O, let me view his visage, being dead: decapitation and the legitimating of power in early modern England

Harmes, Marcus (2011) O, let me view his visage, being dead: decapitation and the legitimating of power in early modern England. In: 1st Shakespearean Reverie Symposium 2011, 6-8 Oct 2011, Toowoomba, Australia.

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The emblem of the headless figure was a common spectacle in early modern theatre, and headless bodies or disembodied heads feature prominently in works by Lodge, Peele, Chapman, Dekker and Fletcher. In Shakespeare’s works, severed heads and headless bodies punctuate the narratives of the Henry VI cycle, Richard III and Macbeth. More than background props, the heads are potent symbols of displaced or lost authority, especially regal authority. The depiction of headlessness in the theatre of Elizabethan and Jacobean England had a long cultural afterlife into the seventeenth century. The beheading of a king, confined to the theatrical stage in Richard III and Macbeth, took on potent constitutional implications at the execution of Charles I in 1649. Thought of in explicitly theatrical terms – the chaplain attending Charles told him that he was on a ‘stage’ – Charles’ execution put on display to beholders the figure of a real headless king. Later in the seventeenth century, another execution rendered a powerful figure headless; Archbishop Sharp of St Andrews was executed and his body mutilated on a lonely road in 1679. This time, the execution was concealed from public view, but every detail was made available in a printed account of the execution. The headless figures of king and archbishop converged in seventeenth century discourse, showing not the displacement of authority but its reclamation. This paper will propose that the headless figures of king and churchmen appeared in seventeenth-century polemical writings intended to legitimate monarchical and episcopal authority. In contrast to the depiction of headlessness in 2 Henry VI in particular, where the sacerdotal figure of monarchy was tainted by proximity to physical dismemberment, the decapitation of actual people in the political realm legitimated hierarchy and authority. Writers sympathetic to the episcopate and the monarchy cast king and archbishop as martyrs, suggesting the holding of high office to be a form of martyrdom itself and sanctifying their authority with the blood which was shed as their heads were removed.

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Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Commonwealth Reporting Category E) (Paper)
Refereed: No
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: USQ publication.
Faculty / Department / School: Historic - Faculty of Arts - School of Humanities and Communication
Date Deposited: 20 May 2014 05:49
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2017 02:59
Uncontrolled Keywords: Charles I, King of England; William Shakespeare; Henry VI (play)
Fields of Research : 20 Language, Communication and Culture > 2005 Literary Studies > 200503 British and Irish Literature
19 Studies in Creative Arts and Writing > 1904 Performing Arts and Creative Writing > 190404 Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies
21 History and Archaeology > 2103 Historical Studies > 210305 British History
Socio-Economic Objective: E Expanding Knowledge > 97 Expanding Knowledge > 970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology
URI: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/id/eprint/20028

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