of the cleverness, the wordplay, and the winking to insiders that characterize so much current literary criticism."—Robert Darnton, New York Review of Books

"Shakespeare, the King's Playwright is an elegant, incisive, and truly magisterial book. After James's accession to the English throne, Shakespeare, in Kernan's view, became the 'official playwright to the prince.' He must be understood, then, less as the genius of the public stage than as a 'patronage dramatist.' Throughout his distinguished career, Kernan himself has been, although somewhat uneasily, the patron of a more historical, social and anthropological account of Renaissance drama. In this book he places some of Shakespeare's greatest plays deep within the turbulent, conspiratorial, and sometimes bloody world of the Jacobean court. This well-written and handsomely illustrated study will delight the general reader as well as the scholar."—Stephen Greenblatt, The Class of 1932
Professor of English Literature, University of California, Berkeley "

The book is a veritable compendium of fascinating data about the place of writers and writing in Tudor and Stuart England and about the history of James I's reign from an aesthetic and cultural point of view. It is as much a work of broad cultural and intellectual history as of detailed literary criticism."—Robert C. Evans, Auburn University

"[Kernan's] interpretations are unfailingly stimulating, and he has brought vividly to life the fascinating environment in which the plays were originally conceived and performed."—David Zesmer, Chicago Tribune

"Shakespeare, the King's Playwright is distinguished, readable, and in its own way, counter-revolutionary. It is a corrective to much recent criticism."—Ralph Berry, Times Higher Education System

"Written in an informed, lively, and reader-friendly style, Kernan's study should be appealing and accessible to interested general readers. . . . This lively and engaging overview of Shakespeare's position as playwright in a volatile and sensitive political environment will doubtless appeal to readers interested in Shakespeare, political intrigue, performance history, and the general intellectual and cultural contexts of the Stuart court."—Catherine S. Cox, Sixteenth Century Journal

"The book is one I would gladly recommend to any person wishing to capture the flavor of Shakespearean drama in an intensely political court. . . . The plentiful illustrations help to give a graphic sense of who the great personalities of the time were, and what the spaces were like in which Shakespeare's mimetic representations of courtly intrigue were enacted."—David Bevington, Renaissance Quarterly

"This scholarly, occasionally quirky, and splendidly provocative work belongs to that highly select group of books which actually have something genuinely new to say about Shakespeare."—John Adamson, Sunday Telegraph

"Kernan's book is learned, elegantly and accessibly written, and clearly the product of a highly cultivated mind."—Stanley Wells, Sunday Times

"The book is an elegant description of theater at court by a critic sensitive to the nuances of drama as well as to those of court intrigue. At the heart of the book are topical readings of seven of Shakespeare's major plays staged at court: Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and The Tempest."—James Shapiro, Studies in English Literature

"Makes a solid contribution to the field of Early Modern Studies."—Stephen M. Buhler, Journal of English and German Philology

"Shakespeare was, Kernan argues in this incisive, immensely readable and well researched book (which ought to be on the reading list of any student following an English lit course), a court servant with the king as his wealthy patron and working within a milieu which fitted him perfectly since, more often than not, the action of the plays is at a courtly, aristocratic level."—Richard Edmonds, Birmingham Post

"Kernan shows, with great wit and learning, how Shakespeare kept his majesty interested when the King's Men appeared at court."—The Guardian

ISBN: 9780300072587
Publication Date: September 23, 1997
258 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
30 b/w illus.
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