Shakespeare and Public Execution

Author: Mitchell, Charles
Year:2004
Pages:172
ISBN:0-7734-6553-7
978-0-7734-6553-4
Price:159.95
Demonstrates how Shakespeare utilized a strategy of manipulating the language and conventions of public execution in his plays. Paying special attention to the poetics of hangings at Tyburn, the most dominant place of execution, Shakespeare’s subversion of this well-known (and uneasy) discourse between the public and the state is illuminated by close readings of The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest. It uses audience-reception theory and new historicism, as well as non-dramatic texts (popular literature and ballads) to demonstrate the knowledge and experiences of execution that the audiences of Shakespeare’s time took with them to the theatre. With illustrations.

Reviews

“…Mitchell begins with a gripping and detailed description of the role of the public execution in early modern London….lays out public execution as a text, one which could be easily read and immediately understood by Shakespeare’s audience….demonstrates how Shakespeare was able to use both the inherent dramatic power of the public execution and its ideological anxieties and uncertainties to his own theatrical ends, and does so in distinct ways in each of five plays….Mitchell’s lively and direct style makes for a great read, both entertaining and cogent. I must confess a strong morbid fascination with the first chapter of the book, which colorfully renders the difficult daily lives of Londoners amidst the constant threat of horrific punishment. Mitchell augments these scenes with an abundance of contemporary illustrations. This provides a detailed context for the close readings of the Shakespearean texts which follow. It is this combination of detail, context, and clarity of voice which makes the overall argument and each individual examination so compelling, and allows the author to employ the execution trope to discover such original readings of these plays. His discussion of the dehumanizing role of commerce in The Comedy of Errors and his objection to the dominance of post-colonial readings of The Tempest I feel sure will arouse welcome controversy. Dr. Mitchell’s book is an important addition to the library of every student of Shakespeare and his times.” – Dr. Kevin Browne, Dept of Mass Communication and Theatre, The University of Central Arkansas

“It may be a stretch to say that Londoners of Shakespeare’s time were as familiar with the protocols of a public execution as today’s citizens are of a soccer match, but not much. In this study, Charles Mitchell argues that this familiarity provided significant common ground for Shakespeare and his audiences, common ground upon which Shakespeare could construct plots and define characters….Mitchell herein offers a telling examination of how the playwright drew upon the ‘street-theatre’ aspects of London’s public executions to communicate with his audiences and influence their responses.” – James Symons, Professor of Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder

“In this informative and accessible work of scholarship, Charles Mitchell provides a useful cultural history of public executions in early modern England, interrogating the ways in which William Shakespeare drew upon this ‘culture of punishment’ to enhance his audience’s theatrical experience while also calling into question the problematic relationship between the individual and the apparatuses of the state….Mitchell argues that Shakespeare’s use of public execution as a theatrical trope works to deconstruct those regimes of power which sought to utilize deadly punishment to reify the legitimacy of civic authority.” Dr. Jeff Turner, Department of Theatre Arts, Hamline University

Table of Contents

Preface
1. Introduction
2. London’s Topography of Punishment
3. Execution and the Marketplace in The Comedy of Errors
4. Titus Andronicus and the “Death Speech”
5. “Tis a Vile Thing to Die”: Shakespeare’s Death Row in Richard III
6. Preparing for Death in Measure for Measure
7. Still Harping on Execution in The Tempest
8. Conclusion
Appendix A: Glossary of Common Execution Jargon
Appendix B: Psalm 51, The “Neck Verse”
Appendix C: Plays Known to Be Drawn from Famous Murders and Executions
Appendix D: Selected Titles of Goodnight Ballads in Circulation During Shakespeare’s Career
Appendix E: Song from Mother Bombie
Bibliography; Index