Bibliodyssey: October Renaissance

I made an executive decision, since my last post was reaching marathon lengths, to separate my discussion of Renaissance drama into a different post. I’ve allowed myself to expand and be a bit more scholarly here.

October: The Plays

Now we get to the Renaissance drama section of the Bibliodyssey. I absolutely adore the works of the British Renaissance – it was a time of such phenomenal exploration in the arts and sciences, with so much thinking about thinking itself, about life and death, history and tradition and what they told us and why, meaning and the acquisition of knowledge, the law and the body, gender and the subject, art and power.

I’ve written about Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi before (see June), because I re-read it before with a mind to editing it and directing a production. I’m still bouncing this thought around in my head, but haven’t really had the time to arrange my ideas to my satisfaction yet. Regardless, it is a powerful meditation on the tensions between power, the law, gender and desire. Critical essay and perhaps theatrical production to follow.

Everyman, author unknown, is a medieval morality play about a materialistic ‘Everyman’ who is tested by God, visited by Death, tries to bribe him, and must discover what will get him into Heaven before he actually dies. He discovers that the proper Christian virtue is Good Deeds, where Knowledge, Faithfulness, Goods and other such things are not what will get him into heaven. It’s a fairly direct text in that its ideology is right there in the fact that one man has a dialogue with a lot of personified ideas and then discovers that only one of them is the correct one. What is interesting, though, is the presence of God and Death as entities on the stage. Later in the Renaissance, not only was the representation of Death more metaphorical, but God was banned from the theatrical stage at some point – I just spent half an hour trawling through notes and texts and I can’t find the reference, alas. I do know that medieval mystery plays (called ‘mystery’ because of the old use of the word to mean ‘miracle’, not as in Sherlock Holmes) were banned from the stage altogether during the Reformation, because mystery plays are, inescapably, Catholic doctrine presented for peoples’ education and amusement.

I think that sums up, for me, what the Renaissance was all about: an awareness that plays, and other literature, said something more than just the words actors spoke, that there were meanings encoded in those words and performances, meanings in things said and things left unsaid. And in a time of such change, when the foundation of the world, the church, was so totally undermined, which allowed huge accelerations in the progress of art and science – when suddenly laws and the nature of laws were changed, and everybody was asking who had the power to make those laws and whether they were right, and what did it mean – the plays and the poetry and the politics are all caught up together, and it’s amazing.

A significant part of that, of course, was one W. Shakespeare, but he was part of a fantastic whole, so I’ll come back to him later.

Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness is a very peculiar play to the modern eye. Like many Renaissance dramas, it deals with the problem of adultery, female autonomy, why extramarital relations are necessarily extralegal relations and issues to do with power when placed within a domestic setting. (An adulterous wife was committing an act of petty treason in the Renaissance, because the husband was the head of the family just as the monarch was the head of state.) Of course I’m simplifying, but the point stands. A Woman Killed with Kindness, then, is a play in which an adulterous wife is not killed or punished outright by her husband; she is banished to a country house where she is to live, without contact from her friends or children, until the end of her days. It turns out that ‘the end of her days’ is quite soon, because she starves herself to death in penitence for what she’s done, and on her deathbed, begs her materialistic, cruel and self-focused husband for forgiveness. It’s interesting from a number of critical perspectives – the alignment of bodily purity with starvation, for example, and the fact that the title of the play suggests that her husband explicitly kills her – but I won’t go into detail here.

Yes, all of my enjoyment of Renaissance drama comes through the kaleidoscope of historical politics and ideology.

I also read Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus for the first time, and though I absolutely adored the elegance of his language, I have to confess that I was underwhelmed by it. I feel slightly guilty saying it, but Faustus was off-puttingly whiny as a character. As a symbol of the putative dangers of acquiring knowledge and as a satire on mystery plays it is brilliant, but I disliked the central character so much that from an artistic perspective I didn’t really connect with it.

You don’t need me to tell you that Shakespeare was a Renaissance writer, I’m sure. You may need me to tell you that, yes, he’s great, please don’t be so embarrassingly effusive about it, there’s no such thing as innate genius, writing is a craft, please stop drooling, I grew up in Stratford, yes he was brilliant but he was just this guy, you know? And don’t even get me started on the people who go on the offensive or the defensive about whether he ‘really’ wrote those plays or not. The man is less important than the works. I don’t hold with this ‘bardolatry’ rubbish, or with people seeking to deify things that they don’t want to understand in order to make them more important, or with people going “Nobody could have written all that!”… Yes they could. Also, it was very common for things to be written in collaboration, GET OVER IT and STUDY SOME CULTURAL HISTORY.

(Unless you’re the Royal Shakespeare Company, then you can do whatever you want and especially hire me, because I love you, despite your imperfections, because sometimes you just love things that way.)

Rant over.

Having reaffirmed my position as someone who thinks the works are more important than the man, I really, really love the works and what they do and the way that once Shakespeare gets his linguistic stride on, he can produce some truly remarkable things.

In Measure for Measure, for example, which I read both in its entirety and cut into the script for the production I’m in, there are some very clever metal/mettle, coinage, purity/bastardy allusions that run all the way through the text, from the moment that the Duke begins his experimentations with power all the way through to the end when the issues of what constitutes legal and illegal violence are resolved.

Hamlet, of course, is one of the central texts of the English-speaking worlds, and what I love about it most is that it meditates on the power of tragedy itself. Tragic literature, it seems to me, especially theatre, in order to be actually tragic, needs to have the realistic opportunity to be a comedy. If it could plausibly turn out alright, but then does not, that’s when it has impact. And Hamlet tries so desperately to get up the courage to kill the king, but worries too much about sending him to heaven, and delays and delays until he accidentally kills Polonius instead. Poor bastard.

My reading of Hamlet was changed forever when one of my lecturers, Richard Wilson, pointed out that the ghost of Hamlet’s father has returned from Purgatory – which necessarily means that he’s Catholic, because the Anglican church doesn’t have Purgatory – in order to command his son to ‘Remember’. Hamlet is a Protestant prince, at university in Wittenberg – the site of the Lutheran Reformation. And because Hamlet chooses to remember nothing but his dead father, in a sense he allows himself to be haunted by the Catholic past and to not behave reasonably or look to an integrated future. The moment he chooses to look only backward, he damns himself.

I enjoyed re-visiting Julius Caesar because it also deals with memory, but in such a way that it does look to the future. It’s also quite metatheatrical in some ways. I found it interesting that the conspirators spend so long talking themselves into the act of assassination (did you know that the first use of the word “assassination” was in Macbeth?) by justifying it with how they will represent it to the people: ‘Let’s be sacrificers, not butchers’ (Julius Caesar 2.1.173), understanding that the way in which a death is presented will affect peoples’ reactions to it, just like the effect of theatre itself on its audience.

And it was fun to glance over The Winter’s Tale again because it linked into some of my research interests into the representation of women, the body, gender and issues of power – the same with Macbeth, which was the first Shakespeare I read and I’ve been in love with it since I was nine years old. But I think I’ve managed quite an essay so far, so I’ll cut this short here and go get myself yet more tea.


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