10.05.21, Perry and Watkins, eds., Shakespeare in the Middle Ages

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Elizabeth Scala

The Medieval Review 10.05.21

Perry, Curtis, and John Watkins, eds.. Shakespeare in the Middle Ages.. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 295. ISBN: 978-0-19-955817-9.

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Scala
University of Texas at Austin

It isn't often that one has breaking news to share in a book review, but to readers of TMR the news that Shakespeareans and other Early modernists now appear interested in the Middle Ages feels much like that. Perry and Watkins's collection intimates, alongside other recent volumes, that the medieval period is finally starting to attract its disciplinary neighbors. [1] This is surely good news, as the essays in this collection repeatedly attest, for a Middle Ages trenchantly severed and typically belittled or oversimplified by Early modernists as a kind of jumping off point for their own "historically specific" projects. Medievalists have been interested in Shakespeare and the Renaissance for some time, but they have seldom been answered by their colleagues across the hall. [2] Perry and Watkins show that this situation is potentially ripe for change in a collection that includes scholars squarely medievalist and Early modernist, as well as those few who regularly switch hit (all are identified by their day jobs in the introduction). Having Renaissance scholars taking the Middle Ages and medievalists seriously can only be a good thing. The essays in this collection will be, one hopes, a harbinger of a bright future when more essays and books might be written--and, more importantly, read--across the Reformation divide.

While my hopefulness is buoyed by Shakespeare & the Middle Ages, it is not completely satisfied. Although it might look like Renaissance specialists have begun seriously reading the work of medievalists, from the pages of Perry and Watkins's collection it is clear they have not. Inside are 12 contributions: some are very smart essays, and some are in open conflict with others in the same collection. After briefly summarizing the content of the essays, I'll turn to this larger situation, and how it is typically handled, before suggesting some ways out of our sub-disciplinary historical bind.

The collection opens with a strong contribution by Christopher Warley. His essay, "Shakespeare's Fickle Fee-Simple," situates A Lover's Complaint in terms of thematic, critical, and historical "fickleness." Not only does the poem narrate a maiden's complaint about her fickle lover, but its critical reception might also be described as fickle (if not as downright rejection). Warley hopes to convince us that it is also "about the fickleness of historical transition" (23). Pointing both forward (to Marvell) and backward (to the popular complaint poem in the Middle Ages) in time, A Lover's Complaint participates in the question of the transition from feudal social and economic organization to capitalist ones. This argument is both captivating and, sometimes for that reason, more of the "same" the collection is supposed to revisit. Dazzling with a veneer of the historical specificity we have become addicted to, Warley reads fickleness as a trope for the changing social and economic world. If what we gain is a more unsure and ambivalent transition from feudalism to capitalism, he still posits the "medieval" as safely feudal (with its popular complaint poems acknowledged but unexamined). To take only the most obvious example of a medieval writer who was an expert in complaint (The Legend of Good Women) and who wrote tirelessly about inconstancy and fickleness (Troilus and Criseyde): doesn't Chaucer also write about economic and social history (in The Canterbury Tales)? Does such historical specificity hold water? To be fair, Warley thinks he's attending to things differently by understanding the way "A Lover's Complaint plays a role in the transition from feudalism to capitalism because it helps to create new social positions out of the logic of older social relationships. It creates them not by rejecting or sharply breaking with medieval or feudal concepts but by intensifying them to the point that they transform into something different" (24). Like Brenner's argument for the accidental development of capitalism out of feudal relations, Warley tries to show how the social roles in Shakespeare's poem grow out of older social forms. But his ideas of the feudal Middle Ages go entirely unchanged; in fact, in the quotation above "medieval" is a synonym for "feudal." His moves in this essay are ingenious. He gives the lie to every complaint that I'd be prone to register here-- he cites Chaucer's medieval poetry and some of the medievalist scholars that write about it (something most of the other Renaissance specialists in the collection fail to do). And perhaps this is why his strongly written essay opens the collection. However he's reading the wrong texts. If he wants to look for a language of abstraction to ground a nascent emergence of commodification, he needs to read The Canterbury Tales or Piers Plowman. This critical tour de force makes all the right moves, therefore, yet only winds up re- installing platitudes about the feudal Middle Ages in self-consciously sophisticated ways.

