The subject of Britain reads key early seventeenth-century texts by Bacon, Daniel, Drayton, Hume, Jonson, Shakespeare and Speed within the context of the triple monarchy of King James VI and I, whose desire to create a united Britain unleashed serious debate and reflection concerning nationhood and national sovereignty. This book traces writing on Britain through a variety of discursive forms: succession literature, panegyric, union tracts and treatises, plays, maps and histories. Attending to the emergence of new ideologies and new ways of thinking about collective identities, The subject of Britain seeks to advance knowledge by foregrounding instances of fruitful cultural production in this period. Bacon’s and Hume’s pronouncements on the common ancestry, the cultural proximity of Britain’s inhabitants, for instance, evinces Jacobean imaginings of peoples and nations joining together, however tenuously. By focusing on texts printed in not just London but also Edinburgh as well as manuscript material that circulated across Britain, this book sheds valuable light on literary and extra-literary texts in relation to the wider geopolitical context that informed, indeed enabled, their production. By combining the historical study of literary and non-literary texts with the history of political thought and the history of the book broadly defined, The subject of Britain offers a fresh approach to a signal moment in the history of early modern Britain. Given its interdisciplinary nature, this book will appeal to literary historians and historians of early modern Britain as well as undergraduates and postgraduates.
The introduction sets the landscape by looking at events through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By touching on key moments from the reigns of previous monarchs and their role in shaping Britain (from separate entities into a unified ‘empire’), the context for the following chapters is laid out.
English responses to the accession of King James VI and I
This chapter examines English responses to King James VI's accession to England’s throne as registered in the rich and various texts that constitute 1603 succession literature. Voicing relief as well as anxiety, these early Jacobean texts hail the arrival of a male, Protestant king; however, they also evince a struggle to make sense of the arrival of a foreign monarch who, for the first time in history, ruled Great Britain. The succession literature of 1603 emerges from this chapter as a prime repository for gauging the English reception of James.
This chapter considers panegyrics written in the wake of James’s arrival in London by three major authors: Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson. These so-called occasional texts are situated within the wider context of these three authors' literary works and careers in order to shed light on how each author responded to James's accession, handled the transition from Tudor to Stewart and (re)imagined Britain. This chapter firmly establishes this book's attention to the material contexts of Jacobean literature: forms of textual production (print and manuscript cultures); the various cultural sites from which literature emerged and within which it circulated (country houses, civic functions, social/literary networks/coteries); and the role that textual culture played in shaping knowledge communities and individual and collective identities. To answer the charge that union ideas faded with the failure of Anglo-Scottish union, this chapter concludes by turning to the vibrant handwritten worlds of the early seventeenth century in order to supply material evidence of reading and writing subjects thinking through questions of not only dynastic but also cultural and national union.
This chapter examines print and manuscript tracts and treatises on Anglo-Scottish union, especially the writings of Francis Bacon and David Hume of Godscroft. These texts offer fertile evidence of both English and Scottish subjects thinking through, articulating and redefining a British, indeed British-Irish, polity. This chapter breaks new ground by exploring connections between Bacon’s political, philosophical and scientific writings within the context of a proposed union; in doing so it captures the boldness and vibrancy of Jacobean responses to the dominant political topic. Bacon’s political writings on union, so often dismissed by scholars as the product of a sycophant, emerge from this chapter as a laboratory for thought about early modern notions of collective identities and cultural hybridity. Concluding this chapter with Bacon's writing on the Ulster plantation – with a cursory glance at Jonson’s Irish Masque – I warn against a too-optimistic recovery of his and others’ seemingly progressive political ideas. Like many of his fellow Jacobeans, including Hume and Robert Pont, Bacon’s views on the native Irish (as well as non-Lowland Scots) are underpinned by deep ethnic and racial prejudices.
This chapter explores Shakespeare's Macbeth, which was composed and performed at the height of Anglo-Scottish union debate and just as the plethora of union tracts and treatises were circulating. Rather than simply reading ‘the Scottish play' in relation to union debate and dialogue, this chapter treats the play as the profound reflection of an English subject of a Scottish monarch, who was, of course, also that playwright’s patron. Macbeth may not be a British play in the manner of King Lear and Cymbeline, but it does revisit and rewrite Shakespeare’s earlier inscriptions of nationhood as voiced in the Elizabethan history plays by situating them within a larger British-Irish geopolitical framework. Rather than abandoning the patriotic and nationalistic voices that punctuate Shakespeare's earlier histories, this King's Men's play seriously scrutinises such voices. The result, I argue, is not a pro- or anti-union play but instead a play that invites its early modern viewers and readers to reassess Britain's intra- and Britain and Ireland's inter-island relations under the rule of a multisceptred monarch.
The conclusions examines contemporary writing on the idea of ‘Britain’ and tries to verify the accuracy of biased accounts. It also examines the use of terminology in referring to ‘the isle’ and how this ties into appeasing certain monarchs through the late Tudor and early Stewart periods.