“We Must not be More True to Kings/Than Kings Are to their Subjects”: France and the Politics of the Ancient Constitution in Chapman's Byron Plays
Analyzes George Chapman's two-part play, The Conspiracy and the Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron (1608), which give an English view of the conflict between Henry IV of France and Charles de Gontaut, Duke of Byron, and describes their historical and political background. They should be understood in the context of English constitutional politics of the early years of the reign of James I, in particular the dispute between supporters of absolute monarchy and the advocates for the “ancient constitution.” In the plays, Byron can be seen as a proponent of mixed government who has no reason to feel that his actions are treasonable, given his views on the relationship between king and nobility, while Henry is portrayed as a duplicitous king open to any means to achieve absolute power. In his account of innovation and tradition in the two plays, Chapman (ca. 1559–1634) comes down on the side of tradition, maintaining that absolute government was the cause of division and tyranny, and that mixed government offered a legal constraint on the monarchy. This reassessment and rebalancing of the interpretation of the play stresses its political implications for 1608.