Theatre and political theology – The two bodies of the king

Review of the introduction to Peter W. Marx, Macht | Spiele. Politisches Theater seit 1919. Alexander Verlag Berlin 2020, 223 p.


With his new book “Macht | Spiele. Politisches Theater seit 1919.” Peter W. Marx shows how the various figures of thought (“Denkfiguren”) have developed, with which the changing relations between political power (“Macht”) and theatre (“Spiele”) since the end of the First World War have been considered, viewed and examined in German theatre performances. The relationship between theatre and power is reciprocal: power presents itself in public politics as on a theatre stage, and theatre presents power (and its self-staging) in fiction on the stage. Marx calls the “tension between the staging of power and politics and the theatrical-fictional reflections” 1 the basic axis („Grundachse“) of his presentation. Concentrating his study on these figures of thought and on a selection of exemplary productions is the great advantage of this book over other books on the history of theatre. 2. This concentrated way of presentation confirms Peter W. Marx’s understanding of theatre history as social history. And since it goes beyond the factual retelling of the past to depicting intellectual and political trends, it stimulates discussion.

In his “Introduction”, Marx presents the theoretical starting point for his investigations. Some comments:

The two bodies of the king

In order to understand the “forms of political communication” at the beginning of the 20th century, Marx relies on Ernst H. Kantorowicz’s historical analysis of the theory of the two bodies of the king 3. Marx finds in Kantorowicz the description of a “practice of the sensual doubling of the ruler body”. Kantorowicz actually shows this practice with many examples of pictures of rulers, coins, paintings, grave slabs, funeral processions 4. But the basis for these images is the argumentation of medieval legal experts, which Kantorowicz traces in many details. This theory, which played a role especially among the lawyers of Elizabethan England, is about the legal safeguarding of the continuity of the state. The imaginary doubling of the ruler’s body was a necessary stage in the development of awareness of what a state is, that an immortal state exists, and not just a mortal ruler.

The metaphor of the body for the abstract structure of the state, which consists of different institutions, legal concepts and people, has been used since the Romans 5. Kantorowicz shows how Christian theology made it possible to transfer this idea to the monarchs of Europe. Kantorowicz also shows that the continuation of this medieval theory in the Renaissance was limited primarily to England and emphasizes that this theory played no role in Germany. 6 The English historian Quentin Skinner regrets that Kantorowicz did not continue his investigations beyond the beginning of the 17th century, because then he would have he found the replacement of the theory of the two bodies with other justifications of statehood 7 But Marx transfers the theory of the two bodies of the ruler to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Accoding to Marx, he was concerned with the “generation of a virtual body politic“, with the ” media doubling of the imperial body ”8 . Marx therefore is interested in the visual representation of the ruler in the media. The “body politic” in the sense of the English theory of the state is, however, the entire state system, not just the visual presentation of a ruler by the media. Kantorowicz’s haunting picture of the two bodies is not suitable for analyzing the modern mechanisms of the representation of power. The medieval two-body-teaching cannot be equated with the modern distinction between the real bodies of the persons in government and their representation in the media. 9.

At the time of Wilhelm II, Germany was a rapidly developing nation with diverse, strong political currents, a highly developed bureaucratic apparatus, the modernity of which was only covered by the glittering feudal surface – a deeply hypocritical state structure 10, but not a medieval empire and not an absolutist monarchy. The theory that the state is a legal entity that “stands in and not above the law”, that is, a constitutional state in which the people are the last source of law and the monarch only an organ of this corporate body (“juristische Person”) had long been developed by Otto Gierke in German jurisprudence, but was not used in political reality. 11.

Marx illustrates his view with the well-known cover picture of a magazine published in 1919, which shows President Ebert and Interior Minister Noske in swimming trunks, and sums up “The nudity of the natural body disqualifies the new body politic.” 12 Marx comments on how the image of the bodies of the representatives of the state is used by their opponents in the public debate through the media. But the term body politic in the theory of the two bodies of the king was a legal metaphor for the “immortal” state as a whole.

