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"Teaching Fletcher’s Bonduca:
Gender, Leadership, and Nationhood"

by Dr. Jelena Marelj, Queen's University

(June 2014 Issue / PDF)

As Shakespeare’s successor and the principal playwright for the King’s Men, John Fletcher was widely celebrated in the Stuart period for his trademark tragicomedies which influenced Shakespeare’s late plays as well as Restoration and 18th century drama.[1] However, despite the popularity of Fletcher’s solo plays and his collaborations with Francis Beaumont in Jacobean England, the enthusiasm for Fletcher as a Renaissance playwright has significantly declined; his plays rarely appear on undergraduate syllabi or in graduate courses professing to examine non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama. Not only do Fletcher’s dramatic works remain underappreciated and understudied by both students and scholars, but they are also often neglected in performance. Fletcher’s The Tragedie of Bonduca, in particular, merits re-examination as a teachable text both because it speaks to Shakespeare’s romances and problem plays and because it richly engages with the political-historical events and social issues that mark James I’s reign. With its structural and thematic ambivalence and its political allegories, Bonduca easily invites critical scrutiny and can stimulate involved discussions in undergraduate and graduate classrooms alike.   

Written between 1609 and 1613[2] and performed by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars theatre and possibly at the Globe, Fletcher’s The Tragedie of Bonduca was first published in the Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1647. Drawing his historical portrait of Bonduca primarily from Tacitus’s Annals, Dio Cassius’s Roman History, and Holinshed’s Chronicles, Fletcher’s play dramatizes the military revolt of the Celtic Britons led by the eponymous Icenian queen— also called Boudica or Boadicea in early modern England[3] — against their Roman oppressors in circa 60-61 AD. Historical accounts relate how queen Bonduca, following her husband Prasutagus’s death, formed an alliance with the neighbouring Trinovante tribe to avenge her daughters’ violation and her own flogging at the hands of Romans with the aim of liberating the ancient Britons from their subjugation to Rome. Despite attacking and destroying the Roman military settlements of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium, and Verulamium (St. Albans), Bonduca was defeated by Suetonius’s Roman faction and reportedly committed suicide. Beginning his play in medias res, Fletcher refrains from focusing exclusively on the heroine of his play; instead, he resurrects the historically anachronistic Cara(c)tacus (Caratach) as Bonduca’s cousin and foregrounds the might, virtue, and honourable heroism of this staunch admirer of Roman military codes and principles as the play continually alternates between scenes in the Roman and Briton camps.[4] An exemplar of romanitas, Caratach “out-Roman[s] the Romans in terms of honourable and civilized behaviour” (Jowitt 486) and his sympathies lie with the rather weak, divided, and altogether undependeable Roman faction headed by their admirable general Swetonius: Caratach censures a vainglorious and wilful Bonduca for boasting of her conquests and scornfully chides her for launching an offensive against the Romans; he admirably feeds and releases the starving Judas who had been caught foraging for food in the Briton camp; and he pays homage to the Roman commander Penyus after the latter commits suicide. After the triple suicides of Bonduca and her daughters following the Iceni’s defeat, Caratach’s nephew Hengo is killed by the Romans and Caratach himself peacefully submits to Swetonius and to Rome.

Given its short length, rapidly alternating scenes, fairly quick-paced action, and the general absence of elaborate rhetoric, Bonduca is well suited for an undergraduate survey course. Since “Fletcher’s plots … are too packed with situations for any one of them to dominate the rest” (Mincoff 92), the interweaving subplots and the kaleidoscopic arrangement of scenes and situations offer instructors a plethora of access points to explore the interrelated ideas of honour, revenge, loyalty, love, and identity in a play that is, to use Paul Green’s terms, “[e]ssentially a drama of ideas” (305). Bonduca is also ideally suited for an upper-year course on the Renaissance history play or on Jacobean tragicomedy, or for special topics courses such as Renaissance political allegorical, early modern English nationhood, early modern colonial drama,[5] unruly women, and even revenge tragedy (especially fruitful pairings could be Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy). Select works in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon can also be read alongside plays in the Shakespeare canon; Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize, for instance, serves as a compelling sequel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. In this essay, I will illustrate how Bonduca can be used in an advanced undergraduate course to teach gender— including the masculine anxiety of female authority— as well as political leadership and national identity.        

