“The Rhetoric of Violence in Early Modern Europe”: Introduction

Par Nathalie Rivère de Carles
Publication en ligne le 26 janvier 2012

Texte intégral

1The “Rhetoric of Violence in Early Modern Europe” took this issue of the Cahiers Shakespeare en devenir in two new directions. The editors have chosen to take English Renaissance drama and the study of dramatic practices in the wider early modern European socio-political context. Studying the practice and the aim of violence in Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ theatre entailed a prior exploration of violence as part and parcel of early modern politics and aesthetics. The entertaining value of violence needed to be appraised with a Machiavellian political subjective objectivity.

2When Machiavelli offers a realistic definition of the use of force in The Prince, he puts violence into a triple context:

“Thus you must know that there are two kinds of combat: one with laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first is often not enough, one must have recourse to the second1.”

3The choice of an iconoclastic breach of degrees in putting man on the same level as beasts suggests the symbolic value of violence in the early modern psyche. This symbolism becomes a method of discovery of the didactic value of force or violence and suggests that force itself is to be read as the basis of a political epistemology relying on aesthetic expressions of violence.

4The goal of this volume was thus to explore the rhetoric of violence in its symbolic, epistemological and political uses in the wider European context that informed, echoed and nourished Shakespeare and his contemporaries in their dramatic appraisals of early modern use of violence. Looking across the Channel, we decided to explore violence through the prism of the relationship between England and the continent. This investigation moved logically from the historical facts to their political use and impact and their philosophical underpinning before giving a symbolic interpretation of violence. The volume was then structured into three related parts: the political and historical accounts of an epistemology of violence, violence as an aesthetic and a scientific means to reflect on the relationship between the state and the self, and the perception of both aspects in early modern popular culture through widely disseminated forms of entertainment, tale-telling and theatre.

5In the first section entitled “The Politics of Pain: the epistemology of violence in historical narratives and political texts”, the contributors explore historiographic elements in a political and theological perspective. Marie-Céline Daniel’s article, “‘A most inhumane murder’: monstration et instrumentalisation de la violence dans quatre pamphlets parus outre-Manche sur l’assassinat d’Henri IV (1610)”, is an examination of the accounts of the assassination of Henry IV and of the ordeal of his murderer, Ravaillac, and of the political use made of these accounts. The author chose pamphlets published in England and gives an enlightening insight into the political strategies used both in France and in England regarding the issue of regicide and tyrannicide. Through the prism of printing practices and licenses, she examines the aims of the pamphleteers, the role of the printers and the crafty lenience of political authorities as regards to these accounts of violence.

6The examination of the figure of the regicide and its physical ordeal was reminiscent of certain martyr narratives and called for an exploration of the religious perspective of pamphlets relying on the subjective accounts of violence. Adam Darlage’s “The Reluctant Executioner and Violence in Anabaptist Martyrologies” offers an original exploration of the theological use of violence in early modern Europe by contrasting the martyred figure of the political or the religious criminal with their counterpart, the executioner. The article focuses on the Anabaptists narratives of execution in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany as well as iconographic illustrations of the executions and gives the Anabaptists’ own view of the ordeal of their own and the impact on the executioner. The latter becomes an edifying mirror of a sinful establishment in need of reform and his reluctance to perform his task echoes the developing debates on if not ‘tolerance’ but on what Mathilde Bernard identifies as the ‘detestation of carnage’.

7Bernard’s essay, « Le massacre dans l’écriture historique française des guerres de Religion: une scène validée? », takes violence to a broader instrumental level. Bernard explores the rhetorical loci of violence as the expressions of the relationship of early modernity with violence. Relying on the memoirs and chronicles of the massacres of protestants in Paris on Saint Bartholomew’s Day and in other major French cities and on political libels of French Catholic leaguers, the article widens the European perspective on religious violence by using colonial narratives of violence. Bernard analyses the rhetorical strategies operated to create an emotional ethos and shows how the scale of massacres can bring the readers if not to real tolerance but to a form of disgust regarding massacring practices. Bernard points out the roots of certain elements later used in debates on tolerance while she also shows how the didactic or reflexive impact of massacre narratives was still limited and how texts endlessly resisted critical distance.

