Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
I argue that plays set in ancient Britain helped shape early modern concepts of anachronism and history, undermining British identities and the early modern British state. While early modern English historians searched for the noble past which would undergird the creation of a modern empire, the theatre invited audiences to imagine an ancient Britain populated by noble Celts, fierce dragons, prophetic wizards, and defeated Romans, as if all these alternative stories were equally plausible. When scholars study the relationship between British history and identity, they usually bring a twenty-first century understanding of history as distinct from fiction. I show that such a distinction was only just emerging in the early modern era—in part through dramatic representation of the British past that focused more on scheming wizards than on non-English Britons. Plays such as Shakespeare’s Lear and Cymbeline, Fletcher’s Bonduca and Middleton’s Hengist played against the backdrop of a rich historiographical debate of unusual public fervor: the sixteenth-century (re)discovery that ancient Britain was a loose collection of Celtic tribes, rather than a proto-medieval kingdom, troubled longstanding British histories. The effect of these historiographical revisions, which circulated in such books as Holinshed’s Chronicles and Camden’s Britannia, was to emphasize the opacity and malleability of the ancient past—traits brought to brief, ephemeral life in theatrical performance.
Chair and Committee
Musa Gurnis, Robert Henke, Derek Hirst, Steven Zwicker,
Beales, Meredith Anne, "Alternative Histories: Imagining Ancient Britain on the London Stage, 1560-1642" (2015). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 588.
Available for download on Thursday, August 14, 2025