Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Review Article: Shakespeare and the Middle Ages

Dermot Cavanagh

Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, eds. Curtis Perry & John Watkins. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). 295 pp + xiv. £59.00 hbk.

Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, eds. Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray. (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Co, 2009). 276 pp + viii. £35.00 hbk.

[1]  Shakespeare’s works are subject to a wide range of needs and demands. His writing has elicited a continuous and sometimes volatile debate over both the values it espouses and the contexts which best illuminate these. In this respect, Shakespeare remains a writer that different interpretive communities want to claim for their own. One area of dispute that has intensified in recent years concerns the temporal and cultural context within which we locate Shakespeare. Curtis Perry and John Watkins present a collection of essays on Shakespeare and the Middle Ages that sets out to challenge a habitual perception of his works as being embedded wholly within the Renaissance (or early modern) world. Instead, they and their contributors invite us to reconsider how deeply Shakespeare’s work is suffused by habits of thought and artistic conventions that derive from the medieval period. Indeed, this volume suggests that Shakespeare’s writing has also helped to determine the chronological categories and process within which it is located. As the editors put it in their impressively thoughtful and considered introduction, the role of Shakespeare’s works in the ‘invention of the Middle Ages’ should not be underestimated (3). This has helped to promote, in turn, the professional, and even ideological, interests of Renaissance specialists and to constrain understanding of the works themselves. Shakespeare’s position at the centre of the Renaissance canon has undoubtedly been a crucial factor in ensuring the continuing cultural presence and prestige of this field of literary study both within and without the academy. We have become familiar with readings that construe his works as enacting both a rupture with the norms and assumptions of the ‘middle ages’ and a turn towards modernity. But what if this enduring paradigm is misconceived? Shakespeare may not be better understood as a medieval writer exactly but beginning with the assumption that he belongs to a distinctively Renaissance period can obliterate legacies that are integral to his writing and thinking. In addition, it also excludes medievalists from the interpretation of works that are affected profoundly by earlier sets of values and conventions or that simply do not fit within a strict conceptualisation of period-boundaries.

[2]  To be sure, such a challenge to the historical understanding of Shakespeare has been made before. Emrys Jones’s ground-breaking study, The Origins of Shakespeare (1977) explored how Shakespeare’s breakthrough as a writer in the 1590s was enabled by his profound awareness of medieval forms rather than being initiated by a breach with these traditions. Jones demonstrated how much Shakespeare learned from his medieval forebears: the plays absorbed a wide range of scenic and structural principles from the mystery cycle and morality play traditions and this underlay some of their most compelling and seemingly distinctive theatrical techniques. On this account, the principal sources that shaped Shakespeare’s compositional habits in the formative phase of his career derived from indigenous theatrical traditions not classical influences. In an equally arresting study of Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (1989), John D. Cox challenged the influential assumptions of New Historicism concerning Shakespeare’s incipient modernity, especially with regard to the representation of political power. Rather than attributing the writer’s unillusioned attitude in this respect to his modernity – and to an outlook shared by such avant-garde writers as Machiavelli – Cox showed how Shakespeare’s unflinching political realism was shaped by his medieval heritage, most notably by an Augustinian scepticism towards the prerogatives and pretensions of worldly power. It was this vision of temporal authority that pervaded the great civic theatre of the mystery cycles, informing its often troubling account of the vulpine nature of kings and magistrates and the consequent vulnerability of subjects to their predations. It was this dramatic tradition that most influenced Shakespeare and it offered a wide range of theatrical situations and experiences to draw upon in his often pitiless examination of the pursuit and exercise of authority. Again, when Shakespeare appeared most forward-looking he was actually looking back.

[3]  Yet these two significant contributions exercised little sway over the mainstream of Shakespeare studies. Over the last three decades, the issue of how Shakespeare’s works address those forces deemed to constitute our present disenchanted world — the rise of individualism, market relations, colonialism — has remained at the forefront of critical concern. More recently, however, interest in how Shakespeare’s writing was constituted by his past has been reinvigorated with major studies by Beatrice Groves, in Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare, 1592-1604 (2007), and Helen Cooper’s, Shakespeare and the Medieval World (2010). The two collections of essays under review offer an opportunity to consider what kinds of questions and dissatisfactions drive this research and to clarify what difference it makes to perceive Shakespeare in terms of a medieval rather than an early modern world. As we’ll see, they also demonstrate some of the difficulties of this project. This is especially apparent in terms of the residual power of assumptions concerning the medieval period and the contrasting modernity of Shakespeare that still underlies even the analysis that sets out to overturn this.