8However, Mauricio Suchowlansky’s article shows that Machiavelli makes a more potently didactic use of accounts of ‘civil discords and internal enmities’ than in other massacre narratives. Indeed, “The rhetoric of violence in Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories: The exemplar of Michele di Lando” focuses on the Italian political philosopher’s strategy to single out an exemplum so as to improve the critical impact of narratives of violence. Suchowlansky offers a detailed analysis of the structure and the rhetoric of the spectacle of violence designed by Machiavelli and contrasts his detailed analyses of Michele di Lando’s role in the Ciompi revolt of 1378 with contemporary chronicles of the event and subsequent narratives of the rebellion by humanist historians, such as Poggio Bracciolini and Leornardo Bruni. Thus the author shows how Machiavelli crafts a poetics of violence as a mirror for princes and how, as in Darlage’s and Daniel’s articles, a singular figure can be the purveyor of reformist ideas.

9These four articles showed how the early modern era constantly shifted the perspective between a universal and a singular appraisal of the use of violence so as to debate the relationship between the state and the self. The second section of this volume studies how violence is instrumental in the commentaries of such relationship and in particular through the scientific development of anatomical practices. The early modern diffusion of the anatomic science through Vesalius’ publications, where medical exploration is systematically reinterpreted in iconic terms, reveals how violence pertained to the intimate and conflicting relations of the self and the state.

10The judicial, the scientific and the aesthetic are almost equivalent concerns during an anatomic experience. The anatomized body is a visual exemplar as shown by Chantoury-Lacombe’s  article on the Exemplum doloris as a visual political weapon in early modern Siena. The historical accounts of the first part of this volume give way to another form of eye-witnessing of the political impact of violence: the visual representation of spectacles of violence. Through the analysis of Domenico Beccafumi’s iconographic program for the Public Palace of Sienna, the article shows how the pictorial representations of both the executioners and the tortured bodies were part of the judicial punishment of criminals. Using Foucault and Mauss’ perspectives on the body as a sociological object, Chantoury-Lacombe investigates the violent treatment of bodies as the re-emergence of Antique treatment of political marginals. Linking anatomy and damnatio memoriae, Chantoury-Lacombe shows the paradox of visually representing the disintegration of the visual body.

11This violent dissolution of a criminalized humanity is taken to theological levels in Alison Powell’s article, “‘We have devoured ourselves’: Self-dissecting Renaissance Bodies, Torture and the State”. After considering the link between penal sanctions and dissection, Powell offers an interesting reading of John Donne’s Devotions and its specific use of anatomic violence. She points at Donne’s use of medical representative aesthetics in order to explore the soul and how the poet symbolically dissects his own body as a reflexive exploration of the theological and political self. Powell envisages this method of ‘dissection as salvation’ as an epistemological and a theophanic exchange.

12Donne’s aesthetics of self-dissection is inherited from the observation and the visual representations of executions and anatomies of criminal bodies, but it also relies on a pre-existing poetical trope well observed in Petrarchist writings. Kjerstin Aukrust and Remy Vuillemin’s article on “Petrarchism and the culture of dissection” shows how European poetry made use of Petrarch’s aesthetics of violence as a means to explore not so much the anatomized body but rather to anatomise the spectatorial gaze. Comparing Michael Drayton’s and Agrippa d’Aubigné’s use of Petarchism, the authors conclude this section on aesthetic reflexions on violence by emphasizing the increasing confrontation of two assessments of spectacular violence: the didactic staging of a righteous martyrdom and the tentative idea of the absurdity of the methodology of violence.

