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Andrew Hiscock, Shakespeare, Violence and Early Modern Europe
by Rebecca Yearling

Andrew Hiscock. Shakespeare, Violence and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. x + 289 pp. ISBN: 9781108830188. £75 cloth.


There was a deep ambivalence towards military violence and the practice of soldiery during the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. On the one hand was the knowledge that international wars could be used as strategic tools for nation-building, binding citizens together in a sense of common purpose against a foreign enemy; that overseas conquests could enrich the state; that military employment outside the country could be a useful way of investing the energies of young, ambitious noblemen who might otherwise make trouble at home; and that a reputation for bellicosity could serve a nation well in warning off ambitious enemy nations. However, on the other hand, it was also known that war was a brutal, bloody business, whose worse excesses could be difficult to defend morally and might reflect badly on the rulers who were seen to have authorised them; that war was hugely financially expensive; that there were often problems in running military campaigns in an orderly way; and that those noblemen who engaged in such campaigns might be preoccupied as much or more with personal advancement as they were inspired with patriotic fervour. Andrew Hiscock’s Shakespeare, Violence and Early Modern Europe explores this ambivalence. Over the course of six interesting and thoroughly researched chapters, filled with a wealth of valuable quotations both from British and European theorists of war in the early modern period and from modern scholars of violence, Hiscock documents the complex and conflicted attitudes that the early moderns held towards both warfare and those who practised it. He explores the careers, writings, and international reputations of two of the period’s most prominent military commanders – Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex – and, parallel to this, engages in a consideration of how contemporary debates about the role of military violence ‘came to dominate Shakespeare’s evolving conception of the history play in the 1590s’ (18).

The first and fifth chapters, which focus respectively on the lives of Raleigh and Essex, are perhaps the book’s most successful, giving a convincing demonstration of the ways in which violent men were both central to the maintenance of state power in the early modern period yet also potentially threatening to it. Although Raleigh’s prose works display his own awareness of the destructiveness of war (writing in his 1614 History of the World of the horrific ‘spoyles, rapes, famine, slaughter of the innocent, [de]vastation, and burnings, with a world of miseries layed on the labouring man’ that resulted from warfare – quoted on 34), he was also an advocate for ‘vigorous military intervention’ in foreign conflicts (19). The queen, famously, treated Raleigh as a favourite, and seems (in deed if not always in word) to have condoned his tendency towards military brutality. For example, while campaigning in Ireland in 1580, Raleigh and his men carried out a mass slaughter upon Spanish and Italian soldiers who had already surrendered at the siege of Smerwick; yet, although the queen allegedly ‘wished that the slaughter had not beene, and was with much difficultie appeased and satisfied about it’ (William Camden, quoted p. 41), she continued to support Raleigh, allowing him to deliver papers to London from Ireland later that same year. Indeed, Raleigh was only truly censured when his activities were seen to threaten monarchical authority: as when he married Elizabeth Throckmorton without the queen’s permission or, in 1603, when he was accused of conspiring with the Spanish to oust the queen’s successor, James I, from the English throne.

The career of Essex, meanwhile, similarly demonstrates the mixed attitudes of the monarchy towards its most celebrated soldiers. His violent, showy military exploits against the Catholics in France and Portugal led to his being hailed by his contemporaries as a second Achilles or second Talbot, yet the queen seems to have gradually developed a sense of resentment against her protégé, not being ‘in the habit of finding herself eclipsed in the eyes of Europe by one of her subjects’, as Hiscock observes (165). Her concerns may, of course, have been at least somewhat justified – as Hiscock notes, we cannot know whether in Essex’s 1601 rebellion he actually intended to seek ‘the highest office in the realm’ (178) – but, regardless, he was clearly seen as a threat, a warrior who had grown too famous and too internationally influential for the monarch’s liking.  

What also becomes very clear from Hiscock’s account is the appeal that warfare had for men like Raleigh and Essex in this period. Those seeking advancement – debt-ridden, like Essex, or lacking in reliable social connections, like Raleigh – often felt that distinguishing themselves through military campaigns was the only way to win respect, renown, and wealth. Such ambitions were, however, somewhat at odds with the inclinations of their monarchs. Elizabeth I was always cautious about entering into military affairs overseas (influenced by ‘parsimony, shortage of Crown funds and/or profound insufficiencies in political initiative and state infrastructure’ – 14), and her caution was shared by James I, who liked to position himself as a rex pacificus. In consequence, would-be warriors often had to exercise their ingenuity in order to find ways of fighting, such as joining privately funded expeditions abroad, even though their exploits often won them as many enemies as they did supporters and friends.