Instructors can explore the topic of gender identity in the play by focalizing on the two protagonists, Bonduca and Caratach. As a virago and a warrior who transgresses early modern gender norms and social hierarchies, the militant Bonduca poses a significant threat to a masculine Roman identity predicated on military virtue and homosocial bonds. Caratach perceives Bonduca as intellectually and physically inferior: he scornfully reprimands Bonduca for her indiscretion as she boasts of her military success against the Romans (1.1), for her impetuous intervention in men’s affairs, and for being the prime “agent of adversities” (5.1.4) that ultimately causes the Iceni’s demise. The Romans likewise criticize Bonduca for being “unnatural” (4.4.121) in urging her daughters to commit suicide. For Caratach, who repeatedly tells Bonduca to go “home and spin woman, spin” (3.5.183) and advises her daughters of the same (3.5.116), women belong in a domestic sphere rather than in the field of battle. The play easily lends itself to a feminist approach, and Caratach’s misogyny in particular can invite a broader discussion of the patriarchal construction of early modern femininity, marked by chastity, silence, and obedience. To deepen students’ understanding of the sexist discourse surrounding women in 17th century England, instructors may wish to contextualize the play within the Jacobean pamphlet wars: students can read Joseph Swetnam’s abuse of women in The Arraignment of Women (1615) against Ester Sowernam’s defensive response in Ester hath hang’d Haman (1617) as a prelude to Bonduca. Caratach’s degradation of Bonduca as a “beastly woman” (3.5.186) and a “woman fool” (3.5.174) is symptomatic of the early modern masculine anxiety of female power, which is similarly dramatized in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. Bonduca can serve as a threshold to a comparative analysis between its eponymous monarch and Cleopatra and Dido, two other female sovereigns whose political power— and hence denigration as weak, fickle, and destructive female forces— similarly threatens male authority, public duty, and social cohesion through these women’s heterosexual relationships with male titans. Instructors may also wish to use the play as a point of departure for examining female agency and the polemics of cross-dressing; noteworthy comparisons can be made with Moll Cutpurse in Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl and a host of Shakespearean heroines such as Rosalind in As You Like it, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, andKatherina in The Taming of the Shrew. These plays can be fruitfully contextualized within or examined through the lens of early modern anti-theatrical tracts.

Instructors can guide students in reassessing Caratach’s negative portrayal of the Icenian queen by drawing their attention to the multiple subplots which characterize the Roman camp. Intertwined with the Bonduca-Caratach plot, these subplots serve to ironically undermine Caratach and illuminate his biased depiction of Bonduca. Despite Rome’s association with stalwart masculinity, virtù, and honour, the Roman commanders, generals, and soldiers featured in these subplots appear as weak, self-indulgent, and rather effeminate men: captain Junius, mocked and chastised by his fellow captain Petillius, languishes for Bonduca’s younger daughter in a Petrarchan fashion; the stubborn and self-assured commander Penyus defies Swetonius’s order to lead his troops into battle; and the famished corporal Judas together with his soldiers, who refuse to fight for Rome on an empty stomach, treacherously bait Caratach and Hengo in order to kill the latter. Even Bonduca effeminizes the Romans by referring to them as “Romane Girls” (1.1.11) and claims that “their mothers got’em sleeping, pleasure nurst’em,/ their bodies sweat with sweet oils, loves allurements,/ not lustie Arms” (1.1.8-10). The discreet critique provided by the subplots of the hedonistic and self-absorbed Romans who fail to fulfill their public duties renders Caratach’s blind adherence to Roman codes and values worthy of ridicule, as well as demolishes the gender binaries that Caratach and the play set up. Caratach’s vehement chastisement of Bonduca’s daughters for using their feminine wiles to seduce and thereby entrap Junius and Petillius (3.5), for example, is paralleled by Judas’s use of guile to deceive Caratach and entrap Hengo. This mirroring of scenes effectively undercuts Caratach’s exclusive association of guile with the female sex (e.g. deception is “[a] womans wisdome” [3.5.91]) and reveals that, as Andrew Hickman observes, “apparent contrast[s] tur[n], upon closer inspection, into parallels” (145). Bringing Caratach’s “fanatical bluster” (Boling 402) and his biased judgment under magnification, the subplots prompt readers to sceptically approach Caratach’s pronouncements and to re-evaluate his demeaning representation of Bonduca in the play. Is Bonduca, as Caratach and the Roman cohort assert, truly a savage, unruly, and meddling woman stirred to action by personal vengeance, or is she a noble and patriotic leader seeking to liberate her people from colonial oppression? Is she both? Does Fletcher perhaps endorse another perspective that obviates the need to choose and thereby pass a decisive moral judgment on Bonduca? These and other questions can be used to spark a lively class debate regarding the ambivalence surrounding Bonduca. To help students pinpoint or better appreciate Fletcher’s distinctive dramatic treatment of the historical heroine, instructors may wish to expose students to other literary representations of Bonduca, such as those in Spenser’s “The Ruines of Time” (1591), James Aske’s Elizabetha Triumphans (1588), or Jonson’s Masque of Queenes (1609).

