The Militia Theatre

The Militia Theatre, 1560-1660

Playing the Soldier in English Drama and British History


The Militia Theatre examines figurative, literal, and ideological connections between England’s stage and its militia, two institutions whose relationship has yet to find adequate explanation in contemporary literary criticism. Demonstrating both institutions’ extraordinary capacity to mobilize the anxieties and actions of subjects and ruling elites, it examines representations of subjects’ servicium debitum in the drama to elucidate their topical resonances and to account for the competing, gendered articulations of service, labor, and empire that such depictions enabled on stage and in print. In discussions of diverse works––from Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc (1560) to James Shirley’s Honoria and Mammon (1659)––the book illuminates the militia’s important role in the drama and its central place in long-standing debates about the respective roles of government and citizen in affairs of state.

The book’s title is conceived at once in relation and in opposition to the more familiar notion of “theatres of war.” Whereas the latter suggests thunderous battles and dates immortalized in the book of fame, The Militia Theatre is about subjects’ rights and responsibilities, issues that are at once more mundane and more integral to what it meant to be English––and, ultimately, to be British––between 1560 and 1660. Whereas a focus on war necessarily constrains our lines of inquiry to specific years and conflicts, the phenomenon of the militia theatre transcends the reigns of individual monarchs, persisting whether England was at peace, at war with external enemies, or engaged in civil conflicts within or just outside of its changing borders. In fact, this study asserts, historical shifts such as these are the very stuff of its drama. In focusing on the constitutional aspects of military service in drama composed, performed, and printed between 1560 and 1660, then, The Militia Theatre takes up questions of obligation that are not only rooted in England’s feudal past, but also precipitants and consequences of its seventeenth-century future of armed resistance against the monarchy and the unprecedented military republic that replaced it. In doing so, it redresses the narrow scope of existing scholarship on military affairs in early modern drama, including foundational studies such as Paul Jorgensen’s Shakespeare’s Military World (1956) and more recent criticism such as Patricia Cahill’s Unto the Breach (2008), which predominantly focuses on plays by a single author (usually Shakespeare) or on drama composed exclusively in the 1590s or during the reign of Elizabeth I. The book’s broad historical lens necessitates the inclusion of works by lesser-known and critically neglected dramatists alongside more familiar works by Shakespeare and his immediate contemporaries; its wide historical and theatrical framework also enables a richly detailed account of the theatre’s evolving engagement with the concept of military obligation, evinced in plays performed at the commercial playhouses, the universities, at court, and the Inns of Court as well as in the drama that circulated in print and in private households after the public theatres closed.

Chapter One, “Our Musters, Our Selves: Conscripting the Commonwealth,” illuminates convergences between England’s militia and its stage by placing legislation and records of the militia’s local administration in dialogue with roughly eight decades of drama featuring musters and other sites of conscription. Beginning with discussions of plays at the court and university such as Pickering’s Horestes (1567) Preston’s Cambyses (1569), and the anonymous Club Law (1599), and concluding with a dramatic fragment written sometime after the onset of the first civil war in England, it contemplates the cultural import and implications of dramatic and non-dramatic forms representing musters that allowed audiences to witness how their obligations to the state and local community were managed, fulfilled, and (sometimes) resisted. Examining both muster rolls and muster scenes in a wide variety of plays––including, but not limited to the anonymous The Tragedy of Locrine (1595) Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), Jonson’s The New Inn (1626), and William Sampson’s The Vow-Breakers (1636)––it establishes the muster as a site of both sublation and self-assertion, and as event that legitimized expressions of communal and individual will. Rather than assume the crown’s monopoly over subjects’ loyalty and labor, plays with muster scenes suggest that matters of devotion and loyalty were part of a script that was always in flux and ripe for innovation. Depictions of musters did not merely render visible the people who assembled under its auspices; they also laid open the militia’s mechanisms for interrogation, promulgating specific instantiations of its purview and administration that could then be problematized in another playwright’s re-enactment. Thus plays were not just records of the militia’s assemblies, but interpretations of them that exposed the process itself to further acts of interpretation. Often drawing explicit contrasts between its legislation and that governing the terms of employment in incorporated guilds, muster scenes held up for scrutiny the extent to which obligation––a concept with both material and psychological components––could and could not be effectively codified or “managed.”

The book’s first chapter provides a strong foundation for this book’s remaining chapters, which build in synchronic fashion on the first chapter’s diachronic survey in their respective treatments of Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline, and Commonwealth plays by a single dramatist. Each chapter examines a significant shift in the militia’s administration, purview, or purpose. Chapter Two, “Coats and Conduct: The Materials of Military Obligation in Shakespeare’s Henry Plays (1594­–1599),examines a shift clothing and corporeal imagery that intensifies from I Henry IV to Henry V. In emphasizing the subjects “marching in the king’s coats,” Shakespeare re-members their obligations to the state by fashioning militia service as a form of surrogacy in which the earthbound martialist stands for—and, in fact, stands in for­­—the anointed body of the king. Rather than confirm the closeness of the king and his “wardrobe” of battlefield replacements, the surrogacy model underscores their competing perceptions of martial action and civic responsibility. In anachronistically presenting a centralized militia whose provision of coats was controlled and subsidized by the monarch, these plays remind us that the steepest costs for Elizabeth’s trained bands were borne by the counties and the individuals they offered up for service abroad; bearing the weight of both local identification and national signification, the Henriad’s soldiers wear the history of the Tudor militia on their sleeves.

