Greg Walker. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. xii+245pp. ISBN 0 521 56331 3 Cloth.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan. "Review of The Politics of Performance in Early Remaissance Drama ." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 8.1-.9 <URL:

  1. Greg Walker's The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama is a welcome addition to the critical material focusing on Henrician and later Tudor drama. Concentrating on a number of major great hall plays -- court interludes -- Walker carefully examines the way in which the performances both reflect the agendas of the patrons and also often provide counsel not always in line with apparently predictable currents within the household, royal or noble. Playwrights, like candid courtiers, could offer objective advice; the wise prince could accept or reject the embedded homilies, but would surround himself with toadies at his peril -- the yes-man is inherently more useless (and even more dangerous) than the loyal servant who offers potentially uncomfortable lessons for the good of the state. Once these plays appeared outside the hall (whether or not the lines were altered) the political sub-text could well become less obvious--possibly, even, invisible. Yet, as Walker convincingly demonstrates, politics and courtly drama of the period were inseparable, and the modern reader wishing to come to terms with the genre must take into full account the socio-political context. Indeed, this volume is not simply a significant contribution to literary/dramatic criticism but also to historical study; the scholarship is evidently considerable and meticulous, and the documentation throughout is substantial.

  2. Following an Introduction in which Walker sets his own stage, as it were, and raises pertinent questions, e.g. regarding the nature of the audience within and beyond the princely hall, textual changes, the use of playbooks, etc., he moves to a consideration in Chapter I of the emergence and nature of printed copies, taking into account, for instance, the role of the printer (including John Rastell, et al.), the evolution of play-texts, the inclusion of stage directions, the audience/market for printed texts, the size of runs, the relationship between writer and printer, playing companies, touring (here we have the phenomenon of high art in a popular setting), and the results of a growing body of printed work deriving from the pre-playhouse period and, clearly, from other than playhouse origins. As Walker observes, printing established the great hall drama as the dominant mode in the sixteenth century; even the nature of the playing space had a lasting effect, and it is well to remember that the works with which Shakespeare became acquainted in London come solidly out of the tradition which is Walker's central concern.

  3. The second chapter explores at some length the notion of the playwright's role as counsellor (rather than mere entertainer) and the way in which dramas (with their political sub-texts) could support or subvert princely agendas and provide a stimulus for debate of major issues. The court of Henry VIII is an obvious case in point: the prince must be seen to entertain wise counsel--that was part of the expected image, and plays could be, in part, crucial elements in courtly spectacle and propaganda. In the end, the advice that the dramatist might proffer is ultimately in the realm of negotiation rather than rebuke: the adversarial role is neither functional nor tolerable. Thus, it is the subtleties which the modern critic must engage--in full possession of sufficient historical detail.

  4. Walker's treatment (in Chapter 3) of John Heywood follows logically, and outlines his career from the Henrician to the early Elizabethan years; Heywood, as a dissenter in the face of ecclesiastical and theological reform, while diplomatically advocating his own conservative views in his dramas, finally chose to leave England in 1564. In explaining both Heywood's role and the function of his dramas within the fluctuations of Henrician, Marian, and later policy, Walker examines in detail, with generous provision of examples, Witty and Witless, The Pardoner and the Friar (linkages to the Reformation Parliament (1529) and the issue of royal supremacy are addressed), The Play of Love (which clearly suggests resolution of contentious issues--Wolsey figures here--rather than confrontation), The Play of the Weather (reflecting Henry VIII's determination to assert independent judgment c.1529/30), The Four PP (again taking up the matter of supremacy and the desirability of the church moving internally towards reform), and, briefly, the now lost The Parts of Man (a dialogue between Will and Reason), written for Thomas Cranmer. In turning, towards the end of the chapter, to the political implications of publication (Heywood's interludes were published by William Rastell in 1533/34) Walker's comparison between Heywood and Thomas More is particularly instructive in distinguishing the former's rather more diplomatic, negotiated approach, despite conservative sentiments which he shared with Henry's more assertive and hence more vulnerable Lord Chancellor. Walker's extensive discussion of the political context as he proceeds through these texts is by no means tangential; it is as absolutely to the point as it is sure-footed, lucid, and engaging.

  5. The fourth chapter takes the reader north to consider a household drama of the Scottish court; Sir David Lindsay's Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estatis, an interlude given first for James V in 1540 (a production to which there is no text but of which there is clear and detailed evidence in a letter from Sir William Eure to Thomas Cromwell), later at Castle Hill, Cupar, Fifeshire in 1552, and then, with the Regent, Dowager Queen Mary of Guise in attendance, at Greenside Playfield, Calton Hill, Edinburgh in 1554. Walker clearly outlines Lindsay's career and his long relationship (later as Snowden Herald and Lyon King of Arms) with James V, pointing out that Lindsay was perfectly positioned, as a trusted courtier/counsellor, to give advice to the monarch: to give advice was a duty, in fact. The death of the king in 1543 left Lindsay not only with personal sadness but the problem of how to revise and readdress The Thrie Estatis in the context of a somewhat courtly vacuum. Walker notes clearly Lindsay's reformist tendencies and goes on to discuss the 1540 play in the light of Eure's letter, the involvement of religious questions within the drama, reformist politics at James' court, the way in which Lindsay approached the concept of the ideal king within the play, both praising and instructing the real monarch and providing encouragement to seek reforms from the Bishop of Glasgow. He then turns to a detailed consideration of the 1552 and 1554 productions, for which texts survive, and which involve a two-part drama, divided by a short interlude, looking at a) a court and the fortunes of a youthful monarch, and b) a meeting of the Scottish Three Estates convened to debate problems revealed in the first part of the play. Once more Walker not only considers the text itself and the differences between it and the 1540 version but also the political implications of performing such a text--clearly, while a king might be swayed, advice is more difficult to offer in a less stable regency environment. Although a reformist, both in terms of religious and social issues--his roles of the Pauper and John are crucial in the later text--Lindsay was less radical, Walker notes, than is sometimes assumed.