From body to state and back again

Peter W. Marx refers to Hans Belting’s reception of the theory of the two bodies of the king presented by Kantorowicz. 13 Belting rightly shows that every human body is itself an image even before it is reproduced in an image 14. Belting’s summary of Kantorowicz’s chapter on “Effigies” also shows the terminological confusion. An “Effigies ” was a doll that wore the insignia of power in place of the dead ruler at the funeral of the king and was carried in addition to the coffin at the funeral procession. This practice was used first in England with Edward II, then in the 16th and 17th centuries it was common in France. Belting writes that there were “two bodies which were separated in an official person, first the natural body that was mortal, and then the official body which was transferred from one living bearer to the next and thereby attained immortality”  15. Kantorowicz explained in detail which different terms were in use for what Belting calls “official body”: “corpus mysticum”, “universitas”, “corona”, “body politic”. The term dignitas is used in connection with the effigies. 16 It is the “dignity of the office” (i.e. dignitas, “Amtswürde”) of the deceased king, which is transferred to the doll, the effigies, as Belting writes two sentences later. Kantorowicz himself resorts to the metaphor of “body politic” when he then writes “The two bodies united in the living body were visibly separated after his (the king’s) death.” 17 The increasingly diverse political community with its institutions was still tied to the person of the ruler. The abstract of the state had to be made visible in a human body, so “body” became the anthropomorphic term for this abstract community structure. Belting uses many historical and current examples to show the crisis of the body image and its reflection in art. The theory of the two bodies of the king, however, belongs to a long past phase in the history of the development of the concept of the state. The modern state is no longer embodied in one person. It only has representatives, elected people, whose body images in visual communication are subject to the general mechanisms of the image market.
In his chapter on female power figures in the theater (“Die Provokation des  Female Body Politic”) 18, Marx applies the term “body politic” to the external appearance of a person in power: it is about the hairstyles of Chancellors Schröder and Merkel. It is obvious that the representation of the body of politicians in the media of a democratic society plays a role in public debate. It is also obvious and regrettable that the depiction of the body of female politicians (and their self-portrayal) is exposed to the mechanisms of a patriarchal tradition. But politicians are not kings and politicians are not queens.

The career of a medieval theological concept, which was developed in the Renaissance by lawyers to distinguish between the ruler and the state, on the theatre is astonishing 19. The efforts of the lawyers to form clean legal terms from indistinct metaphors are traced back to their pictorial origin. This is an example of the crooked ways in which social communication has become visualized today.

Who answers Carl Schmitt?

Peter W. Marx contrasts Max Weber and Carl Schmitt as the two representatives of the political understanding of the state of the Weimar Republic. 20 Peter Marx also finds this contrast in the Bonn Republic and cites the well-known Böckenförde dictum that the state is based on conditions that he cannot guarantee 21. Böckenförde really did the trick of giving a liberal interpretation of Carl Schmitt’s theory of the political and his state theory and translating it into a liberal decision-making practice as a judge of the German supreme court (Richter am Bundesverfassungsgericht). 22 The famous Böckenförde dictum was primarily intended as an appeal to Christians to regard the preservation of freedom by the state as their own task 23. Böckenförde was also an social democratic politician (SPD). He was the rare case of a liberal Catholic constitutional judge who was also prepared to oppose the hierarchy of the Catholic church.


But Böckenförde’s dictum is less an “answer to Carl Schmitt” 24 as it is a continuation of Carl Schmitt under the conditions of the Bonn Republic. Böckenförde saw himself as a disciple of Schmitt. Of course, he only referred to Schmitt’s work in the early Weimar Republic, not to his Nazi tracts in the early years of the Third Reich. With Böckenförde, Schmitt’s brusque rejection of any kind of pluralism turns into the cautious reference to “relative homogeneity” as a prerequisite for the state 25. As an answer to Carl Schmitt, one can better understand Chantal Mouffe’s theory, which agrees with Schmitt in recognizing the need for homogeneity in a democracy (which she then calls “commonality” to distinguish herself from Schmitt). But for her, this homogeneity is the result of a process in a field of conflicting forces. 26. This theory is also often used to justify an agonistic concept of current political theatre, which tries to intensify hidden social conflicts 27.

