Acts of Terror: Representations of Terrorism on the Early Modern Stage

de Valk, Eva (2022). Acts of Terror: Representations of Terrorism on the Early Modern Stage. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis offers an exploration of early modern terrorism, discussing the ideas behind it, how it was practised and how it was represented on stage. Even though the word ‘terrorism’ didn’t appear in early modern discourse, it was a recognisable practice employed by state and sub-state actors alike. Furthermore, playwrights frequently engaged with questions and concerns about terrorism in their work. Consequently, terrorism offers a meaningful angle from which to explore early modern drama.

In the introduction, I discuss the term ‘terrorism’ and propose a characterisation that’s relevant to the early modern period as well as today. In chapter two, I explore early modern ideas about terror and show it’s presented as an ambivalent force in The Life and Death of Jack Straw and A Larum for London. In chapter three, I consider how terrorism was employed and legitimised by the state, and how anxieties about state terrorism are reflected in Sejanus, Sir Thomas More, Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt and Two Lamentable Tragedies. In chapter four, I focus on what I call ‘resistance terrorism’, exploring how various forms of violent resistance functioned as terrorism: tyrannicide in Julius Caesar, martyrdom in The Virgin Martyr, and rioting in 2 Henry VI. In the conclusion, I discuss how twenty-first-century theatremakers use early modern plays to engage with modern-day terrorism, demonstrating that the fundamental concerns the early moderns had about terrorism are surprisingly similar to ours.

Overall, this thesis shows that there was a widespread discourse around terror and terrorism in the early modern period, and that these preoccupations found expression not only in the political and religious writings of the period, but also in the mass entertainment of the popular theatre. The period provided fertile ground for the use of terrorism and the questioning thereof, in real life and on stage.

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