  6. Chapter 5 returns the reader to England and to the work of the famous--and in some quarters, infamous--Nicholas Udall. Following a cogent discussion of Udall's career (his alleged ill treatment of pupils as Head at Eton can only prompt anger and dismay, at best) and his reformist views (which not surprisingly cost Udall his Windsor canonry and his rectory at Colborne, on the Isle of Wight, though not his ability to write plays for the Marian court), Walker turns to Udall's Respublica, which he sees as a "political morality" in the same light as Lindsay's The Thrice Estatis and Skelton's Magnyfycence, though here the major character is female and, notes Walker, reflects the state rather than a singular prince. He looks at the plot, the potential occasions for the play, and then the issues which infuse it, regarding it as far more specific to its historical context than is generally imagined, particularly in terms of the endemic economic hardship to which England at the time was subjected. Here is a head of state duped by boastful Avarice in a play with topical (if veiled) references to greedy courtiers, rampant self-interest, and, in Walker's view, abuse of the church (e.g. the results of the seizure of ecclesiastical properties, a legacy from earlier reigns). The drama suits the Tudor imperative, and the last acts in particular veer towards reform of church and state, advocating a reformed Edwardian solution and not a return to a pre-Henrician status; it is a clear example of the household play and the function of the playwright as counsellor, and the issue of the ruler's gender is also an issue --astutely addressed.

  7. The final drama selected for discussion (in Chapter 6)--here in the light, particularly, of the politics of marriage and the related issues of succession (which obsessed many a courtier/subject for literally the entirety of Elizabeth's reign)--is the tragedy Gorbuduc. Performed during the 1561/62 Christmas season during the revels of the Inns of Court, Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's famous play was given again, together with a masque, at Whitehall for the queen. At hand for Walker, now, is a first-hand account of the early performance, putting the play and its legal/courtly audience into greater perspective and allowing comparison with the printed texts of 1565 and 1570. Walker offers succinct though necessary comments about the co-authors, outlines the political milieu, and then discusses the plot of the play which, of course, invites thoughts of Shakespeare's King Lear and which offers a number of potential firsts: as an English two-act verse tragedy, as an English imitation of Senecan tragedy, as an English drama employing blank verse, and as an English drama involving dumb-shows before its acts. But Walker's salient point is that quite apart from the play's importance for these reasons, the piece quite clearly demonstrates that it follows the great hall tradition of dramas which offer advice to the head of the court. Walker reflects on Gorboduc in view of the discussions about succession and marriage and then goes on to consider the "eye witness" account in the papers of Robert Beale (Yelverton Papers, British Library), specifically those involving Robert Dudley (a potential match for the queen), a view which, for instance, adds to an understanding of actions as performed and suggests a re-interpretation, for example, of the second dumb show, the character of Fergus, and so on. Walker goes on to outline the situation of Dudley and the possibility of a link between the queen and the king of Sweden. Of particular interest is the difference between the play as apparently performed and as later printed, with some material--expressly related to the question of marriage--deleted and replaced by a declaration of the necessity for the provision of sound advice. Clearly, even in the altered version, a courtly sub-text is visible to those with the contextual knowledge, even if some of the specifics have been expunged. The politics of performance and publication may be different, as Walker argues: the politics are there in either case.

  8. As Walker so pointedly and correctly notes in his Epilogue, textual study can be limiting: the printed texts of these early plays do not provide all the answers, or even necessarily correct ones. It is important to consider the details of the surrounding milieu not, I would suggest, to read interpretations into pieces but in order to tease out what is genuinely present. The modern audience in that respect experiences in somewhat greater degree the same problem experienced by the out-of-hall audience of the plays' period--unfamiliarity with the references, the lack of a key to unlock, as it were, the iconographic doors. The Epilogue also provides a brief, useful overview of the argument; certainly these plays reveal much about the political machinations of their day and they were, obviously, also central to some of the major political debates of their time.

  9. Appendices a) concerning the control and censorship of drama in print and b) listing the printed great hall plays (1510-1580) conclude this splendid volume. If there is a notable shortcoming at all, it is the lack of a bibliography--the extensive notes throughout must serve, though even there one might wish that the publisher (in addition to the place and date of publication) had been specified. The text itself, documented as it is, is thoroughly readable and constitutes, for the student of literature, theatre studies, and history a significant and original contribution.

    Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

    1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).