The execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 was, as Derek Hirst argues, the greatest theatrical and political spectacle of the seventeenth century. On the scaffold in a brief but elaborately choreographed display, questions central to modern state politics were asked and, temporarily, answered. What is the nature of the state? What agencies guarantee, ratify, or legitimate the state’s constitution? What is the relation between the apparatus of the state and the “will” or “freedom” of the governed? Does the field of politics include (by incorporating or emerging from) the home and the workshop – the oikos? How do justice, reason, nature, tradition, and providence fit in the constitution of the state? How does the law relate to the sovereign? Was James VI/I correct when insisting that “kings are the authors and makers of the laws and not the laws of the kings”? Were constitutionalists such as Edward Coke correct that if laws existed prior to sovereigns, then sovereign power must be drawn from an antecedent, superseding consent by which sovereigns were bound?
While these questions – and specific answers to these questions – constellate around the body of Charles, this class assumes that they have fraught prehistories and also that these prehistories intersect with the politically-minded drama of the seventeenth century being produced by playwrights profoundly attuned to the philosophical and theological discussions about the state and the sovereign that would come to a head when Charles lost his. These discussions about the state are not only contexts through which Marlowe and Shakespeare makes sense; rather, they're fields of debate in which Marlowe and Shakespeare participated as writers for both the public stage and courtly audiences. We assume here that the theatre – censored but popular, written by sophisticated thinkers for more or less sophisticated audiences – engages with debates surrounding questions of political legitimacy and that it does so in a way, like the execution of Charles, that unites representation, meaning, publicity, philosophy, and spectacle.