Shakespeare’s England, Shakespeare’s Rome: National Anxiety and Imperial Nostalgia
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 15 No. 2 (2007)
In European history the Middle Ages were ‘dark’ not simply in intellectual and cultural but also in socioeconomic and military terms. It was during the Renaissance that Europe began to emerge from its medieval backwardness and to pave the way for its rise to world hegemony. The Renaissance was for Europe an age of ‘discovery’ and ‘revival’ that harbingered the Europeanization of the world. For England, too, the Renaissance was an age of reconnaissance for its overseas expansion. Although the beginnings of English colonialism were quite shaky and unimpressive compared with other rival European nations, Shakespeare’s England was imbued with nationalist and imperial sentiments. It was Roman history and legend that was placed at the center of England’s imaginative geography of national expansion and empire-building.
Shakespeare’s Roman plays were responses to such ideological needs and pressures in his society. Shakespeare’s Rome is more than an ancient city or “a world elsewhere”; it is a prototype of empire for Shakespeare’s England. Rome is both an Other and a displaced self, at once a temporally remote world and a narcissistic model for England’s national and imperial self-identification. Shakespeare, of course, is not a unilateral and single-minded champion of masculine Roman values. The Rome Shakespeare depicts is not an embodiment of the golden age Virgil eulogized for Augustan propaganda, but rather a “wilderness of tigers” interspersed with invasion, rebellion, famine, betrayal, and adultery, all kinds of stark realities inherent in the history of human civilization. Beneath such Shakespearean ambivalence, however, lies the representational matrix of Roman nobility/masculinity versus non-Roman barbarity/femininity. For all its immanent flaws and corruptions, Rome is still an edifying model upon which the Elizabethan England as a nascent empire ought to turn its gaze. If Shakespeare’s Rome was a symbol of cultural, political and military greatness, Shakespeare’s England was indeed a would-be heir of that greatness.