Along with femininity, students can investigate the topic of masculinity in the play. Underlying the patriarchal construction of femininity and the suppression of female agency in Bonduca is a masculine romanitas predicated on homosocial bonds. Instructors can have students explore the masculine ethos that underwrites Roman identity by charting the series of homosocial relationships between Caratach and Hengo, Caratach and the Romans, and even between the Romans themselves within a larger historical framework of early modern English masculinity and manhood. A substitute for heterosexual bonds and partnerships, homosociality seems to call up the spectre of homoeroticism, which hovers over Caratach and his statement that he is “married to that man that wounds [him]” (1.1.69) for he “make[s] a Mistris” of “he that in the head on’s Troop desies me,/ bending my manly body with his sword” (1.1.65-67). It also dovetails to the question of political leadership raised in the play. Caratach’s romanitas and fervent cultivation of homosocial bonds weakens his loyalty to, and honourable conduct toward, Bonduca and thus threatens Briton peace and security. Not only does Caratach turn a blind eye to Judas’s theft, but his wilful capitulation to Swetonius after the latter’s show of “brave courtesies” (5.2.260) in the denouement raises the question of Caratach’s effectiveness as a military leader. While Caratach may “out-Roman the Romans in terms of honourable and civilized behaviour” (Jowitt 486), does his romanitas make him a good leader? How much responsibility does Caratach, rather than Bonduca, bear for the Britons’ defeat?

The issue of political leadership comes to the fore in the scene of Bonduca’s suicide (4.4). Refusing to believe Swetonius’s promise of mercy conditional upon her submission to him, Bonduca decries love and mercy as non-Roman values and chooses to end her life in the Roman fashion by committing suicide. Bonduca’s valour and steadfastness as she urges her two daughters to commit suicide in order to prevent their further violation stands in striking opposition to Caratach’s pacifism and can be usefully juxtaposed against Caratach’s submission to Swetonius in 5.2. Do Bonduca’s courage, hardiness, stoic determination, and readiness for action mark her as more Roman, and thus more masculine, than Caratach or the Romans? Is Bonduca’s open defiance of Rome through her act of political self-assertion (i.e. her suicide) preferable to Caratach’s quiet compliance with Rome— does it exemplify honourable conduct and good leadership? How might one define good leadership and what is its relationship to honour? Is Bonduca, as her name in Latin denotes, a “good leader” (Drábek 90) or do her weaknesses render the Romans the superior leaders? Instructors can expand the purview by drawing on a host of other characters who offer different models of leadership, such as Penyus, Hengo, and Swetonius. Penyus, for instance, may serve as a useful counterpoint to Bonduca or Caratach; his indecision regarding the manner of his death leads Penyus to contemplate suicide by hanging and poisoning before he heeds Petillius’s advice to “die like a man” (4.3.170) by his own sword. Instructors may also wish to treat the topic of leadership in a political-historical framework: they can follow in the footsteps of critics who have read the play as a topical allegory by loosely correlating Caratach to the pacifistic and Catholic-leaning Protestant monarch James I, and the martial virago Bonduca to Elizabeth I.[6] Julie Crawford’s article, “Fletcher’s The Tragedie of Bonduca and the Anxieties of the Masculine Government of James I,” helpfully illuminates the parallels between the play’s characters and the early modern monarchs. The question of Fletcher’s allegiance naturally arises from a political reading of the play: was Fletcher a royalist who sympathised with James I and his government, or did he satirize the king in his play? In other words, does Fletcher champion Caratach or does he instead valorize Bonduca through a “narrative frame [that] demythologizes Caratach” (Boling 393) to endorse the play as “pro-British, not pro-Roman” (Boling 392)?[7]

