Medieval and early modern English theatre

Medieval and early modern (literary) scholars out there — I could use your help. I have been asked to contribute a lecture to an interesting interdisciplinary BA-course on the question: how sharp is the dividing line between the medieval and the early modern period? After a general introduction that questions the traditional notion of the differences between the two periods, the course looks at a different art form each week, ranging from music, to painting, to theatre — and more. I get to do the lecture on early modern theatre on 1 June, preceded by a lecture on medieval theatre earlier in the week.

I was asked to contribute to the course yesterday, so there are three weeks left for preparations. I have so far concocted the following plan: I will start with a quotation from Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, in which he imagines how the young Shakespeare might have accompanied his father to the town of Coventry, nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. There,

in late May or June, in the time of long, sweetly lingering twilights, they could also have seen one of the great annual Corpus Christi pageants,

as Greenblatt puts it poetically. The imagined moment is a symbolic point of contact between the canonical playwright of the renaissance, and the theatrical traditions of the Middle Ages. Greenblatt’s sweetly lingering twilights resonate nicely with the title of the course, which puns on twilight zones. More to the point, the years of Shakespeare’s youth could be seen as a theatrical twilight zone between medieval genres of theatre and the plays of the professional theatres that emerged in 1576 (The Theatre) or even 1567 (The Red Lion).

What I intend to do in the two-hour lecture for students from all kinds of backgrounds, is firstly to introduce some of the commonly made distinctions between medieval and renaissance theatrical traditions (off the top of my head, things such as religious vs non-religious subject matter; community theatre versus commercial theatre — with a short overview of what early modern theatres looked like and how they worked; the emergence of a sense of inwardness in renaissance theatre). I might compare an allegorical play with a renaissance soliloquy, with the good and the bad angel in Dr Faustus as an interesting twilight case (drawing on David Bevington’s From Mankind to Marlowe). Or I might compare a medieval Vice to Shakespeare’s Richard the Third. Then, I will start to problematize matters.

I thought I might discuss some possible dates or events that could be identified as the watershed between medieval and renaissance traditions of theatre, such as the emergence of the professional theatres, or perhaps the Reformation that put a stop to many local theatrical traditions associated with Saint’s days, and finally also to the Corpus Christi cycles (in the 1570s). Or one might single out Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a typical renaissance play, written on the cusp of medieval and early modern traditions. I would then like to probe each and every one of these boundaries, and see how there are also strong continuities between the two traditions (perhaps drawing also on Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars where Catholic traditions are concerned).

I would talk about the arbitrariness of periodisation, about the problems with terms such as “renaissance”, “early modern” and “middle ages.” Also, I would like to examine whether early modern theatre itself perhaps contributed to our perception of a break between medieval and renaissance drama, by creating the notion itself. When Hamlet tells the visiting players to act naturally, and contrasts that ideal to a style of acting that “out-Herods Herod,” he refers to the Corpus Christi cycles, in which according to one famous stage direction “Herode rageth in the pagond and in the streete also”. By portraying medieval styles of acting are portrayed as outrageous and oldfashioned, the play draws a line between its medieval inheritance and its own genre. Finally, I might look at the ways our associations of the renaissance with notions of inwardness have themselves been shaped by the canonisation of Hamlet, for example.

That’s what I’ve thought of so far. It’s a lecture, not a seminar, but since there are about 30 students, I will also be thinking about ways I could activate the students — having them compare a passage from a medieval morality play and a passage from Richard III in groups, for example, with questions to discuss, and a plenary discussion afterwards. I can prescribe a text to students, and since the workload of the course appears to be quite heavy already, I thought I might restrict myself to a single article. I am thinking of using: Michael O’Connell’s “Continuities Between ‘Medieval’ and ‘Early Modern’ Drama,” in: A Companion to English Renaissance Drama, ed. Michael Hattaway (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 477-85.

So, what do you think? Any advice or comments, or have you spotted errors in my ideas so far? I am especially concerned about over-simplifying my representation of medieval drama (although the companion lecture on medieval drama by an expert in the field will probably set me straight there), and I would be interested to hear from you. What are your thoughts on periodisation, on (dis)continuities between medieval and renaissance traditions? Where would you draw a line between the two, if you had to, and why? Which primary texts would you use in class? And how would you go about teaching this lecture?


4 thoughts on “Medieval and early modern English theatre

  1. I’m glad you’ve made this post, since it’s given me an excuse to get away from marking. First off, your distinction between community and private theatre ignores the earlier tradition of the morality play or interlude often performed privately before large households. You’d then obviously include these with the mystery plays/cycles that you mention when discussing how their religious themes and didactic function became unpopular after the Reformation and how they were actively suppressed during the early decades of Elizabeth’s reign.

    Faustus is a great choice for illustrating points of continuity with earlier traditions, since the good and bad angel are informed by the psychomachia of the morality plays. Aside from looking at Richard III as a Vice figure, you could look at Shylock as Avarice. If you get a chance to look at it, Sandra Pyle’s Mirth and morality of Shakespeare’s holy fools (Mellen P, 1998) offers some examples for consideration.

