Jane Hwang Degenhardt and Elizabeth Williamson, eds, Religion and Drama in Early Modern England: The Performance of Religion on the Renaissance Stage. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. xi + 281 pp. ISBN 9781409409021.

Alison Searle
University of Sydney

Searle, Alison.  "Review of Jane Hwang Degenhardt and Elizabeth Williamson, eds, Religion and Drama in Early Modern England: The Performance of Religion on the Renaissance Stage. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011." EMLS 16.2 (2012): 6. URL: http://purl.org/emls/16-2/revrelig.htm

  1. Recent critical work on the culture of early modern England has increasingly recognised the central importance of religion and the complex way it informed every aspect of daily life. However, much remains to be done in order to provide a sophisticated account of the ways in which the various forms of Christianity, Judaism and Islam influenced, or were influenced by, public and private theatrical performances under the Tudors and the Stuarts. The contributors to this collection offer a fascinating and variegated examination of the inter-relationships between religion and drama in an attempt to fill this critical lacuna. In their introduction, the editors claim that they seek ‘to complicate our understanding of how references to contemporary religion function within the theater by attending to the representational gaps created by theatrical materiality and performance’ (2). They do not see direct analogies between religious or historical and dramatic discourses, suggesting that ‘the stage…both draws upon and profoundly reconfigures existing religious signifiers’ (2). This ‘important methodological shift’, they argue, is achieved ‘by taking into account the effect of the material conditions of early modern performance, by exploring the intricate resonances between dramatic performances and religious ceremonies, and by re-assessing the multiple valences of religious allusions in early modern plays’ (3).

  2. Overall, the essays speak well to one another and the collection does help to further the methodological shift to which the editors refer. However, the decision to divide the collection into three sections: ‘theatrical materiality and religious effects’; ‘intersections of popular theater and religious culture’; and ‘beyond allusion and ideology’ seems to occlude more than it reveals, closing down instead of opening out the multiple ways in which the various essays overlap and engage with one another, and reintroducing some of the labels and distinctions that the editors wish to challenge.

  3. Holly Crawford Pickett’s stimulating analysis of the smell of incense in early-modern drama offers an important corrective to a myopic critical focus on the sense of sight. That further consideration needs to be given to the latter is, however, demonstrated in Erika T. Lin’s careful discussion of the ways in which the visual paradigms of popular worship, particularly the celebration of the Eucharist, can inform our understanding of how the complicated spying scene in Love’s Labor’s Lost might have been performed on the early-modern stage. By paying close attention to the aural qualities of song in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, and tracing the cultural interchange between the Second Three-Man’s Song and the immensely popular psalm-singing introduced by the Marian exiles after their return from the Continent, Jacqueline Wylde enriches and complicates current readings of Dekker’s rollicking fantasy.

  4. Peter Berek’s ‘pains to identify the visible signs used to imply Jewish identity’ further the strongly materialist focus of the collection, and provide a complex, highly entertaining reading of the significance of noses in staging Jewishness and sexuality and in evoking audience laughter. He notes that his ‘sexualized account of “looking Jewish” is relentlessly male….Not circumcised, women embodied their Jewishness in blood rather than in flesh….Conversion seems easier when the marks of faith are invisible’ (66). This focus on the exterior deepens our understanding of the ways in which gender complicates representations of inter-faith conversions on the early-modern stage. Berek’s essay directly engages with that of Dennis Britton in the most complementary juxtaposition within the collection observing that the latter confronts scholarly uncertainty about the dramatic representation of allegiance to creed by concentrating on ‘the symbolic significance’ of ‘conversion and circumcision’ (60) in contrast to his own highly tangible focus. Uncertainty is indeed the keynote of Britton’s essay, but he skilfully demonstrates the intimate correspondence between an actor’s clothing and other material items (such as Rabshake’s nose) and religious identity; this helps to explicate some of the seemingly irrational fears of the theatre’s religious opponents. ‘It was on the stage…that English apostasy was explicitly visualized through a change of costume, which I suggest was more than just a change of costume. Like Anglican vestments to zealous puritans, costumes (and other stage items) make present that which they bring to the mind of the spectator, the historical and cultural associations that are attached to them’ (81).

  5. Two key essays on the relationship between social and religious conventions in the household of Archbishop Whitgift and the performance of the Marprelate controversy – ‘handling religion in the style of the stage’ (153) – enrich our understanding of the ways in which religion shaped ‘country household revels’ (152) and the complexity of ‘the many different theatrical guises to which Elizabethan religious controversy contributed some element or thread’ (172). Musa Gurnis-Farrell offers an attenuated reading of Protestant martyr plays as a genre, particularly in her awareness of various potential responses amongst confessional groups within the audience. However, she also sets-up a problematic connection between authorial intention and a play’s ideological agenda that is not adequately resolved by her focus on the ‘production of plays in the early modern commercial theater’ as ‘a process of cultural bricolage’ (193).

  6. This emphasis on polyvocality and the ways in which ‘the conditions of theatrical production open up space for the voices of a mixed religious culture’ (193) also energises the more explicitly theoretical contributions to the volume by Michael O’Connell, Susan Brietz Monta, Julia Reinhard Lupton and Anthony B. Dawson. O’Connell suggests that Shakespeare may have been imagining an eirenicism modelled on Plutarch’s second-century syncretism in Antony and Cleopatra. Lupton, in a theatrical and entertaining essay, postulates a fictional Paul Shakespeare who facilitates the development of a critical approach that is ‘besides typology, but also because of typology’ (232) through her reading of Paul’s epistles, his interpreters and Shakespeare’s plays. Monta concludes that The Winter’s Tale’s ‘insistence that religion and theater are not in opposition, that “faith” and belief in theatrical fiction may be as nuanced as discourses concerning religious faith, constitutes the defense the play mounts of its own dramatic fiction’ (137). Whilst Dawson, in his wonderfully stimulating coda, suggests that ‘theater…makes other kinds of discourse its own by changing its mood from the indicative to subjunctive. In doing so with religion it moves decisively towards the secular…thus establishing a relationship of adjacency’ (247). He finishes by imagining how ‘an early modern spectator might have been stricken by the vertiginous possibilities of unbelief’ (248). These critical essays are erudite and entertaining, opening up promising new avenues for future considerations of the many inter-relationships between religion, drama and performance on the early-modern stage. However, by privileging polyvocality, scepticism, openness, faith tinged by doubt, and unbelief, the early-modern playwrights and audiences evoked seem to share more of the ‘habits of thought’ of twenty-first century critics than the historical evidence adduced by these fascinating critical essays warrants.



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).