States of Mourning: Vacancies of Law in Shakespeare's Tragedies
This thesis is an investigation of various linguistic and thematic connections between Shakespeare’s tragedies and a popular religio-political undercurrent that emerged in England in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Shakespeare in his tragic mode mirrors his contemporaries in law, religion, and popular writing by blending vocabularies of Calvinist piety and mysteries of kingship into a focused concern with states in periods of mourning, so-called “vacancies of law” and a fundamental inadequacy at the core of human being. Contemporary continental philosophy uses the term “state of exception” to describe periods in which sovereign power suspends the law in whole or in part in the service of political order; various strains of literary, legal, and political thought in Shakespeare’s England conceived both the nation and individual as subject to a divine retribution echoing the Covenant Lawsuit of the Hebrew Bible, and in a Calvinist inflection this retribution takes the form of a state of permanent mourning, permanent exception. This study proceeds first through an elaboration of this sixteenth century system of signification that combines Calvinist understandings of Hebrew prophecy with the language of English law and government, and second with the most notable instance of this system in Shakespearean tragedy, biblical birds of warning. From there, this inquiry examines three tragic plays in depth: Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, in order to show their deep engagement with contemporary religious and political thought that posited scripture as a model for governments of all types, but through a Calvinist lens that saw both the inner turmoil of the tragic figure and the catastrophes befalling nations as the outcome of a fundamental human inadequacy; a condition in which the exception has become the rule.