Chapter Three, “The King’s Privates: Sex and Service Debt in John Fletcher’s The Humorous Lieutenant (ca.1618),” considers a play more overtly concerned with soldiering as form of a royal replacement, an investment made clear in the titular anti-hero, whose rank literally means “place-holding” in French. The chapter contextualizes Fletcher’s play as distinctly Jacobean in its perspective on military obligation, demonstrating not only its implicit condemnation of James I’s repeal of the 1558 statute requiring attendance at musters, but also its anticipation of the printing and wide-spread circulation of England’s first standard drilling manual. Through the Lieutenant, a syphilitic soldier with a “cracked pike,” Fletcher upstages an emergent discourse of masculine bodily perfection forged in response to rising conflicts on the continent and the poor quality of soldiers raised in England throughout the 1610s. Rather than use the state’s rhetoric of “exactness” to condemn the diseased and disorderly Lieutenant, Fletcher exploits it, emphasizing the systemic problems in the early Stuart militia that render service within it a traffic in ill­­––and ill-used––flesh. As he aligns the humorous officer with Celia, an alternately whorish and virtuous heroine, Fletcher takes the Shakespearean model of armed service as corporeal place-holding and recasts it as state-sponsored prostitution. 

From Elizabethan and Jacobean fears of an insecure or impure national body, the study’s fourth chapter turns to that body’s expansion and eventual fragmentation in Caroline England. Chapter Four, “Perfect Militias and Mercenary Unions: The Valiant Scot’s (1626/1637) Dedicated Soldiers,” considers a play about Scottish hero William Wallace by a dramatist known only by the initials J.W. It discovers several Tudor and Stuart parallels in the play’s depiction of Edward I’s late medieval attempt to conquer Scotland: Edward VI’s betrothal and “rough wooing” of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots; James I’s Union of Crowns and the Articles at Perth; and Charles I’s attempts to command his Scottish subjects’ religious conformity in the 1620s and 30s. In addition to the play itself, the chapter examines the dedicatory epistle preceding the 1637 printed edition, addressed to James Arran, a Scot and Charles’s chief advisor on Scottish affairs, and signed by a soldier named William Bowyer. In the context of sensational accounts alleging the imprisonment of actors who staged impromptu performance in the following year, the play’s rebel Scots and the real-life agents of its transmission in print effectively subvert the authorizing gestures that traditionally licensed the assembly of armed men; their respective fates not only foreground the tension between personal loyalties and national politics inherent in the Scottish soldier under English rule, but also exemplify the complex new realities that intra-British conflicts imposed on subjects’ military obligations. With a vision of Anglo-Scottish relations that is simultaneously historical and prophetic, the play’s dedicated soldiers shed light on the failure of Charles’s “Exact Militia” and foreshadow its defeat in the Bishops’ Wars against Scotland in 1639.

The book takes up the aftermath of Charles’s defeat and execution in Chapter Five, “New Model Armies: Obligation and The Independent Militia in Margaret Cavendish’s Bell in Campo (1662),” which examines Cavendish’s two-part closet play in light of the debates over the militia’s relationship to sovereign authority that were significant precipitants for civil war. Written sometime between 1650 and 1662, Bell in Campo figures political divisions within England as a war between two allegorically named kingdoms, Reformation and Faction. To settle their differences, Cavendish brings a third armed collective into the field, mustering an Amazonian army that not only triumphs over Faction, but also bends the Reformers to enact further reform. Bell in Campo responds to contemporary debates about the militia’s ownership with a triumphant fantasy of semi-autonomous militarism that rewrites the outcome of England’s civil conflicts and simultaneously authorizes women’s participation in state affairs. Against critical accounts that read the Amazonian forces strictly as a facet of their creator’s limited proto-feminism, the chapter contextualizes the female army and its ultimate demobilization with accounts of the rise and rapid politicization of Parliament’s New Model Army, a body Cavendish alternately disparages and praises in works such as The Worlds Olio (1655) and Orations of Diverse Sorts (1662). Read in light of the New Model’s rise and Cromwell’s eventual rule by military autocracy, Cavendish’s Amazons are not failed feminists or utopians so much as the realization­­––and moderate revision––of the independent militia’s revolutionary potential in post-regicide England.

The book’s Conclusion, “Closing and Opening Acts: Settling The Militia and The Theatre, 1650–1660,” advances the study’s larger argument that the militia’s shifting relationship to ruling elites––and therefore its role in theatrical enterprise from Tudor morality plays to Commonwealth closet drama––had profound implications for all English subjects and the early formation of the British empire. Building on the fifth chapter’s discussion of the army’s shifting status during the Interregnum, the conclusion discusses the publication of James Shirley’s Honoria and Mammon (1659), a significantly revised version of his Caroline play, A Contention for Honor and Riches (1630). It considers the play in relation early modern print culture as well as two events that coincided roughly with the publication of Margaret Cavendish’s Bell in Campo in Plays (1662): the re-opening of the commercial theatres and the passage of the 1661 Militia Act. While Shirley’s revisions attempt to forge a new role for soldiers in relation to both monarchy and the arts, new legislation conceded both militia and theatre as the right of the crown. Despite the more emphatic centralization of these institutions, the questions that dramatists raised in the works of the preceding century would continue to resonate and resurface in debates on the “re-settling” of the militia and controversies over standing armies well into the eighteenth century.

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