The next two essays explore Shakespeare's engagement with the language of penitence and repentance, as well as the work that recognition does for social categories within penitential structures, specifically the creation of persons. Sarah Beckwith's "Shakespeare's Resurrections" reads his "resurrection theatre [here in The Winter's Tale] [a]s intimately linked to an exploration of both penitence and repentance as modes of recollection and redemption mediated through a profound and resonant engagement with the puzzling, concertedly bewildering resurrection narratives of forgiveness in the Gospels and the Easter liturgy, and the mystery cycles" (46). Looking particularly at Shakespeare's later plays among others, Beckwith attends to the figures presumed dead who return to chasten the living: "The drama of their return is always a theatre of memory and recognition" (47). Unlike the ghost appearances in earlier tragedy, these "offer the opportunity for transformation...that will take up and redeem the past" (48). Where the "romances" have always been recognized as a Christian typological structure, Beckwith advances a more specific apparatus derived from the religious drama (in both the Eucharistic liturgy and the Corpus Christi cycle) preceding Shakespeare's commercial theater. This makes "the understanding of grace as forgiveness...central" (50). Resurrections stories, Beckwith shows, "create forgiven persons" (56).

So too Elizabeth Fowler's contribution, "Towards a History of Performativity," seeks to read Shakespeare's "imaginative reaction to the Protestant reformation of the sacraments" via social contract theory (60). She argues more for the relation of Shakespeare's cultural depictions of social personhood, bonds, and contracts that ought to be attended by scholars of political philosophy than the relation of political philosophy to Shakespeare, i.e. a severe application of political rules and structures as an explanation of literature. In a subtle reading of what is at stake in The Merchant of Venice, Fowler sees "the play as offering a series of versions of social contract," showing a marriage contract interrupted precisely between title and possession in order to turn to a commercial contract that will trouble the very same division. Central to Fowler's work is the importance of the Reformation conversion of the sacraments and the power of penitential theology, "important because much of economic and political thought about what glues human beings together into polities grows out of sacramental discourse and its constructions of intention, interests, and the passions" (69). Though looking at different continuities with medieval culture, this focus on penitence and sacramentality in the way subjects are able to recognize and create their relations to others, the way, that is, they are constituted as persons, helpfully connects Fowler's and Beckwith's essays.

John Watkins' "Losing France and Becoming England" charges us to see the disconnection with France after England's January 7, 1558 loss of Calais--the day "the English Middle Ages ended" (78)--as "an important precondition for England's oceanic future" (79). We recognize this future as modern, sovereign, and diplomatically revolutionized, i.e., no longer bound to dynastic intermarriage of an older, European kind. He reads King John, in standard historicist mode, as the beginning of the new genre of History play that "arose through revisionary recollections of the Middle Ages that commented implicitly on current events" (80). Watkins is co-editor of the volume and co- authored its introduction. I therefore expected him to offer somewhat less of the standard argument that Shakespeare's plays inaugurate modernity on the English stage. Watkins reveals in his reading that "the diplomatic vision that these plays promote depended on a tendentious interpretation of the Middle Ages that contemporary medievalists are still working to overcome." Despite this protest, he seems entirely uninterested in overcoming the old stories. For Watkins, Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights' misreading/creation of the Middle Ages is merely there and must be used. Scholars like Deanne Williams have written on the Francophilia and anxiety about taste and culture incited by France in English writing, an anxiety that connects literary works in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Watkins cites but ignores this work, instead positing Francophobia as its modern distinguishing feature. [3] This complicated love/hate relationship with the French is merely indicative of a more complex historical situation in which the new and different is intimately tied to continuities with the past it seeks to displace. These maturation narratives, critical as well as historical, need to account more fully for the ambivalences driving them. In practical terms, then, one wishes for more engagement with Williams's work (and other work like it) as well as her sources, rather than the quasi-dismissive "see also" footnote.

