The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama

By Ephraim, Michelle | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama


Ephraim, Michelle, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama, by Elizabeth Ashgate: Aldershot, Hants, England, 2009. Pp. 252. Hardcover $99.95

Reviewer: MICHELLE EPHRAIM

In her carefully researched monograph, The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama, Elizabeth Williamson establishes how the physical representation of religious objects on the post-Reformation public stage would have evoked a dynamic emotional response from its audience.

It is widely known that Reformist discourse derided Catholic religious objects as idolatrous--a material presence against which the spiritual culture of Protestantism was shaped. But it is Williamson's contention that the stage properties of Reformist drama suggest a more nuanced relationship between the Protestant subject and these material vestiges of traditional Christianity. On the public stage, Williamson argues, these so-called graven images could also engage their audience as "affective technologies," a physical means through which the theater could tap into the "emotional resonance" of these objects' original religious context and "translate" these powerful feelings into secular plots (27). As public conceptions of material objects such as the tomb, the altar, the crucifix, and the prayer book--the respective subjects of the four main sections in Williamson's study--changed during the Reformation, the theater was in a unique position to mimic and exploit their fluid meanings. It is Williamson's central argument that "the strategies employed by theater practitioners ... reflected the remarkable shifts in value that occurred as religious objects left English churches and were destroyed, repaired, and reincorporated into new contexts" (2).

A notable feature of Williamson's study is her resourceful methodology. As she acknowledges, there is scant documentation of the actual stage materials used in theatrical productions. Yet she pieces together what feels like a comprehensive treatment of religious objects in post-Reformation drama by drawing upon medieval stage inventories and sources such as the Office of the Revels, churchwardens' accounts, legal documents, and personal letters (10). Williamson makes a persuasive case that the material descriptions of religious objects in these writings illuminate also how the same objects might be crafted for stage productions (3).

In the first half of The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama, Williamson examines the role of physically substantial "material technologies" such as the tomb and the altar. The second half of the book focuses on the more prevalent, and portable, objects of the cross and religious book.

Chapter 1 links representations of tombs on the secular stage with the topos of Christ's resurrection. Plays such as The Winter's Tale and The Duchess of Malfi, Williamson argues, continue the guild-sponsored mystery play tradition of staging the resurrection, but do so in a way that "appropriate[es] ... the emotional power" (60) in a secular form. Her discussion of this imagery in a number of Shakespearean plays is a useful and accessible starting point for the book's broader examination of religious objects in a range of theatrical productions.

In chapter 2, Williamson traces how another overdetermined object of ceremonial worship the altar emerges in secular drama. Here Williamson provides crucial historical context in her discussion of how Archbishop William Laud and other anti-Calvinists resisted the prevalent Reformist appropriation of the Catholic altar as a "holy table" or "God's board" (73), repurposed for common use and stripped of ornamentation. Williamson's arguments about the significance of material representations on stage are most persuasive when she incorporates her deft analyses of Laud's controversial revival of ceremonial objects during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Plays such as Thomas Dekker's The Noble Spanish Soldier, Williamson argues, call our attention to the slippery (and often purely rhetorical) relationship between "altar" and "holy table. …

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