[4]  In Perry and Watkins’s Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, the essays follow three directions, some of which intersect and overlap but which can still be distinguished in broad terms. The first approach is less interested in questioning received approaches to periodisation and instead emphasises how Shakespeare (and others) understood the distinctiveness of the medieval past, principally in historical drama. In a suggestive essay, Brian Walsh considers Shakespeare’s characteristic stress on discontinuity and historical difference in Henry V. In particular, he emphasises the play’s recreation of the ‘otherness’ of a past world that existed before the key moments of historical transformation marked by the Reformation, the advent of printing and the development of the professional theatre (including the key genre of the history play). In its self-conscious attention to these crucial differences — such as the chantries Henry has founded to pray for the soul of Richard II — Henry V demonstrates a sharp awareness of historical distinction and transformation. It is also attentive to the different ways in which the past is construed and disseminated as different sets of protagonists apprehend it in their own ways. The commentary of the Chorus also reminds us of the uniqueness of the theatre as a performative medium within which the past is recreated.

[5]  The two editors of the collection also consider historical drama. Curtis Perry has granted himself some welcome editorial largesse to consider how variously historical dramatists aside from Shakespeare recreated the medieval period. He considers a number of plays that deal with the Danish and Norman conquests of England in the eleventh century, such as Fair Em, the Miller’s Daughter, Edmund Ironside, and The Love-Sick King. The aim is to remind us of the heterogeneous and conflicting ways in which the medieval past was imagined, especially in terms of national identity. The plays considered by Perry emphasise the ancient liberties associated with localities and the power this gives them to resist conquest and invasion. The subject-matter of the essay is fresh and handled interestingly and it is good to see non-canonical theatre given such attention. The argument is less convincing when it contrasts these plays with the fundamentally royalist conception of Englishness represented in Shakespeare’s historical drama, a highly contestable assumption that is largely reliant on Richard Helgerson’s work. In ‘Losing France and becoming England’, John Watkins reads King John as exploring the shift from dynastic to state-based forms of diplomacy. The play presents the breakdown of the strictly dynastic interests pursued by John’s military endeavours and marriage treaties and reveals, in the wake of this, the emergence of a new kind of political identity where subjects belong primarily to a nation. John’s political failure as a dynastic monarch thus opens the possibility for a newly assertive understanding of the significance of England as one nation within an emerging system of competing, distinctive and sovereign nation-states. These three essays are full of insight yet they largely conform with a traditional understanding of Shakespeare as a Renaissance writer who possessed a sharply differentiated sense of the ‘middle ages’, a period with its own unique and now vanished characteristics.

[6]  A second direction is followed by those contributors who are interested in what the editors term ‘the medieval invention of Shakespeare’ (3). In these essays the core issue is, in essence, continuity. If the category of early modernity is bound up with ideas of transition, newness and rupture, the critical task is usually to consider how Shakespeare’s works confronted these challenges. Yet as Perry and Watkins point out in their introduction, many of the historical features and social processes that are thought of as constitutive of early modernity — for example, market capitalism — were present in the medieval world. This idea broaches the intriguing possibility of considering how medieval and Renaissance theatre explored shared experiences rather than seeing the latter as brought into being by a wholly new set of forces.

[7]  In this spirit, William Kuskin considers the continuity rather than disjunction between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in terms of their shared ideas of literary and cultural authority. In his account of The First Part of the Contention, more familiarly known as 2 Henry VI, Kuskin stresses the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s manifest interest in the previous century inasmuch as the work both subordinates and dismisses earlier traditions of writing and yet continues to be preoccupied with its self-consciousness about textual reproduction. In a sophisticated argument, Kuskin stresses how our understanding of book history needs to acknowledge the importance of paradox and recursive returns rather being founded on a linear narrative of singularity and progress. The essay stresses Shakespeare’s concern with textuality and how texts within the play can both constitute authority but can also be manipulated and challenged. A linear concept of literary and printing history obscures dependencies and recursive exchanges across time, for example, between manuscript and print culture as well as the concern with textuality Shakespeare shares with fifteenth-century writing.