13Drayton’s desire to aim at a wider audience, as pointed by Aukrust and Vuillemin, reminds us of the ambition of textual creations as mirrors of the political and religious anxieties of their time and of the will to disseminate their interpretations. This volume started with Daniel’s analysis of the diffusion of printed texts and it sounds natural after the previous explorations of the rhetoric of violence to follow Drayton’s impetus and to focus on the strategies to convey ideas on violence to a wider readership and spectatorship. The last section of this volume is thus dedicated to violence in popular culture through tale-telling and more people-oriented dramatic practices.

14Rosaria Iounes-Vona’s article,“Secret, revelation et violence dans les favole et enigmi de Giovanfrancesco Straparola”, shows how, through a collection of popular tales and enigmas, the author discusses subtle forms of violence: silence and secrecy. Straparola, whose readership was not limited to Italy but spanned from France to Germany, created a fictional tale-telling society on the Venetian Island of Murano which used to tell favole and enigmas during the Carnival. Iounes-Vona offers an exploration of the rhetorical strategies imposed by the masquerading time of the Carnival and how the tale-telling exercise is predicated on two violent strategies: to coerce into silence or to coerce into telling. This aspect of the study enhances the spectacular necessity to represent this coercion visually and the author alludes to the incremental theatrical value of Straparola’s violent speech.

15Patricia Ehl’s work on the rhetoric of violence in Jesuit drama furthers the previous analysis of the dramatic quality of the speech of violence by showing the stage and textual strategies chosen by Pierre Mousson in his De Casibus tragedies published in 1621. Although originally written to be performed in Jesuit colleges, the reader should not forget that these plays were aiming at widening their audience as a means to disseminate their political and counter-reformist agenda. Ehl shows how the playwright uses the rhetorical arsenal to create an agile speech of violence which was matched by visual purple patches well appreciated by early audiences. What Shakespeare and Webster used or alluded to in their plays finds a continental counterpart where dramatic verbal violence is conveyed through a true material environment (mock mutilated bodies and severed heads). Here the pedagogy of violence reaches a theo-political climax echoed in Shakespearean plays such as Coriolanus , Julius Caesar or Titus Andronicus2.

16Patrick Gray’s piece on hubristic strategies in Coriolanus closes this section on the developing and enduring impact of the rhetoric of violence in popular culture. The article focuses on Shakespeare’s transformation of the Aristotelian hubris into an instrument of torture for the other. If hubris is a poison for the self, it also participates of a two-way dynamic that will use humiliation as a destructive weapon. Gray’s article relies on classical definitions of the rhetorical tropes of violence to explore how the protagonist’s tragic hubris can be equated with a form of cannibalism and even vampirism.

17This collection of articles on early modern understanding and use of violence aims at gathering different perspectives that informed the literary and more particularly the theatrical expressions of violence. Assessing European early modern political, religious and cultural history is a means to deepen the studies of the strategies and the finality English playwrights used in their own dramatic interpretations of violent events. Moving from the pamphleteering understanding of well-know events to their popular representation through the more democratic use of drama in early modern England, this collection focuses on the subtleties of the rhetoric of violence. Moving from well-known epistemological elements on the diverse forms of violence, it offers to zoom in on sometimes ignored details of the early modern picture of violence in Europe, and to reveal the subtle, the sub-tela (beneath the veil) aspects of violence and its paradoxical forms and aims.


1  Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chp. XVIII, Translated and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1998, p. 69.

2  See two performance analyses of these plays in this journal’s L’Oeil du Spectateur section: Tara Bradway’s “The Bookend Project” by the Adirondack Shakespeare Company (February 2011, NYC): Transforming Shakespeare’s Revenge Play from Violence to Virtue in Titus Andronicus and The Tempest and Nathalie Rivère de Carles’ Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar: Panic and Hysteria. Royal Shakespeare Company, 2009. The Courtyard Theatre. July-September 2009. 3h.

Pour citer ce document

Par Nathalie Rivère de Carles, «“The Rhetoric of Violence in Early Modern Europe”: Introduction», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°5 - 2011, mis à jour le : 27/12/2019, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=563.