Fictions of Authority: The Normativity of Representation after Shakespeare

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The core claims of this study are that dramatic and political practice mutually depend on rich concepts of mimesis––of exemplary images and formative imitation––for their coherence; that the seventeenth century bears witness to a gradual and intricate impoverishment of these concepts; and that this degeneration transpires reciprocally across dramatic and political theory. Accordingly, this project tracks early modern ideas of what it means to be an actor––on the stage or in the world––and of how actors’ claims to represent (a) people can make claims on (a) people’s action. It reveals in these ideas a growing inarticulacy regarding the ends of actors’ representative claims. Through close readings of Shakespeare, Hobbes, and Dryden, a story emerges: a shift from defending mimetic art as a tradition of moral and civic (trans)formation, toward exempting or abstracting mimetic art from any framework of ethical and political thought whatsoever.

Lost in this shift are the interconnectedly aesthetic and normative criteria of representation. Lost with these criteria are visions of mimetic action as a dynamic that can call a people into existence. Figuring an image of the people, in this richer sense, does not mean simulating or replicating a preexisting entity (reducing its being to a model proportional to our present understanding). It means actualizing the being of that entity (opening a path beyond our present understanding). It means revealing a horizon in which people(s) may glimpse who they are called to become. After Shakespeare, this figural concept of representation becomes circumscribed by pictures of artificial reproduction and assimilation. In the realm of politics, what results is an inability to conceive of how representative persons condition a people’s rational and participatory agency in civic life. In the realm of the theatre, what results is an inability to conceive of how dramatis personae can appear not just as static types of manners or roles, but as narrative-bearing agents––capable of accounting for their character(s) and calling audiences to account. Neither domain can articulate how images infuse and educe communal transformation.

Collectively, then, this study’s close readings attest to a collapse of authority and power in early modernity––a confusion of how auctoritas summons and binds our agency, with how potestas coerces and canalizes our behavior. Behind the waning of dramatic poetry’s authority lies a waning vision of moral and civic traditions as living and shaping matrices. For the authority of a tradition does not inhere in persons’ positions within institutional hierarchies. It flows from images of action, which reveal who persons aspire to be and why. Strictly speaking, authority is an attribute not of persons, but of the images persons bear. Persons hold authority through disclosing the source(s) and end(s) of their traditions––through making themselves exemplary. Authority thus names a normative claim on us––a call for our participation in joint undertakings that precede and surpass us. Our poetic and legal fictions can issue these calls only insofar as they figure what is at once before and beyond us, informing our mutual, conscientious commitments.






Tate, Robert William (2020). Fictions of Authority: The Normativity of Representation after Shakespeare. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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