"King hereafter" : Macbeth and apocalypse in the Stuart discourse of sovereignty



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“‘King Hereafter’” posits Shakespearean theater as a gateway between Reformation England’s suppressed desire to rid itself of monarchy and that desire’s expression in the 1649 execution of King Charles I. Specifically, I argue that Macbeth darkly manifests a latent Protestant fantasy in which the kings of the earth are toppled in a millenarian coup. Revolution- and Restoration-era writers John Milton and William Davenant attempt to liberate or further repress Macbeth’s apocalyptic republicanism when they invoke the play for their respective causes. Shakespeare’s text resists appropriation, however, pointing up the blind spots in whatever form of sovereignty it is enlisted to support. I first analyze Macbeth (1606) in its original historical context to show how it offers an immanent critique of James I’s prophetic persona. Macbeth’s tragic foreknowledge of his own supersession by Banquo’s heirs mirrors James’s paradoxical effort to ground his kingship on apocalyptic promises of the demise of earthly sovereignty. Shakespeare’s regicidal fantasy would be largely repressed into the English political unconscious during the pre-war years, until John Milton drew out the play’s antimonarchical subtext in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649). Yet the specter of an undead King Charles, I argue in chapter two, haunts Milton just as Banquo’s ghost vexes Macbeth because Milton’s populist theory of legitimate rule continues to define sovereignty as the right to arbitrary violence. In chapter three, I show how Sir William Davenant’s Restoration revision of Macbeth (c.1664) reclaims the play for the Stuart regime by dramatizing Hobbes’s critique of prophetic enthusiasm. In enlarging upon Macduff’s insurgency against the tyrant Macbeth, however, Davenant merely displaces the rebellious potential of the rogue prophet onto the deciding sovereign citizen. Finally, my fourth chapter argues for Milton’s late-career embrace of Shakespearean equivocation as a tool of liberty in Samson Agonistes (1671). Samson’s death “self-killed” and “immixed” among his foes in a scene of apocalyptic destruction challenges the Hobbesian emphasis on self-preservation and the hierarchical structures on which sovereignty itself depends for coherence. Milton’s mature eschatological vision of the end of sovereignty coincides with his artistic acceptance of the semantic and generic ambiguities of Shakespearean drama.