Questions of leadership feed into the topic of national identity or nationhood. Bonduca’s patriotic monologue before her suicide gestures toward a proto-British national identity characterized by simplicity, domesticity, and a Protestant ethos of privacy and interiority:

If Rome be earthly, why should any knee 
with bending adoration worship her? 
She’s vitious; and your partiall selves confesse, 
aspires the height of all impietie: 
therefore ‘tis fitter I should reverence 
the thatched houses where the Britains dwell 
in carelesse mirth, where the blest houshold gods 
see nought but chaste and simple puritie. 
’Tis not high power that makes a place divine, 
not that the men from gods derive their line. 
But sacred thoughts in holy bosoms stor’d, 
make people noble, and the place ador’d.

Bonduca’s advice to Swetonius— “If you will keep your Laws and Empire whole,/ place in your Romane flesh a Britain soul” (4.4.202-203)— further plays on the antitheses of private/public, inner/outer, soul/body, female/male and Protestantism/Catholicism that surface in her monologue which the play elicits and complicates. What does it mean to be Celtic British vis-à-vis a colonizing Roman presence? What does it mean to be an English Protestant in Jacobean England vis-à-vis a looming Spanish Catholic threat? If Caratach’s defection to Rome fulfills Bonduca’s call for a “Britain soul” in “Romane flesh”, does this defection typify an equal union or does it mark a dangerous assimilation that threatens the parameters of a proto-British identity? Moreover, if Bonduca stands as an emblem for “the overwhelming femininity of [British] native origins” (Mikalachki 14), is this femininity valorized? The ending is marked by a peculiar ambivalence which, according to Claire Jowitt, “does not answer the central issue of whether Romanization should be celebrated or mourned” (486). With the steadily growing number of studies on the formation of early modern English nationhood since the seminal work of Richard Helgerson and Claire McEachern, students can profitably engage in the conversation about the emergence and construction of a national identity in Elizabeth and Jacobean England by using Fletcher’s play as a case study; Shakespeare’s Henry V may also serve as a valuable point of comparison.   

Although Bonduca may be taught on its own, the repetition, ironic echoes, reversals, shifting perspectives, and doubling on the level of plot, structure, and character make the play an ideal companion piece to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.[8] Not only do the untenable binaries and tensions between the Briton and Roman camps similarly characterize Cleopatra’s Egypt and Caesar’s Rome, but the suicides of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Fletcher’s Bonduca sharply echo each other. Perhaps most significantly, both Shakespeare’s tragedy and Fletcher’s tragicomedy permit students to grapple with contradictions and ambivalence, to closely scrutinize their perceptions and preconceptions, and to gauge the relativity of their critical judgments as they promote the self-reflection endemic to critical thinking.   

