The Medieval Review 13.07.16

Hirsch, Brett D. and Christopher Wortham. "This Earthly Stage": World and Stage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Cursor Mundi. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. Pp. xi, 297. 70.00 EUR. 978-2-503-53226-4. . .

Reviewed by:

John Sebastian
Loyola University, New Orleans
jtsebast@loyno.edu

In the summer of 2006, the Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group (PMRG) convened a symposium on the theme of "World as stage, stage as world" at the University of Western Australia. Among the outcomes of that symposium was a collection of thirteen essays gathered under the title "This Earthly Stage": World and Stage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England and edited by Brett D. Hirsch and Christopher Wortham.

The first observation to be made about this volume is that its title sorely misrepresents its content, for the reader of the essays contained therein will find no mention of the late medieval English stage and, as it turns out, very little discussion of anything passing for late medieval even according to the most generous of period definitions. The first six essays (and eight of the thirteen overall) focus on Shakespeare in his various guises. Not until Hirsch's own piece at the midpoint does any sort of engagement with the Middle Ages become visible. If anything, the temporal boundary of the collection's subject matter ought perhaps to have been extended in the other direction: Michael Best's essay on electronic editing of Shakespeare texts, Alan Brissenden's work on "Twentieth-Century Australian Dreams," and Steve Chinna's meditation on the figure of Hamlet's mother in the twenty-first-century play Gertrude (the Cry) by English dramatist Howard Barker extend the scope of "This Earthly Stage" well beyond the early modern period and, in the case of Brissenden's discussion of a distinctive "Australian" style of producing Shakespeare, well beyond England. This is not to disparage what are in general very fine offerings; it is instead to wonder about the precise nature of the conversation in which Hirsch and Wortham understand these essays to be engaged.

Unfortunately Wortham's introductory essay offers little clarity in that regard. He acknowledges that the essays were merely arranged alphabetically by author because the various principles of organization with which he and Hirsch flirted each "posited an intrusion of one sort or another" (2). That, or course, is the point in an organizing principle, and the editors' refusal to search out and articulate explicit connections between essays illustrates the lack of coherence within the volume. The absence, furthermore, of any meaningful theorization of the relationship between world and stage also stands out as a significant shortcoming. The book does open with a short epigraph from Shakespeare's contemporary, the English poet John Davies, likening people of all estates to players on an earthly stage, but Davies's commonplace really functions as little more than a self-interpreting ornament with only an implied connection to what follows. Instead, Wortham's introduction commences rather unexpectedly with the history of the founding of the PMRG and the convening of the 2006 symposium before turning a mere two paragraphs later to a summary of the essays themselves with no further rumination on the larger claims advanced by the book as a whole. In what follows, then, I limit my comments to the essays likely to be of greatest interest to medievalists, those by Hirsch, Clayton G. MacKenzie, Lucy Potter, and John Tillotson.

In "From Jew to Puritan: The Emblematic Owl in Early English Culture," Hirsch traces the transmission and transformation of anti-Semitic images and tropes during the seventeenth century. Hirsch begins by documenting the history of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, from the sartorial prescriptions of the Fourth Lateran Council through the development of the blood libel narrative, in order to demonstrate how medieval forms of prejudice maintained their purchase on the early modern English imagination. He then turns in particular to the development of the link between the owl and the Jew in the Middle Ages: both unclean, both averse to light (often figured as the light of Christian illumination). As Hirsch explains, the Reformation witnessed a realignment of these stereotypes, first as anti-Catholic polemicists likened Popes and Jesuits to owls, taking over the negative attributes previously associated with Jews, especially aversion to light and short-sightedness, and second as mainstream Protestants Puritans leveled charges of judaizing behavior against their Puritan rivals. Protestants, Hirsch reveals, tagged Papists and Puritans alike as Jewish and identified both groups symbolically with owls. These tensions then boiled over during the Civil War, with critics of the Puritan Parliamentarians (the Roundheads) associating their opponents with owls (birds with round heads whose flocks are called, coincidentally, parliaments). Hirsch gives his readers an instructive look at England's long tradition of stigmatizing unorthodox religious groups using owl imagery, although it should be noted that, several passing allusions to The Merchant of Venice notwithstanding, Hirsch offers no sustained discussion of the English stage, nor does he invoke the stage-world relationship.