In "The Voice of the Author in 'The Phoenix and Turtle,'" Patrick Cheney continues his long-time project of inserting Spenser into our understanding of Shakespeare's poetic corpus, a project that seems especially helpful if one is to connect that poetic practice to the Middle Ages as well. He argues that the 1596 publication of The Faerie Queene was crucial to the imagined literary genealogy of Renaissance England. After that date, "it would be difficult for any poet concerned with authorial genealogy and literary history to confront Chaucer directly, without going first through Spenser." And he "further propose[s] that Shakespeare understood this Spenserian genealogy, and made it the center of his intertextual method when re- working Chaucerian poems" (106). Cheney goes on to read Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls as "a key intertext" to "The Phoenix and Turtle" in order to investigate "what we might call the intertextual politics of authorship and literary form" between these two great bird poems of the late Middle Ages and early Modern periods (108). In Cheney's view the connection between these strong poets is itself strong and worth exploring in detail. His essay disrupts and complicates the strictly linear genealogical relations he begins with, showing how reading and using the texts of the past is also reading and using contemporary literature. This reworking of the progressivist and linear relation between medieval and renaissance unites Cheney's efforts with the next essay in the book.

At what I would identify as the collection's epicenter sits William Kuskin's "Recursive Origins," an essay devoted to print history, Shakespeare's history plays, and the books of the fifteenth century. Specializing in an historical transition and set of texts almost always overlooked but central to the reading practices of the sixteenth century and beyond, Kuskin turns us to print history to understand Shakespeare at work 2 Henry VI. Like Cheney, Kuskin complicates any "long return to Chaucer" in the poetic genealogies of the sixteenth century by inserting the fifteenth-century books through which such relations are mediated. Demonstrating (often to critical surprise) how a poet like Spenser in The Shepheardes Calendar also read Lydgate and Skelton, he shows how "the fifteenth century is elided into an absent middle ground even as it structures the development of modern poetics...suggest[ing] that paradox is the wrong term for such a literary history of precedence and innovation, appropriation and subordination, which is better understood as recursive" (128). He then reads in the 1594 quarto appearance of The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, reporting a short version of what is now Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI as "a concrete moment of origins that troubles the notion of origins overall" (129). Unfolding "Shakespeare's early interest in the fifteenth century...[it] reveals his emergence into print not as a clean break, but as a convoluted process of repeated return" (129). Kuskin's recursive reading "allows us to conceive of the centrality of fifteenth-century writing to the early modern canon" (144), and wonderfully explains details that have been so unsettling--such as the wild popularity of Lydgate's long and tedious works--to medievalists and early modernists alike. He shows us, through fifteenth-century books, how "reading and writing: the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the medieval and the modern, are locked in process that transcends any simple notion of historical break" (149). This is a careful and subtle essay that others in the collection should have read closely. By highlighting the fifteenth century, Kuskin reveals the blind spot of others in the volume.

Thus, when Brian Walsh begins "Chantry, Chronicle, Cockpit": "In representing the reigns of English monarchs from the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries on the late-sixteenth-century stage, Shakespeare helped to define the past as 'other' from the present" (151), we see the truth of Kuskin's claim about the fantasmatic break between past and present. Analyzing how Shakespeare "demonstrates a rupture in English historical culture between what we now call the Middle Ages and his own late sixteenth-century moment" (153) in Henry V, Walsh looks to show a Middle Ages "not so much 'obscure' as enticing" (152). But Walsh is reluctant to diverge from Shakespeare's compelling terms of differentiation. According to him, Shakespeare distances his own historical moment from this enticing past by emphasizing "developments that undeniably mark major breaks from the world of the early fifteenth-century when Henry reigned: the Reformation, the advent of the printing press and its role in historical writing, and the dawn of the professional theater" (152). But one could question what Walsh here calls "undeniable" by disputing the status of these "major breaks." For Walsh recognizes no Lollard "Premature Reformation" or London book industry and English paper mill production that made the printing venture immediately profitable. More telling is his linking of Reformation and printing with the professional theater (which Shakespeare comes to identify for us), making Shakespeare himself co-terminous with these "undeniable" breaks from the past. Because Walsh sees these things as entirely new and different, their appearance in Henry V must suggest a sharp and self-aware division between Shakespeare's present in which the play is being written and the past the play depicts. Like many others in the collection, when Walsh apologetically notes how Shakespeare "helps to define the past as 'other,'" that recognition does not inspire any further critique or exploration of what that 'otherness' might mean. We are supposed to be satisfied with the recognition, as if we already know its meaning. This essay is curiously juxtaposed with Kuskin's, which has a much more continuous and convincing set of ideas about the relations of the textual periods Walsh writes about.