Given that “[t]he impulse in Bonduca … is centrifugal [and] [t]he energy in Fletcher’s play dissipates itself in a host of directions” (Appleton 57), instructors have considerable latitude in selecting the issues, topics, themes, characters, and conflicts that serve their course purposes. The play welcomes a variety of approaches from New Historicism to post-colonial and feminist theory, and can be featured in a broad range of survey courses or special topics courses that speak to the socio-historical, religious, and political concerns of early modern England. The Tragedie of Bonduca can be effectively used in an advanced undergraduate course to teach early modern gender politics, including the subtopics of masculinity and romanitas or femininity and agency, as well as national identity and political leadership. The play additionally makes an excellent companion piece to many of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Troilus and Criseyde, Antony and Cleopatra, and the romances, and is perfectly suited for courses on Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Note on the Text:

Printed in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647, The Tragedie of Bonduca is easily accessible via Literature Online in its original spelling. In addition to the online version which students can print out and annotate, the play is commonly included in the collected works of Beaumont and Fletcher (see, for example, volume 4 of The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, edited by Fredson Bowers).  


[1] Marco Mincoff: “Not only does [Fletcher] anticipate much of Dryden and the Restoration, but also not a little of French classical tragedy….” (70). George Yost traces literary representations of Bonduca after Fletcher; see “The Celtic and Dramatic Background of Mason’s Caractacus”, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research 13.2 (1974): 39-54.

[2] The dating is liberal; some critics opt for a narrower timeframe (1612-1613) while others prefer a broader timeframe (1608-1616). 

[3] For literary and historical variants of Bonduca’s name, see Pavel Drábek (90) and Carolyn D. Williams, Boudica and her Stories: Narrative Transformations of a Warrior Queen (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009), 44-46.

[4] The historical Cara(c)tacus, chieftain of the Catuvellauni tribe, resisted Roman oppression a few decades before Bonduca. He was ultimately defeated and handed over by queen Cartimandua to the emperor Claudius, who granted him pardon. See Tacitus’s Annals, Book XII.

[5] Claire Jowitt, for instance, reads Bonduca as a colonial text, and identifies the Romans in Britain with Virginian colonists.

[6] Julie Crawford notes that “James consciously placed a ‘Roman stamp on his reign’, particularly in respect to claims for imperial precedent and absolutism” (360). Sharon Macdonald reads Caratach as King James. See “Boadicea: Warrior, Mother, and Myth”, Images of Women in War and Peace: Cross-Cultural and HistoricalPerspectives, ed. Sharon Macdonald, Pat Holden, and Shirley Ardener (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 40-61.

[7] Critics who claim that Fletcher valorizes Caratach and sympathizes with Rome are Paul D. Green and Jodi Mikalachki; critics who contend that Fletcher ironically discredits and mocks Caratach include Ronald J. Boling and Andrew Hickman.  

[8] Paul D. Green draws parallels between Bonduca and Cleopatra and suggests that Bonduca may have been directly influenced by Antony and Cleopatra (see fn. 17, p. 311).

Works Cited

Appleton, William. Beaumont and Fletcher: A Critical Study. London: Allen & Unwin, 1956. Print.

Boling, Ronald J. “Fletcher’s Satire of Caratach in Bonduca”. Comparative Drama 33.3 (Fall 1999): 390-406. Print.

Crawford, Julie. “Fletcher’s The Tragedie of Bonduca and the Anxieties of the Masculine Government of James I”. SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 39.2 (1999): 357-381. Print.

Drábek, Pavel. “Sources of Bonduca”. Fletcherian Dramatic Achievement: A Study in the Mature Plays of John Fletcher (2010). Digital Library of the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, 2013. 81-94. PDF file.

Green, Paul D. “Theme and Structure in Fletcher’s Bonduca”. SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-190022.2 (Spring 1982): 305-316. Print.

Hickman, Andrew. “Bonduca’s Two Ignoble Armies and The Two Noble Kinsmen”. Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 4 (1989): 143-171. Print.

Jowitt, Claire. “Colonialism, Politics, and Romanization in John Fletcher’s Bonduca”. SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43.2 (Spring 2003): 475-494. Print.

Mikalachki, Jodi. The Legacy of Boadicea: Gender and Nation in Early Modern England. Routledge: London and New York, 1998. Print.

Mincoff, Marco. “Fletcher’s Early Tragedies”. Renaissance Drama 7 (1964): 70-94. Print.


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