Varieties of Power in 'Antony and Cleopatra'

Anthony Miller


“It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power’, ‘strength’, ‘force’, ‘authority’, and, finally, ‘violence’.”1 Hannah Arendt made this complaint in 1970, but she would not have found the situation much improved if she had lived to scrutinize the concept of “power” as it was applied in literary studies in the following decades. In particular, a series of books in the late 1980s debated the relation of the early modern stage to state or royal power. This debate remains a bracing exercise in historical imagination and conceptual sophistication. Its main productions have attained classic status in their branch of literary scholarship. On the one side, Steven Mullaney argued that the theatre stood in a subversive relation to civic and religious power in early modern London. On the other side, Stephen Greenblatt and Leonard Tennenhouse argued that the theatre was complicit in a wider political and cultural activity of social control. But despite their differences in the way they assess the exercise of power, all conceived of power in what now appears an excessively unitary or hypostasized form. The terms of this critical debate were largely shaped by the work of Michel Foucault, who influentially elided the concepts of power, right, and truth, discerning in the tight triangle thus created a mutual reinforcement of almost irresistible potency. Foucault’s intellectual influence over early modern literary studies diminished somewhat through the 1990s, as scholars began to separate out the different varieties of power at work in, on, around, and through the Renaissance theatre, to pick apart the different threads in the web of power that Foucault makes so seamless and all-embracing. A signal contribution to this process was made by Jean Howard. The present essay attempts to contribute to the process by introducing some of the necessary distinctions that Arendt desiderates. It defines and distinguishes some of her terms, and related terms, drawing on the work of political theorists other than Foucault, whose dominance over many literary scholars (to make the point again) eerily mirrors the claustrophobic exercise of power that Foucault himself investigates. This discussion will create a framework, in some ways specific, in some ways general, in which to examine the varieties of power dramatized in Shakespeare’s political tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.

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