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 Oâ€™Connell’s â€œContinuities Between â€˜Medievalâ€™ and â€˜Early Modernâ€™ Drama,â€ 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?