Curtis Perry's essay on "National Identities and the Early Modern Drama of Medieval Conquest" links its interest in the incipient nationalism of renaissance England with the current explorations of nationalism's origins in recent medieval studies. In distinction from narratives of "Tudor centralization and consolidation," Perry challenges us "to rethink the relationship between emergent forms of nationalism and the nature of the Elizabethan and early Stuart medievalism upon which they are always grounded" (173). And yet, accepting the terms by which Benedict Anderson explains the historical consciousness of modernity and nationalism would seem to redraw the hard line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: "A history lacking a consistent sense of anachronism, in which any episode in the undifferentiated past can relate to the present as an exemplar or precedent, lacks the unifying principles of selection and biographical narrative required by the nationalist sense of history Anderson describes" (174). This is a strongly written sentence, but one that threatens to exclude the somewhat confused, often typological historical imagination of late medieval and early modern texts. Moving away from the Shakespearean histories that have become too familiar and unduly representative, Perry examines Edmond Ironside (among other works dramatizing early conquest) "to decenter our sense of the nationalist project of the history play by recovering an alternative version of what England meant from a set of less-familiar plays dealing with the Danish and Norman conquests of England in the eleventh century" (175). Shakespeare's histories thus emerge as only one version of the national past "articulated from within a historical culture that contains multiple, conflicting resources for national self- description" (ibid). Reading Faire Em, Ironside, and The Love-Sick King, in particular, Perry finds "alternative national memories with alternative histories and politics" (177) coexisting with the "essentially Protestant, royalist brand of Tudor nationalism" critically dominant (176). In the end, Perry's essay shows how various incipient forms of nationalism can be, but it remains confusing given the genuflection to Anderson and to those arguments that have aligned the Renaissance with his nationalist model.

The final three essays in the collection argue for strong connections between Shakespeare's works and those of the medieval tradition. The first of these is a gem. In "King Lear and the Summons of Death," Michael O'Connell argues for the influence and liveliness of fifteenth-century morality plays upon Lear, as well as that tragedy's lingering memory of the mystery cycles. While O'Connell never claims moralities like Magnyfycence or The Pride of Life as sources for Shakespeare, he does show convincingly the kind of continuities between these dramatic forms, and the way figures in Lear are shaped by and known as versions of their late- medieval predecessors. Such continuities explain yet another way we feel close to Shakespeare's characters. What we typically explain as their modernity (i.e., their closeness to us in the way they think and feel) might also be figured as their deep familiarity. That is, Shakespeare's individuated and often historical characters are also familiar types that have long histories in performance. Smartly contrasting the moralities' handling of death (as in Everyman) with Lear's tragic and moving account draws a more precise difference between medieval and Renaissance plays even as it finds Shakespeare using familiar tropes and conventions. This is what O'Connell calls "Shakespeare's transvaluation of the morality motif" (212), something that "tie[s] the Lear story to a narrative about the acquisition of self-knowledge and wisdom that have always been thought requisite before the coming of death" (214). At the same time as he shows this transvaluation, he also shows a Shakespeare who extends and exceeds the morality tradition itself.

The latter two essays that close the volume are less successful. Karen Sawyer Marsalek composes "Marvels and Counterfeits" similarly to link Shakespeare's theater with an earlier one through the trope of the resurrected character and the return from the dead. Reading some of the darker moments of false resurrection in early English drama, she connects the Coming of Antichrist to the political contexts of 1 Henry IV--"usurpation of power and abuse of the body politic" (218)--through the antitheatrical controversies produced in response to the unease surrounding such false miracles. This essay's level of generality makes for a less convincing argument. In the collection's final contribution, "Shakespeare's Medieval Morality," Rebecca Krug discusses the Gesta Romanorum as a source for The Merchant of Venice. She posits the loose use of four stories from the popular tale collection (which was probably compiled as a preaching aid) in the narrative of the play as a prompt for "its audience members to consider their own ethical decision-making process as they view the drama" (242). Of all the essays in the collection, this one gave me the most trouble. Written by a medievalist, parts of it read as if it came out of a 50 year-old time capsule. It has an extraordinary certainty about what a "medieval" interpretation or reading was and a largely clerical understanding of textuality, despite what it briefly mentions as a popularization of the tales beyond their original function. With its homage to D.W. Robertson (244), a critic few have read without reservation in the past 25 years, she posits Shakespeare's "intentionally moral" use of the Gesta's stories at the heart of Merchant and an essentially "moral" understanding of anything medieval in the Renaissance. This carries over into a narrow treatment of scholarship on the play. Where we might expect a focus on recent Merchant criticism or a rich historical narrative of the textual survival or proliferation of the Gesta into the Renaissance, Krug instead turns to a 1962 essay on Shakespeare's play. With the exception of one 1999 Shakespeare Quarterly essay, Krug's research relies mainly on materials published prior to 1962. This is perplexing, and it closes the collection on a rather weak note. Instead of expanding what the Gesta might have meant to Shakespeare or his Renaissance audience, the essay winds up narrowing The Merchant of Venice in an unfortunate way.

