Theory of the King’s Two Bodies in the Age of Shakespeare

Author: Rolls, Albert
This study reevaluates the theory of the king’s two bodies and examines representations of renaissance culture relying on its principles. Unlike previous accounts, it demonstrates that there were different versions, analyzing the differences between Edmund Plowden, the lawyer who popularized the theory in 16th-century England, James I, Shakespeare, and a number of other writers. It goes on to explore the Shakespearean version in more detail. Rolls presents a view of Renaissance thought that could adapt itself to new discoveries, and also turns to a number of recent thinkers, particularly Saussure, Barthes, and Lacan, to interpret the material.


“This is an exciting and admirably readable book. It is an important contribution to the field of Renaissance studies. . . takes a sharp and steady look at the methods prevailing in the area, particularly those of new historicism. . . . Reworkings of the theory of the king’s two bodies had implications reaching far beyond the relationship of monarch to subject: God’s relationship to the cosmos and the structure of all communal bodies, including marriage and the family, had to be made over – not according to modernity, but according to what Rolls terms ‘modern medievalism’. The book delineates this change by reference to Shakespeare’s late plays, Middleton’s ‘Women Beware Women’ and Donne’s ‘Anniversaries’. . . . This is an important book for the field of intellectual history and for Renaissance literary criticism.” – Catherine La Farge

“Despite the complexity of the material under discussion Rolles manages to provide clear and incisive expositions, for example of Foucault and Lacan. This establishes his authority and fluency on questions of theory. As an historicism he has produced a significant rereading of two-bodies theory showing that the established treatments of the topic neglect important contributions to sixteenth-century jurisprudence. Even more striking is his ability to give alert, sustained and insightful attention to the passages of poetry and drama he introduces as evidence. The result is often quite compelling, bringing new considerations to bear on familiar scenes and exchanges in Shakespeare.” – Daniel Carey

Table of Contents

Preface by Angus Fletcher
1. When the New Historicisms Become Powerful
2. The Dialectic between the Bodies Natural and Politic
3. Richard II’s Anamorphic State
4. Metamorphosing Bodies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
5. Subjectivity and the Body Politic: I & II Henry IV and Henry V
6. New Philosophies: Thomas Middleton and John Donne
Notes; Bibliography; Index