“To make books of nothing”
: Brutan drama in early modern England

  • Kim Gilchrist

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Early modern drama representing the Brutan histories is highly diverse in terms of genre, tone, and date. However, this thesis argues that these texts and performances can be collectively addressed through a clearer understanding of their shared origins in the traditional account of Britain’s pre-Christian history, an account that operated as a dynamic force throughout English society from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. Traditionally termed “Galfridian” by critics after its origin in the Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1135) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, this thesis argues that this account of British etiology be re-classified “Brutan” to reflect its transmission via anonymous medieval manuscript chronicles known as Bruts, themselves named for Britain’s putative founder, the Trojan exile Brute. In the early modern era, however, this foundational narrative was proved by historiographers to be a twelfth-century invention. This development triggered decades of dispute, doubt, and patriotic resistance, a process I term etiological erosion.

    This thesis asks what it might have meant to encounter drama representing Brutan figures during their slow cultural transformation from national founders to abandoned fictions. In terms of reception, this drama could both reinforce and destabilise perceptions of Brutan historicity. Chapter One establishes the social pervasiveness of the Brutan tradition from the medieval to the early modern periods, providing context for the representation of Brutan ancestry before Elizabeth I in Gorboduc (1562); Chapter Two argues that, even as the performance of Brutan figures was used to represent national and civic founding in pageants performed before Henry VII (1486), and the plays Locrine (c. 1590) and King Lude (1594), these figures also raised troubling iconographic associations with the Near East and civic destruction; Chapter Three argues that the propagandistic re-energisation of the Brutan histories in the early Jacobean era paradoxically foregrounded their instability, a tension perceptible in plays such as King Lear (c. 1606); the final chapter explores the aftermath of Brutan belief via texts including Cymbeline (c. 1610) and, finally, Milton’s A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle (1634).
    This thesis, then, argues that whilst Brutan drama can be addressed according to its social, commercial, and political functions, a fuller picture emerges when this century-and-a-half of cultural utility is understood as the product of a four-hundred-year tradition of national origins that was being gradually yet irrevocably eroded.
    Date of Award5 Jul 2018
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Roehampton
    SupervisorClare McManus (Supervisor) & Jane Kingsley-Smith (Supervisor)

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