Between these two chapters are three others that focus on exploring these themes as they appear in a range of William Shakespeare’s history plays: specifically, the Henry VI trilogy, the Henry IV plays, and Henry V (although with occasional references also to the other histories, including King John and Richard II). Here, though, the sense of ambivalence is less apparent: Hiscock reads these dramas as deeply sceptical towards violence, recognising its ubiquity as a way of asserting power and authority yet also demonstrating how the power won through violence is always equivocally held.

These chapters give a generally good, coherent account of the plays, although many of the arguments within them will already be relatively familiar to scholars of Shakespeare’s drama, and I would also argue that Hiscock occasionally overstates his case. For example, he notes how the plays often problematise the distinctions between self and other, native and foreign, commenting that, in 1 Henry VI, ‘we are navigating a complex cultural environment subject to terms of troubling similitude’ and adducing as evidence the fact that the Bastard of Orleans calls Talbot ‘a fiend of hell’ while Talbot refers to Joan of Arc as ‘that railing Hecate’ (82). I did wonder how this observation might relate to the later acknowledgement on the same page that Joan ‘will ultimately be discovered communing with fiends’. While the similarities of discourse between the French and the English are indeed striking, I suggest that it goes too far to claim that in this play ‘the various strains of enmity are equally weighted’ (82) and that ‘we are compelled to engage in interpretative strategies of analogy, rather than difference’ (81), given that Shakespeare does ultimately clearly distinguish morally between the heroic but doomed Talbot and the impressive but demonic Pucelle. Meanwhile, although the many quotations from contemporary non-fiction sources in these chapters are, again, often valuable and illuminating, they can on occasion feel a little superfluous. Is there any need, for example, to supply two quotations from contemporary theorists of war to support the idea that Falstaff is flawed as a military commander, or that it is bad for army recruiters to steal money or accept bribes (103)?

Nevertheless, these chapters make a strong case for the ways in which Shakespeare problematises the idea of a ‘just war’ and shows the limitations of those who cannot conceive of how to maintain power or hold a nation together without the use of violence. The ways in which states use violence to shore up their own authority; the ways in which violence dehumanises both its victims and its perpetrators; the ways in which we look to and celebrate the violences of the past to legitimate the violences of the present; and the difficulty of escaping from cycles of retributive violence, are all skilfully dissected and, as Hiscock notes at the end of the chapter on Henry V, ‘From the troubled vantage point of the twenty-first century, it can come as no surprise that we turn back to such four hundred year-old dramas to re-engage with these pressing and vexed enquiries’ (150).

Hiscock’s final chapter, ‘European Afterlives 1600-1770’, begins with an account of the shock, sorrow, and anxiety that the executions of Essex and (to a rather lesser extent) Raleigh created both in Britain and continental Europe, and the corresponding attempts by those in authority to suppress any apparent expressions of sympathy towards these alleged traitors and to claim the right to control the narrative of state violence. There was a risk that such men could be made into martyrs, whose fate illustrated the capriciousness of monarchical power, and so, as Gervase Markham wrote, it was wise for ‘euery man to be carefull how to write’ about men like Essex (quoted on 185), lest they face political reprisal.

The rest of the final chapter and the brief conclusion are then largely taken up with the task of showing the afterlives of these individuals – Essex, Raleigh, Elizabeth and also Shakespeare himself – in plays and other literary works from the early seventeenth century into the nineteenth. While interesting in themselves, the accounts of these literary productions feel somewhat disconnected from the preceding chapters, as they suggest that later generations were mainly interested in turning the historical figures into vehicles for romantic intrigue (Elizabeth in a love triangle with Essex, Elizabeth falling in love with Shakespeare), rather than on what their stories might say about state violence. That does not detract, however, from the clarity of the overall position that Hiscock sets out in this book: that the status and function of violence within a nation are not merely concerns of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but rather have a direct relevance to our own modern condition, in which ‘violence, in all its forms’ continues to ‘feed[ ] the construction of our everyday lives and selves’ (220). 


Rebecca Yearling

Keele University


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Cite as:

Rebecca Yearling, "Andrew Hiscock, Shakespeare, Violence and Early Modern Europe," Spenser Review (Fall 2022). Accessed February 28th, 2024.
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