[8]  Two other contributors also stress the continuities and exchanges that exist between temporal and cultural categories often viewed in isolation. Sarah Beckwith explores the recurrent concern with figures who return from the dead in Shakespearean drama — especially in the post-tragic theatre of the ‘late’ romance plays — and who provoke profound questions of responsibility and repentance. Beckwith considers a number of sources for this preoccupation including the resurrection narratives presented by the mystery cycles and their central concern with the acknowledgement of Christ’s body and the demand this makes to sustain a new kind of self and a new form of community. The resonances for this in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale are explored compellingly and with great delicacy and insight. In another fine essay, Michael O’Connell points out that Shakespeare was unique amongst major contemporary playwrights in having direct access to the last performances of the mystery cycles and this may be a key factor in the equally distinctive influence of medieval theatre upon his work. O’Connell traces a number of allusions and references to the cycles but his main interest is in the legacy of the morality play, especially for King Lear. The latter play relies extensively on emblematic characters and morally polarised situations and the roles of Kent, Fool and Edgar are especially indebted to morality conventions. The narrative of Lear shares similarities with Skelton’s Magnificence, however, the mode that most affects the play is the Summons of Death most famously embodied in Everyman. O’Connell shows how deeply Shakespeare’s play absorbs the patterning and preoccupations of this tradition whilst ironising and exceeding it to intensify its tragic potential.

[9]  The final trajectory taken by these essays is to see the works as less locatable in a particular period but as embedded in and reflecting upon processes of transition and change. In a strikingly ambitious essay on A Lover’s Complaint — the disputed authorship of this text is set aside in a footnote — Christopher Warley reads the poem as expressive of the shift from feudalism to capitalism. Indeed, the author states his intention to explore how the poem reveals ‘the transition from medieval to Renaissance’ (25) which again has the rather odd effect of largely reinstating the very categories the volume sets out to challenge. Still, the reading itself is resourceful, remarkably so in many ways, in its attention to the rhetorical complexity of the poem combined with a reading of its relationship to economic discourses of property-relations and commodification. At times, the theoretical density of the argument does over-burden the poem with an excessive amount of conceptual and historical significance. The core argument is that love complaint expresses a new form of productive social power to transform existing circumstances. The concluding thesis, influenced principally by Gayatri Spivack, is a provocative one: that the maid’s acceptance of her own commodification also constitutes the possibility for new forms of social opportunity and agency. Still, the essay is full of energy and interest although it seems wedded to tracing the ways in which this text does indeed mark ruptures and transitions that point towards modernity.

[10]  In a lucid and immensely suggestive essay on performativity, sacraments and social contracts in The Merchant of Venice, Elizabeth Fowler considers the pervasive role of bond-making in the play, especially in terms of a shift towards a more Protestant form of evaluating a citizen in terms of juridical and economic categories. In the play, the sacramental speech associated with penance and marriage is now articulated in wholly public and secular contexts and this reveals the power of these speech-acts both to create and, as Shylock discovers, to destroy persons and their social relationship to each other. In another essay concerned with questions of social identity in transition, Patrick Cheney turns his attention to the question of authorship. His argument is that Shakespeare understood that he was increasingly seen as the heir to both Chaucer and Spenser and self-consciously sought to be acknowledged as such. In The Phoenix and Turtle, Cheyney suggests that the author re-works Spenserian modes along with Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules to foreground his own first-person voice in the creation of the poem. However, he differs radically from Chaucer in displacing the singularity of this voice. The latter modulates to encompass both the poem’s collaborative funeral lament and then the distinctive dramatic voice of the character of ‘Reason’ within the poem. In this way, Shakespeare combines, or rather effects, a transition between two key strategies of authorial self-presentation: Chaucer’s self-effacement and Spenser’s ‘self-crowning’. In the process, he supersedes both models in his own quest for acknowledgement as National Poet.