  1. „Spannung zwischen den Inszenierungen von Macht und Politik und den theatral-fiktiven Reflexionen“ Marx, p.8
  2. cf. Siegfried Melchinger, Geschichte des politischen Theaters. Velber: Friedrich Verlag, 1971 or Manfred Brauneck, Die Deutschen und ihr Theater. Kleine Geschichte der „moralischen Anstalt“ oder ist das Theater überfordert? Bielefeld. transcript Verlag, 2018
  3. Ernst H. Kantorowicz, Die zwei Körper des Königs. Eine Studie zur politischen Theologie des Mittelalters. Munich: dtv, 1990. first engl. Princeton 1957
  4. see. the chapter “Le Roy est mort” at Kantorowicz pp. 405-432, which describes the funeral rites of the French kings
  5. Livius reports on the fable of Menenius Agrippa: “tempore quo in homine non ut nunc omnia in unum consentiant, sed singulis membris suum cuique consilium, suus sermo fuerit, indignatas reliquas partes sua cura, suo labore ac ministerio ventri omnia quaeri, ventrem in medio quietum nihil aliud quam datis voluptatibus frui; conspirasse inde ne manus ad os cibum ferrent, nec os acciperet date, nec dentes quae acciperent conficerent. Hac ira, dum ventrem fame domare vellent, ipsa una membra totumque corpus ad extremam tabem venisse. Inde apparuisse ventris quoque haud bless ministry esse, nec magis ali quam alere eum, reddentem in omnes corporis partes hunc quo vivimus vigemusque, divisum pariter in venas maturum confecto cibo sanguinem. Comparando hinc quam intestina corporis seditio similis eats irae plebis in patres, flexisse mentes hominum. ”Livius, Ab urbe condita 2, 32. A. Koschorke, S. Lüdemann, T. Frank, E. Matala de Mazza, Der fiktive Staat. Konstruktionen des politischen Körpers in der Geschichte Europas. Frankfurt / M: Fischer, 2007. trace this development of political metaphor in detail.
  6. „Doch scheint es, dass der Begriff der ‚zwei Körper’ des Königs nicht von der frühen Entwicklung und der dauernden Triebkraft des Parlaments im englischen Verfassungsdenken und seiner Praxis zu trennen ist.“ and „Ein deutscher Fürst hatte sich in einem abstrakten Staat einzurichten. Jedenfalls fehlte die Theorie der ‚zwei Körper’ des Königs in all ihrer Kompliziertheit und manchmal skurrilen Konsequenz auf dem europäischen Kontinent so gut wie völlig.“ Kantorowicz p.440. Kantorowicz only refers to 20th century Germany in a single footnote. It is about the oath formula “pro rege et patria“, which combines feudal (rege) and state (patria) duties. Kantorowicz writes: „Die Formel pro rege et patria (Für König und Vaterland), die sich in der preußischen Armee bis in die jüngste Vergangenheit erhalten hat, brachte 1918 sich widersprechende Pflichten mit sich, als die Offiziere sich erst nach der Flucht Wilhelms II. nach Holland frei fühlten, der res publica zu dienen, nachdem ihre ‚feudalen‘ Treueide obsolet geworden waren. Eine ähnliche Situation entstand 1945, als der persönliche Eid sie der patria verpflichtete.“ p. 267, note 204
  7. „Kantorowicz trieb seine Erforschung der englischen Quellen nicht weiter als bis zu den letzten Jahrzehnten des ausgehenden 16. Jahrhundert. Angesichts seines im Vorwort angekündigten umfassenden Vorhabens, zu einem Verständnis der Ursprünge und der Mythologie des modernen säkularen Staates beizutragen, überrascht es allerdings, dass er gerade an diesem Punkt damit aufhörte. Hätte er seine Forschungen englischer Quellen noch über eine Generation weiter vorangetrieben, würde er in den englischsprachigen Diskussionen über das Verhältnis zwischen dem politischen Körper von Königen und dem corpus Politikum ihrer Untertanen auf einen epochemachenden Augenblick gestoßen sein. Er wäre an den Punkt gelangt, an dem man vielerorts damit begann, den Körper, von dem es hieß, dass Könige über ihn herrschen, erstmals als den Körper des Staates zu beschreiben.“ Quentin Skinner, Die drei Körper des Staates. Frankfurt: Wallstein, 2012, p.14. Skinner’s essay is based on his Kantorowicz Lecture from May 2011 at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. And this lecture goes back to Skinner’s British Academy Lecture in 2008
