"The very nerves of state" : biopolitics and sovereignty in Shakespeare's Vienna

CADMAN, Daniel (2012). "The very nerves of state" : biopolitics and sovereignty in Shakespeare's Vienna. In: LEMONNIER-TEXIER, Delphine and WINTER, Guillaume, (eds.) Lectures de Measure for Measure de William Shakespeare. Mondes Anglophones . Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 159-172.

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The representation of political, religious, and legal institutions and their role in consolidating sovereign power have been fruitful topics for criticism on Measure for Measure. Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which he explores the ways these institutions are manifested in such forms as the prison and public execution, has been a major influence upon these discussions. However, there has been relatively little work on how the bodies of the individual citizens, as well as the state institutions, become sites of sovereign power in Shakespeare’s play. In this paper I aim to address this subject by exploring the ways in which Foucault’s later work on biopolitics, and Giorgio Agamben’s related writings on the homo sacer and the sovereign exception, can illuminate aspects of the representation of sovereignty and the status of the individual in a state of exception, along with the wider contemporary discourses on these topics with which the play engages. I argue that the drive for sexual propriety initiated by the Viennese government is offset by its need to foster a reproducible social body; in this way, the two aims of the sovereign authority are revealed to be incompatible. The play also actively links the brothels it represents with various venereal diseases, thus engaging with popular contemporary views about such institutions; the enforced closure of these establishments can therefore be seen to exemplify Foucault’s view that it is in the interests of a government to ensure the general health of its subjects in order to consolidate its power. As a result of this, the healthy bodies of the citizens become emblems of the sovereign’s power and reveal that the government is able to limit the bodily impulses of its citizens. This premise is also evident in the enforced marriages at the play’s conclusion. I also show that the links between bodies and sovereign power have resulted in the production of what Agamben terms ‘bare life’, in which subjects are deprived of their political agency and are defined by their exclusion from the political sphere. Examples of this include Claudio, Lucio, Pompey, Mariana, and Barnardine. This is also related to Agamben’s writing on the state of exception in which the liberties of the citizens are suspended, nominally for their own benefit. Vicentio effectively bequeaths to Angelo the privileges of a ruler of a state of exception, providing him with the scope to suspend the liberties of the population in order to enact certain draconian measures. I suggest that the play ultimately offers a somewhat ambivalent representation of the sovereign exception when Vicentio voluntarily submits himself to marriage, which emerges as a means of surveillance and a process in which the participants leave their actions open to their partner’s scrutiny, meaning he does not take advantage of the potential scope for his power offered by the sovereign exception, in which the ruler is not accountable to others. I conclude by suggesting that Vincentio’s repudiation of the potential of the sovereign exception represents a marked contrast to the absolutism promoted by James I and serves to problematise the numerous identifications of Vicentio with the king. With these points in mind, I argue that, in spite of the representations of various penal and punitive institutions in the play, the government of Vienna ultimately moves in a biopolitical direction, thus revealing the relevance of an area of Foucault’s work which has not hitherto received the attention it deserves in relation to Measure for Measure.

Item Type: Book Section
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Humanities Research Centre
Page Range: 159-172
Depositing User: Daniel Cadman
Date Deposited: 02 Jun 2015 11:08
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2021 18:45
URI: https://shura.shu.ac.uk/id/eprint/10102

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