[11]  Two further essays discuss Shakespeare’s explicit indebtedness to medieval texts and conventions and how these are transformed. In ‘Marvels and Counterfeits’, Karen Sawyer Marsalek considers the false resurrections performed by characters linked to the Antichrist tradition in the cycle plays as instances of usurpation of rightful power and the dangerous power of theatrical illusion. This is then used as a context for interpreting Falstaff’s (or Oldcastle’s) counterfeiting of death in 1 Henry IV as Shakespeare’s response to Puritan antitheatricalism: it implicates, at one level, a Protestant hero (Oldcastle) in this capacity to exploit illusion. In ‘Shakespeare’s Medieval Morality’, Rebecca Krug examines the ethos of the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of late thirteenth-century moral tales printed in 1577 and whose narratives were widely disseminated in other sources. Krug stresses the enduring power of the stories themselves, rather than their allegorical interpretation, and sees Shakespeare’s interest in these narratives as occasions that demand further reflection and that invoke the audience’s own ethical decision-making powers. In The Merchant, the vexed relationship between a number of moral claims — mercy and justice; mercantilism and morality — are shown to have numerous correspondences with the narratives found in the Gesta as are the core narrative devices of the bonds agreed in the play and the use of the casket-story. The play absorbs these narratives but insists ‘on the importance of human relations in such decision-making’ (260), although Krug suggests that a response that stresses the importance of moral choices in the secular world may have been equally available to medieval readers as well.  Both these essays are suggestive rather than wholly convincing. There are multiple contexts available to explain the aspects of each play that they consider and it’s not self-evident that these sources are decisive.

[12]  In all, this is an immensely stimulating collection which ranges widely across Shakespeare’s poetry and drama and produces some surprising connections and perspectives. Yet it is notable how the residual power of early modernity as a temporal category and, indeed, its medieval precursor is still felt in these essays. Many of them insist both on the significance of the forms and traditions inherited by Shakespeare and also how profoundly these were transformed in new directions. Recurrently, the contributors return to the intensity of Shakespeare’s preoccupation with human contexts and temporal experiences. This involves abandoning the perspective of salvation history which would order and interpret these from a larger metaphysical perspective. Sarah Beckwith insists that it is the ‘human response’ that matters for Shakespeare in his concern with grace, repentance and recognition (64); Michael O’Connell argues that Lear ‘confronts death in a way devoid of the ideology that supported the tradition’ of the morality play (216); Rebecca Krug suggests that The Merchant of Venice inherits ‘the medieval source’s transcendent morals’ but only to ‘insist on finding ways to apply them to life in this world’ (260). This often sounds familiar and proximate to the early modern Shakespeare who moves towards a largely de-sacralised way of perceiving and evaluating experience.

[13]  Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray’s collection shares a title with Perry and Watkins’s volume but there are fewer similarities than this might suggest as its concern with modernity (and post-modernity) is far more pronounced. This study considers how plays with a medieval setting or that draw on medieval sources have been adapted or performed. This definition would include the bulk of Shakespeare’s plays and there’s a diffuse and sometimes uneven quality to the collection’s aims and contents.  In the introduction the editors state a familiar aspiration to challenge disciplinary divisions and explore the permeable boundaries between periods, but the scope of this aim is not fully realised. For example, Shakespeare is defined rapidly as a writer who belongs firmly to one period rather than another: his works ‘give us an early modern perspective on the medieval world, full of inaccuracies and anachronisms, idealizations and demonizations that differentiate the two eras’ (10). Consequently, the value of studying Shakespeare’s recreation or appropriation of the medieval world is what this reveals about early modern culture or that of later periods.  On this view, the medieval period provides material to be worked on or adapted and its own autonomy or residual power is only sporadically acknowledged by the contributors.

[14]  The collection opens with an interview with the film-director Michael Almereyda concerned with his adaptation of Hamlet and is then divided into four sections dealing with Shakespeare’s principal genres; each is introduced by one of the editors. Given the generality of the volume’s aims some of the essays would fit equally well in a volume dedicated to a broader study of adaptation or performance and, at times, there is only a gesture towards a medieval dimension of the analysis. The opening section on historical drama, which promises to ‘consider how ideas about the Middle Ages are filtered through Shakespeare’ (21), in fact pays only glancing attention to these qualities. A musicologist, Linda K. Schubert, offers an interesting account of the musical scores that accompany the portrayal of Agincourt and its aftermath in films of Henry V and Jim Casey provides a useful survey of the different ways in which Richard III has been embodied in contemporary stage and film productions. However, there’s little to be gleaned from these approaches about the medieval dimension of the plays (or, for that matter, early modern attitudes). Catherine Loomis’s essay on ‘Falstaff in America’ coheres more closely with the stated aim of the collection. This makes a genuine attempt at the outset to consider Falstaff’s parodic relationship to medieval values. It then examines, briefly but suggestively, a wide range of performances and films from the nineteenth century onwards to show how this figure’s carnivalesque energy expressed distinctively American concerns.

