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Title: Staging legal authority: ideas of law in Caroline drama
Author(s): Dyson, Jessica
Supervisor(s): Knowles, James
Keywords: Caroline drama
Commercial stage
Early Modern drama
Charles I
Political history
John Ford
Legal history
Law and literature
Issue Date: 31-Aug-2007
Publisher: University of Stirling
Abstract: This thesis seeks to place drama of the Caroline commercial theatre in its contemporary political and legal context; particularly, it addresses the ways in which the struggle for supremacy between the royal prerogative, common law and local custom is constructed and negotiated in plays of the period. It argues that as the reign of Charles I progresses, the divine right and absolute power of the monarchy on stage begins to lose its authority, as playwrights, particularly Massinger and Brome, present a decline from divinity into the presentation of an arbitrary man who seeks to impose and increase his authority by enforcing obedience to selfish and wilful actions and demands. This decline from divinity, I argue, allows for the rise of a competing legitimate legal authority in the form of common law. Engaging with the contemporary discourse of custom, reason and law which pervades legal tracts of the period such as Coke’s Institutes and Reports and Davies’ ‘Preface Dedicatory’ to Le Primer Report des Cases & Matters en Ley resolues & adiudges en les Courts del Roy en Ireland, drama by Brome, Jonson, Massinger and Shirley presents arbitrary absolutism as madness, and adherence to customary common law as reason which restores order. In this climate, the drama suggests, royal manipulation of the law for personal ends, of which Charles I was often accused, destabilises law and legal authority. This destabilisation of legal authority is examined in a broader context in plays set in areas outwith London, geographically distant from central authority. The thesis places these plays in the context of Charles I’s attempts to centralise local law enforcement through such publications as the Book of Orders. When maintaining order in the provinces came into conflict with central legislation, the local officials exercised what Keith Wrightson describes as ‘two concepts of order’, turning a blind eye to certain activities when strict enforcement of law would create rather than dissolve local tensions. In both attempting to insist on unity between the centre and the provinces through tighter control of local officials, and dividing the centre from the provinces in the dissolution of Parliament, Charles’s government was, the plays suggest, in danger not only of destabilising and decentralising legal authority but of fragmenting it. This thesis argues that drama provides a medium whereby the politico-legal debates of the period may be presented to, and debated by, a wider audience than the more technical contemporary legal arguments, and, during Charles I’s personal rule, the theatre became a public forum for debate when Parliament was unavailable.
Type: Thesis or Dissertation
Affiliation: School of Arts and Humanities
Literature and Languages

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