  8. “Erzeugung eines virtuellen body politic” and “mediale Verdopplung des Kaiserlörpers“ Marx p.12
  9. Susanne Lüdemann makes it clear that this technique of governance was already in use at Machiavelli’s time and became important in the 17th century, and shows the differences and similarities between these two two-body-theories: „In gewisser Weise ist auch diese Dichotomie zwischen (zu verbergender) Wirklichkeit und (verbergendem) Schein eine politische Zwei-Körper-Lehre: nur dass an die Stelle des unsterblichen und symbolischen Körpers des Königs sein medialer und imaginärer Leib getreten ist.“ A. Koschorke e.a., p. 156
  10. see Fritz Stern „Geld, Moral und die Stützen der Gesellschaft“, in: Das Scheitern illiberaler Politik. Studien zur politischen Kultur Deutschlands im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Berlin: Ullstein Propylaea, 1974, first Engl. 1970
  11. Thomas Frank, “Der Staat als juristische Person”, in: Koschorke e.a. Part V, p. 374
  12. „Die Nacktheit des body natural disqualifiziert den neuen body politic.“ Marx, p. 14
  13. Marx, p. 12
  14. “The body itself is an image even before it is reproduced in images. The image is not what it claims to be, namely the reproduction of the body. In truth it is the production of a body image that is already given in the self-portrayal of the body.” (transl. G.P.) Hans Belting, „Das Körperbild als Menschenbild. Eine Repräsentation in der Krise“, in: H.B., Bild-Anthropologie. Paderborn: Fink, 2001, S.89
  15.  (transl. G.P.) „zwei Körper, die man in einer Amtsperson trennte, einmal um den natürlichen Körper, der sterblich war, und dann um den Amtskörper, der von einem lebenden Träger auf den nächsten übertragen wurde und dadurch Unsterblichkeit erlangte“ . Belting, p.96f
  16. Kantorowicz quotes the French lawyer Pierre Grégoire: “Nam ipse non est dignitas: sed agit personam dignitatis.” Kantorowicz S. 417
  17. transl. G.P., „Die im lebenden Körper vereinten zwei Körper wurden nach seinem (des Königs) Ableben sichtbar getrennt.“ Kantorowicz, p.418
  18. Marx, p.119-203
  19. see. e.g. Luise Vogt’s production of Shakespeare’s “König Lear” at Schauspiel Bonn 2019, the-body-of-the-king-and-translates-shakespeare’s-most pessimistic-tragedy-into-a-sequence-stylized-events & catid = 38 & itemid = 40. Another reason for the extensive reception of Kantorowicz’s book in the theatres is probably that he first demonstrated the theory of the two bodies of the king in a drama, Shakespeare’s “Richard II“.
  20. As a sociologist, Max Weber was not at all Carl Schmitt’s adversary, but Hans Kelsen, the expert of constitutional law against whom Schmitt polemicized in his 1922 work “Politische Theologie“. To call Carl Schmitt’s justification of the political “transcendental” does not exactly fit his theory. In any case, Schmitt’s theory of the political has nothing to do with Kant’s concept of transcendentality, which means the conditions of the possibility of knowledge. Rather, one could call it an anthropological theory founded on the opposition of friend and foe.
  21. “Der freiheitliche, säkularisierte Staat lebt von Voraussetzungen, die er selbst nicht garantieren kann.” Böckenförde, p. 112
  22. see: Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, „Der Begriff des Politischen als Schlüssel zum staatsrechtlichen Werk Carl Schmitts“ (first in 1988), in: E.-W.B., Recht, Staat, Freiheit. Studien zur Rechtsphilosophie, Staatstheorie und Verfassungsgeschichte. Frankfurt / M: Suhrkamp, 1991, pp. 344-366.
  23. Böckenförde, loc. cit. p.114
  24. “Antwort auf Carl Schmitt“ Marx p.16
  25. Böckenförde, p.346, 366
  26. Chantal Mouffe, “Schmitt and the Paradox of Liberal Democracy” (first 1997) in: The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso 2005, p.56
  27. see. Florian Malzacher, Gesellschaftsspiele. Politisches Theater heute. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2020, pp.12-14

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