Tyranny and Usurpation – In Conversation with Doyeeta Majumder

Tyranny and Usurpation investigates the political, legal, historical circumstances under which the ‘tyrant’ of early Tudor drama becomes conflated with the ‘usurper-tyrant’ of the commercial theatres of London, and how the usurpation plot emerges as one of the central preoccupations of early modern drama. We caught up with Doyeeta Majumder to discuss this recent publication.


Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Tyranny and Usurpation and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?

I was quite fascinated by early modern literature and culture all through my years as an undergrad and master’s student at Jadavpur University, primarily because we had the amazing good fortune of being taught by the very best, including Sukanta Chaudhuri, Supriya Chaudhuri, Swapan Chakravarti, Amlan Das Gupta, and Paromita Chakravarti. I enrolled in a number of specialized optional courses on early modern drama, started learning Latin informally with Professor Das Gupta, then Italian at the School of Languages, JU. The immediate ‘trigger’ was a master’s course on Renaissance Political Thought, taught by Professor Das Gupta, where we read a huge body of material starting from Defensor Pacis to Leviathan. Right after this, Professor Chaudhuri offered me the opportunity of translating Machiavelli’s Il Principe from Italian to Bengali, as part of a collaboration between our department and University of Naples. Thus Machiavelli occupied my mindspace for nearly a whole year, at the end of which, I knew I had something to say about the ‘new prince’ in early modern drama. Finally, when I joined the department of English at the University of St Andrews as doctoral student, my supervisor, Lorna Hutson, helped to focus my ideas with coherence and consistency.

Your book has a wide coverage of dramatic texts, focusing on both Scottish and English texts and historical contexts. Could you tell us more about one of the plays which particularly stands out to you as a key example in your work?

Both David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre (Scottish) and Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc stand out. These plays are not read very widely anymore (if they ever were), so the ways in which they mark a crucial turning point in the political fate of the two nations, and use startling dramaturgical innovations, came as a bit of a surprise to me. Gorboduc is the first Senecan tragedy on the English stage, and as I have noted in my book it was also the first play to depict regicide and an armed uprising, while Ane Satyre provides a detailed account of the proceedings of the Scottish parliament, complete with a charter of acts and bills passed at the end of it. I had read Gorboduc before with cursory interest, Ane Satyre was a total revelation, and it was quite thrilling to make these discoveries.

The book’s cover image is very striking – could you tell us more about the artwork and why you chose it as the cover of your book?

The book focuses on the idea of dynastic legitimacy and the spectre of usurpation that threatens to destabilize it. Goya’s Saturn is an iconic painting which depicts Saturn devouring one of his children because it had been prophesied that he would be overthrown (i.e. have his throne usurped) by one of his children, just as he had done to his father, Caelus. The figure of Saturn is the very embodiment of the usurper-tyrant who is the protagonist of my book. Last summer I had the opportunity to see the physical painting at Prado, and it had been stuck in my head since then so I was very glad that Liverpool University Press managed to get the requisite permissions.

How does this volume pave the way for future research in this area?

The scope of this book begins and ends with the reign of the Tudors. The epilogue touches upon Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, indicating that further/similar work can be undertaken in the field of Jacobean or even Carolingian drama. The book also brings Scottish texts and contexts in dialogue with English ones, and tries to locate the main currents of English political thought within the broader framework of continental political thought. This might open up possibilities for more work along these lines– more books or articles which analyse literary and cultural developments in England within the context of archipelagic and continental European writings. I have used twentieth century political theory as a framework to make sense of the sixteenth-century texts, and while a lot of valuable work has been done in this direction–works of scholars such as Victoria Kahn, Julia Lupton, Graham Hammill, and so on — I think there is more to be said.

What are you going to be working on next?

I’ve started writing a couple of pieces on early modern equity and sovereign exception. Part of this work was presented at the Crossroads of Knowledge conference at Cambridge last year. Some more work on equity, natural law, and the Inns of Courts will (hopefully) be presented at King’s College this year. I have received valuable feedback on this work from peers in the discipline. I’m hoping this work can be expanded and thematically organized in the shape of another monograph.

For more information on Tyranny and Usurpation, please visit our website.


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