    As far as “watershed” moments for Renaissance drama are concerned, maybe consider: (a) the accession of James and his promotion of a unified ‘Britain’; (b) the powder plot; (c) indoor theatres and the re-emergence of the children’s companies which played there, along with the new plays written for them that sacrifice story and character development in favour of stylistic excesses and meta-theatrical effects; (d) closet drama; and (e) the masque. On (a), see Christopher Wortham’s “Shakespeare, James I and the Matter of Britain,” English 45.182 (1996): 97-122; and on (b) perhaps Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Oxford UP, 1995).

    Another aspect you might consider looking at is the increased contact with and knowledge of other cultures resulting from increased travel and international trade during the Renaissance. This has varied implications and the choice of texts to look at are endless…

    For the ‘set text’, I’d recommend the chapter on “The Stage” in Andrew Hadfield’s The English Renaissance, 1500-1620 (Blackwell, 2001). Otherwise, another option is Andrew McRae’s short introductory text, Renaissance Drama (Arnold, 2003).

    Finally (SORRY for blabbering – I’m just really, really tired of marking at the moment, so this is a great excuse not to return to ‘the marking chair’) you can’t be expected to suggest a “line” between medieval and Renaissance traditions in drama, since the one clearly builds on the other. What did change was ‘the place of the stage’ (nod to Montrose) and the different genres that emerged to meet popular taste and demand.

    Sounds like a great lecture. Can I suggest using LEGO models to act out any passages you refer to – my students loved my LEGO Duchess of Malfi interlude as part of my lecture of Renaissance attitudes to widows and marriage! : )

  2. A very interesting subject to lecture on – and I’d guess that whatever you say, however brilliant, the students will not like it, for you will inevitably be blurring the precious categories they have pre-established. But as scholarship, Emrys Jones, ‘The Origins of Shakespeare’ (it’s the origins of that piece of Greenblatt too, I’d guess) seems to me worth your attention. Faustus is indeed the text: I reckon that you get a prime Medieval-Renaissance shift if you sub-read the legend of Theophilus at the moment when Faustus trysts with Helen of Troy. Why does it take Faustus so long to get round to her? A man who said he was ‘Wanton and lascivious’? She crops up just at a point equivalent to that when the BVM appears to Theophilus, and pops the pact he made back in his nightshirt. There’s a switch for you, Helen of Troy for the Virgin Mary.
    Nicholas Brooke’s old reading of Faustus as inverted morality play comes to mind as well.

  3. Brett and Roy, thanks for your helpful suggestions! I should have thought of Emrys Jones, of course, thanks Roy! I think it is a great idea, Brett, to talk about contact with other cultures in the early modern period – I could do that using Faustus again, and its broadening of horizons, its travels, even its processes of globalization when Faustus imports grapes in winter. Since Roy also agrees that Faustus‘s the thing, perhaps I should really make Faustus the touchstone in my lecture, returning to it throughout, to discuss what is early modern or medieval about it.

    So it’s back to the library for Nicholas Brooke’s reading of Faustus. Together with David Bevington’s From Mankind to Marlowe I should have plenty of material on the play and its relations to medieval drama. It’s a great idea to contrast Theophilus with Faustus, Helen of Troy with the Virgin Mary. I do hope that the students will be more open to the destabilizing of categories that you predict. I was more worried that perhaps they might have tired of doing so, since I am not the first lecturer in the course — they will have been questioning differences between medieval and renaissance traditions in other disciplines for a couple of weeks when I get to do my lecture. Perhaps they will long for facts and stable distinctions in three weeks time…. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  4. Hi Kristine. I’m teaching an entire class next spring on early English theater (arbitrary limit dates: 1300-1700), so I’ll be interested to hear how you end up structuring the lecture. I’ll just stretch your two hours out over fifteen weeks!

    My own sense of the line you’re rightly going to smudge all over the place is that if it exists at all for theater, it exists as a primarily economic shift with the opening of purpose-built theaters. Paying to enter a space specifically designed to determine who can or cannot view a particular entertainment? That draws a definite line: spatial, cultural, practical. I’m not sure whether that line directly corresponds with the broader resonance of the Med/Ren split, but if you’re looking for something, anything, solid for the students to hang onto, this might be it. It’s not that drama was completely divorced from profit and exchange before 1567/76 (guilds, guilds, guilds), but the moment people began being admitted to or excluded from performances based solely on their ability to pay, something deep and lasting happened to theater. It’s something most of the students will probably take for granted about drama as an institutional art form now… seems good to let them know the history of that shift.

    And if it’s not already obvious, I do love Jean-Cristophe Agnew’s Worlds Apart on this topic. It’s one of those books that gets nearly every local fact wrong, and in the process adds up to something wonderfully correct.

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