Medievalists may also find interesting Clayton G. MacKenzie's "Edward II and the Rhetoricians of Myth," in which the author deploys Marlowe's play as a vehicle for examining Elizabethan views of the reigns of Edward II and his son and successor, Edward III. In depicting the turbulent politics of the early thirteenth century, MacKenzie argues that Marlowe was influenced by Elizabethan historiography that understood Edward III's reign as paradisial; Marlowe thus depicted the feckless Edward II as everything his son would turn out not to be. In anticipation of the triumphalist and paradisial future that the young Edward III heralds at the play's conclusion, Marlowe trots out a "passing parade of bogus mythologizers," including Edward's "minion" Gaveston and his cast-off and eventually traitorous wife Isabella, who represent "the rhetoric but not the true spirit and substance of the English mythology" that is reserved for the boy-king to come (195). These characters proffer visions of England's glorious future predicated on its mythic past, yet time and again these visions collapse upon themselves, as England awaits the achievement of her paradisial potential in the form of young Edward III in the concluding scenes of Marlowe's play.

In her "Making Men out of Kings: Shakespeare's Sources and Kingship," Mary-Rose McLaren straightforwardly but powerfully argues that the so-called London chronicles of the fifteenth-century are an important and underappreciated source for the early history plays. McLaren pursues three case studies that reveal that several of Shakespeare's plays (1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, and Henry V) include distinctive details that appear only in the London chronicles and not in the more familiar writings of Holinshed, Halle, and Fabyan, to which Shakespeare routinely turned for inspiration in crafting his vision of England's medieval past. But McLaren's essay moves beyond source study to consider how a comparison of fifteenth-century London chronicles with history plays from a century and a half later can also illustrate shifting attitudes toward the nature of kingship and the importance of performance in communicating monarchical identity. McLaren contrasts the fifteenth century, "when the enactment of good kingship effectively makes that kinship real in the streets of London" through the pageantry of royal entries, with Shakespeare's kingly protagonists who frequently struggle with the disconnect between their human and monarchical personas (229).

While John Tillotson's "Private Drama, Public Spectacle" Death and the Pre-Reformation London Elite" does not address medieval funerary practice as such, much of what he unveils about the pageantry of death in the earliest decades of the Tudor period can be extrapolated backward into the later years of the fifteenth century. Indeed, his argument is that what has been said about Elizabethan death does not necessarily apply to the reign of Henry VIII, since religious doctrine drives the drama of death, and Henry remained largely conservative in his theology and liturgical practice despite his overt political and ecclesial resistance to Rome. Through a careful study of the records five London funerals from the early decades of the sixteenth century, Tillotson confirms the rightful place of death's many performative rituals alongside other forms of early modern pageantry.

McLaren and Tillotson's contributions are also worth noting for their explicit engagement of the stage-world theme, as is Laurence Wright's concluding meditation on "Irony and Transcendence on the Renaissance Stage." Wright's position as the last contributor alphabetically is fortuitous in that he offers the most sustained theoretical engagement with the stage-world dichotomy. For Wright, "It seems to be the peculiar task of the stage metaphor, the notion of the theatre as a metaphor for life, to interrogate the tension between this inscrutable cosmic order and the limited viewpoints of ordinary humanity" (284). But this is perhaps too little too late. And while there is much to commend in many of the individual essays that comprise "This Earthly Stage", some of the parts are greater than the whole. In the final analysis, it is difficult to identify an audience for this book, and the absence of a comprehensive bibliography or any kind of index only further affirms the sense that these essays were not really compiled with any reader in mind.