[15]  The section dealing with the tragedies begins with Carl James Grindley on the potentially interesting subject of cinematic representations of the ‘medieval peasant’, but the latter category is understood vaguely and doesn’t apply to the two groups who are the main focus of the essay: the portrayal of the household servants and citizens of Verona in Romeo and Juliet. The treatment of class-relationships in Shakespeare and within the play is hurried although there’s a more confident discussion of the portrayal of the commoners in Zeffirelli and Luhrmann’s versions of the play and their role in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. The next two essays on Hamlet and Macbeth are founded more surely. Patrick J. Cook offers a thoughtful account of the medieval elements in Hamlet and the rising contemporary and theatrical interest in Denmark. He then discusses the vogue for ‘historical’ stagings of the play in the Victorian period and the medieval settings used in cinematic versions, principally in a more extensive discussion of Zeffirelli’s film. Sid Ray’s essay on ‘Finding Gruoch’ is the strongest in this section which brings together medieval material with modern adaptations in interesting ways. The essay contains an interesting discussion of what the historical sources tell us about Lady Macbeth and the complexities of her experience (which are largely occluded by the play). This context is then used to assess her largely reductive portrayal in the versions of Orson Welles and Polanski and more productive realisations in an Australian cinematic version of the play and in the urban drama Heights.

[16]  One of the editors, Martha W. Driver, opens the section on comedy with a survey of the elements of medieval romance that feature in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and how these are handled in performance, in particular, the roles of Oberon, Puck and Bottom and the mechanicals. Julia Ruth Briggs considers Shakespeare’s adaptation of Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida and The Two Noble Kinsmen and considers some of the other sources that shaped these works. Her essay suggests that the presence of medieval material is much stronger in the latter play. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare diminishes the courtly love ethos of the earlier poem and makes the Greeks appear as much more contemporary to the original audience. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, the chivalric atmosphere of the play is more palpable as its key ritualistic quality. Briggs’s essay also includes a concise discussion of the performance history of both works. In conclusion, Gary Waller discusses the medieval motif of the Pregnant Virgin, most famously captured in paintings that rendered the maternal body with great vividness such as Piero della Francesca’s ‘Madonna del Parto’. Waller considers this tradition as a context for Helena’s appearance at the end of All’s Well, That Ends Well where ‘the apparent Virgin is transformed into a vision of sexual affirmation’ (183).

[17]  The final four essays discuss the ‘late plays’ or ‘romances’. Kelly Jones considers how the use of Gower as a Chorus (and source) for Pericles allows the play to explore the question of authorship. Jones draws attention to the hybridity of Gower’s presence as both archaic and familiar and this draws attention to the performativity and instability of his own role and decentres any stable notion of the author. R. F. Yeager also considers Pericles and presents a more detailed analysis of the numerous sources from which Shakespeare may have gleaned his understanding of ‘moral Gower’ and the commitment in the play to viewing the action from a ‘medieval’ perspective. Louise Bishop turns, like Julia Briggs, to examine Shakespeare’s relationship to Chaucer although in this instance the emphasis is on how the portrayal of successful female eloquence in the Tale of Melibee influences Hermione’s presence in The Winter’s Tale. Finally, Kim Zarins discusses the significance for Caliban in The Tempest of the allusion to the folkloric tradition of the Man in the Moon. This legend embodied the plight of a peasant made eternally outcast and subjected to an eternal penalty of labour for theft and Caliban seems to recognise and identify with this predicament when he meets Trinculo and Stephano.

[18]  It is striking that none of the contributors to these collections engage in any extensive way with the question of Shakespeare’s own religious affiliations or consider whether this might be in some way deducible from this aspect of his work. (A partial exception is Sarah Beckwith, who hints at the author’s sympathy for Anglican theology in the late plays). Both collections present a Shakespeare who is deeply engaged with and shaped by the ‘medieval’ period but from a largely secular perspective. The period presented him with modes, forms and material to be absorbed and re-imagined in his art and with a set of ethical and political concerns that pervade his writing but that are often strikingly reshaped and placed in radically new contexts. Inevitably, readings interested in the legacy of these works in performance have the most immediate and visible compulsion to consider this. Yet even those approaches that concentrate on the works’ original contexts of composition tend to stress either that the predicament of modernity starts earlier than we think or that Shakespeare shows how sacred forms or inherited traditions can no longer encompass, let alone resolve, the condition of the world around him. Either way, returning to the medieval Shakespeare brings us closer to his modernity than we might suspect.

University of Edinburgh

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