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Shakespeare’s Other Sovereignty: On Particularity and Violence in The Winter’s Tale and the Sonnets


The Winter’s Tale is easily read as a story about the tyranny of unchecked executive power. Rather than construing tyranny in opposition to the just exercise of sovereign authority, however, this essay reads the political crisis generated through Leontes’ mad jealousy as the logical extension of sovereignty itself. As articulated by Jean Bodin, whose influential account of the indivisibility of sovereignty was printed in English in 1606, the sovereign is formally knowable (quite apart from the content of his powers) through those signs that are uncommon or exclusive to the sovereign. Shakespeare analyzes the dynamic of sovereignty’s uncommonness by tracking the violent consequences of Leontes’ desire to be singular and by placing in the play a countersovereignty rooted in the constitutive force of (jurisdictional) difference across territory, office, and time. In dialogue with Shakespeare’s Sonnets 37 and 115, the essay shows how, in tacit response to a sovereignty that blinds itself to its logical alternatives, the play theorizes this other sovereignty through an erotic plot in which the amatory particular emerges as sovereign for acknowledging its alternatives, rather than excluding them; through a model of action that acknowledges contingency; and through a process of (linguistic) signification that emphasizes a logic of participation over a logic of exclusivity.

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