Virgil and The Tempest

The Politics of Imitation

Donna B. Hamilton


Literary Criticism / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
185 pp. 6x9

$24.95 paper 978-0-8142-5322-9
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Virgil and The Tempest offers a new assessment of the art and politics of Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece by examining its relationship to both the contemporary political context and to Virgil’s Aeneid. Challenging the view that The Tempest supports the absolutionist theories and policies of King James I, Donna Hamilton instead shows how the play presents an argument for a limited monarchy.

Virgil and James I each represent a set of symbols and idioms that Shakespeare appropriates for his own use in The Tempest. In the process, he pays homage to their respective eminence and brings them into dialogic relation with each other, changing the language to suit his purposes. This means rewriting the Aeneid to suit a new time and situation, and it means subtly altering the king’s language to present a strong argument for constitutionalism.

Scholars who have emphasized the “transcendent” Shakespeare have sometimes failed to recognize the playwright’s passion for resistance, a passion nowhere more cunning present than in The Tempest. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plays were characterized by an indirection that only a practiced rhetorical skill could produce, a skill that purchased not only safety, but respect, authority, and power. This skill was equally useful to writers engaged in oppositional politics and to apologists for the established authority. Shakespeare’s work, therefore, cannot be fully appreciated by today’s readers without being sufficiently historicized.

Hamilton analyzes Shakespeare’s practice of rhetorical imitation in The Tempest by comparing him to other Renaissance imitators of Virgil. She also considers three contemporary political issues—the situation of the royal children, the 1610 parliamentary debates on the royal prerogative, and the colonization projects in Virginia and Ireland—and their bearing on the play. The result is a fresh contribution to the current interest in Shakespeare’s relationship to the courts of Elizabeth I and James I.

Donna Hamilton is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park.