This book is interesting but more than occasionally frustrating. The major rethinking of the truisms of early modern subjectivity, capitalism, and progressive political and religious reform rests in abbreviated form in the Introduction. In their introductory remarks, Perry and Watkins offer one of the best arguments in the book (even if it is one that cannot be fully fleshed out). In imagining the ways the Middle Ages invented Shakespeare, they conjure up a medieval theater more complex and self-divided, more in touch with Shakespeare's own: "What if the centrality of attacks on 'covetyse' in plays like The Castle of Perseverance and Mankind arise not from an ancient Christian consensus against avaritia but from a topical resistance to new market practices that were creating a new class of prosperous burghers? In that case, we can hardly claim that the greater individualization that distinguishes Lear from Everyman or Iago from the Vice is a superstructural response to a basic intensification of economic competitiveness. Nor can we adopt a neo-Whig narrative attributing it to emergent middle-class creativity" (5). What a spectacular essay this might have made! Where these cautions preface the collection, however, they are sadly invisible next to the specificity of particular arguments.

It is very hard for us to know the critical traditions of both medieval and Renaissance literature. Both are extensive. With few exceptions (principally those that discuss the Middle Ages through its religious drama or religious moralism), the medievalist critical work treated in these essays is a matter of mere decoration, and it's a minimalist decor at that. One large, inclusive footnote generally serves for the medievalist work each Early modern scholar engages. The majority of essays, which treat the Middle Ages as theme or the historical content of Shakespeare's works, conduct business as usual. This generally means that the sphere of critical reference for Early modernists has not much changed, save for the usual suspects. In the place of sustained engagement with medieval texts and the criticism written about them, a mention of David Aers's "A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists" (which argues for just such considerations) serves in its place.

What has been excluded? Well, one expects to find more (and extended) reference to the groundbreaking Oxford Literary History by James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution (2002) that has set the critical world astir--a volume that shifts the period parameters as well as the way the division of Middle Ages from Renaissance is maintained. Whether Simpson's case for diminishing liberties in the Tudor period is accepted, I find it hard to countenance that his work is for the most part ignored. This neglect points to the difficulty of redrawing disciplinary boundaries at this late date and what might be needed if such a project is to be carried out. For one, we have to start reading more seriously across lines, both literary and critical, we have become too comfortable using. Thus, while many of the contributors acknowledge the simplicity of the old chestnuts about the Middle Ages, they offer little in place of them. Partially responsible for this hardening of period lines is the tendency to work in micro sub-specializations. Much of the legacy of interdisciplinary work (in which literary scholars are compelled to read in philosophy, anthropology, psychology, economics and sometimes all of the above) has the unintended effect of making us read less widely in our own historical fields, let alone those adjacent to ours. No one seems to know yet what is happening in literary theory, but there seems to be a new interest in bringing our interdisciplinary expertise to what might now be called an intradisciplinary corpus connecting "medieval" to "renaissance." This is what Shakespeare & the Middle Ages suggests; it is not what it delivers.


1. Notably Gordon McMullan and David Matthews, eds. Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England (Cambridge UP, 2007).

2. See also the recently published issue of JMEMS 40.1 (Winter 2010) devoted to "Premodern Shakespeare," edited by Sarah Beckwith and James Simpson.

3. Deanne Williams, The French Fetish from Chaucer to Shakespeare (Cambridge UP, 2004).

Article Details

Author Biography

Elizabeth Scala

University of Texas at Austin