Memory and forgetting


Among my latest acquisitions is Gareth Sullivan Jr.’s Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama (CUP, 2005). Memory has become a pivotal category for early modern cultural studies (see also this Iter announcement of a conference on constructions of death, mourning and memory in art). In the context of the Reformation and the state’s efforts to make collective culture forget the saint’s days of Catholic faith, the concept of memory is especially poignant for the study of early modern culture. In an earlier post, I touched upon the relation between mourning and revenge. The painting that goes with this post is a graphic example of that relation, belonging to the Scottish genre of “revenge painting” — reminding the future King James of his duty to avenge his father’s death. In my post, I mentioned Robert N. Watson’s theory of a relation between the loss of Catholic mourning rituals and the popularity of revenge tragedy in the theatres. I have since discovered that Huston Diehl also discusses remembrance and revenge in the context of the Reformation in her Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage (1997). Michael Neill in his wonderful Issues of Death (1997) also writes on the subject, and sees English Renaissance tragedy as playing out “society’s effort to reach a new accommodation with death” after the Reformation.

Hamlet is also one of the touchstones that Gareth Sullivan returns to in his chapters on memory and forgetting in English renaissance drama. Sullivan argues for the historical specificity of memory and forgetting, and surveys their field of cultural associations. In a fascinating chapter entitled “Embodying oblivion” he maps out the physiological discourse of forgetting. In this discourse, forgetfulness is associated with sleep and lethargy, and, in humoral terms, with the cold and the wet of the phlegmatic humour. In terms reminiscent of Gail Kern Paster’s analysis of the early modern fluid sense of selfhood, Sullivan writes that since lethargy arises out of the moist and cold humour, it “makes the male body more like a female one” (31). Forgetfulness is associated with excessive sleep and passionate lust, with the undisciplined body. Remembring, on the other hand, was arduous work, achieved by diligence and (bodily) self-discipline. Both remembring and forgetting, then, were very much bodily procedures: the former associated with discipline and order, and constitutive of masculinity, the latter effeminizing in its associations with sloth, idleness, lust and excessive sleep. In the chapters that follow, Sullivan argues that whereas early modern theatre was by anti-theatricalists itself accused of inducing (self-)forgetfulness in its audiences, the drama of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Webster offers important qualifications to this characterization of forgetting as a lack of self-discipline.

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