CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal

Becoming a Monarch by Representing One: The Power of Role-play in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Plays

Emily T. Cuneo, University of Pennsylvania

Division: Humanities

Dept/Program: English

Document Type: Undergraduate Student Research


Date of this Version: 16 December 2005

This document has been peer reviewed.



In William Shakespeare's Elizabethan plays, role-play is capable of the highest form of empowerment for its players: possession of the monarchy. The ability of theatrics to empower, or even cause, a fictitious monarch resonated with Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience, whose own monarch, Queen Elizabeth, shamelessly embraced and exploited this ability. However, while virtually all of Shakespeare's plays possess the potential for role-play's ultimate empowerment, the extent to which his characters are able to achieve this potential varies. In this essay I examine the varying successes with which Shakespeare's characters attempt to use role-play as a means of gaining a monarchy. I begin by discussing the successful manipulation of role-play and improvisation by Prince Hal and King Henry in I Henry IV. Secondly, I discuss Claudius' ability to gain a monarchy by representing King Hamlet and inability to maintain it by failing to control his own representation in Hamlet. Finally, I discuss Julius Caesar's use of theatrics to create a monarchy for himself where one does not previously exist, and the failure of his assassins to control their own representation. By comparing these scenes in I Henry IV, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet to Elizabeth's own manipulation of her representation, I argue that the extent to which role-play is a form of empowerment in Shakespeare's plays is subject to constraints similar to those present in Elizabethan society.

Suggested Citation

Cuneo, Emily T., "Becoming a Monarch by Representing One: The Power of Role-play in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Plays" 16 December 2005. CUREJ: College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, University of Pennsylvania,

Date Posted: 17 May 2006

This document has been peer reviewed.




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