Editorial

in Critical Survey
Author:
Graham HoldernessUniversity of Hertfordshire, UK

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Shakespeare's interest in ancient Rome spans the whole of his dramatic career, from Titus Andronicus to Cymbeline, while Roman history and Latin culture permeate the whole of his work, well beyond the explicitly ‘Roman’ plays and poems. Critical interest has to some extent shifted from the historicist Roman plays based on Plutarch, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and the pseudo-historical Coriolanus, to the outlying Roman plays that evidence greater generic diversity and stylistic innovation, the early Senecan tragedy Titus Andronicus and the late ‘British’ romance Cymbeline. In these latter plays, the complex interactions between past and present, that are the main subject of the formal histories, are presented with even more aesthetic flexibility and creative improvisation than the ‘Roman plays’ proper.

Shakespeare's interest in ancient Rome spans the whole of his dramatic career, from Titus Andronicus to Cymbeline, while Roman history and Latin culture permeate the whole of his work, well beyond the explicitly ‘Roman’ plays and poems. Critical interest has to some extent shifted from the historicist Roman plays based on Plutarch, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and the pseudo-historical Coriolanus, to the outlying Roman plays that evidence greater generic diversity and stylistic innovation, the early Senecan tragedy Titus Andronicus and the late ‘British’ romance Cymbeline. In these latter plays, the complex interactions between past and present, that are the main subject of the formal histories, are presented with even more aesthetic flexibility and creative improvisation than the ‘Roman plays’ proper.

In all of his Roman works, as in his plays of English history, Shakespeare drew eclectically upon a wide range of classical texts, and contemporary works that mediated classical culture, maintaining a striking receptiveness to different interpretative viewpoints. In Shakespeare, ‘Rome’ can signify a historical entity, ancient classical civilisation; the site of that vanished civilisation in contemporary Italy; or a set of values wholly integrated into the humanist education of his own time. Shakespeare's Roman works demonstrate a showcase of different philosophical views, different systems of government, different political constitutions, different methods of gaining, wielding and losing power.

These characteristics of this sub-set of the dramatist's oeuvre render its works particularly fertile ground for modern interpretation. In this special issue Sali Said revisits the critical reception of Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and via a thorough reconsideration of the critical literature, and an analysis based on linguistic methodologies such as ‘speech’ act theory, offers a new interpretation of the Egyptian queen. Maryamossadat Mousavi and Pyeeam Abbasi apply Eero Tarasti's existential semiotics to a play obsessively concerned with questions of authenticity and identity, of being and becoming, Coriolanus, and argue that the titular hero achieves existential affirmation and validation through negation. Roger Stritmatter and Shelly Maycock re-examine Antony and Cleopatra, through its imagery, as a play about the metamorphosis or transmutation of fortune, a study in the impact of becoming on being.

Ian Ward revalues Cymbeline, a play long reviled for its ‘awkwardness’ and generic inconsistency and finds its integrity in Jacobean thinking about Roman Britain. Graham Holderness addresses the uses of intertextuality in Titus Andronicus, showing how the play's classical and literary sources are used to constitute an explicitly metafictional ‘dream’ of Rome.

Providing an international and multi-cultural dimension to this project, Daniel Gallimore examines productions of the Roman plays by the great Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa; while Mohammadreza Hassanzadeh Javanian studies two Roman plays, Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus, adapted and performed in Iran.

Finally, Aspasia Velissariou takes the discussion beyond Shakespeare to dramatisations of ancient Rome in the tragedies of Restoration dramatist Nathaniel Lee. Drawing on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer, Velissariou argues that in Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus: Father of His Country (1680) sovereign violence is inscribed in a most savage form as the very foundation of the civil community.

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