The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England

The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England

The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England

The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England


"The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England is a wide-ranging investigation of Tudor/Stuart drama, Reformation preaching, and the relations between the two. The cross-fertilization between the two kinds of performance engendered among audiences a ready receptivity to the rhetorical use of paradox. The two modes similarly capitalized on characteristic Renaissance syntheses of magic, drama, and religion to develop strategies for negotiating state control. In chapters that set comedies and tragedies by Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, and others side by side with sermons by Hooker, Andrewes, Donne, and popular preachers whose works have not been reprinted since the early seventeenth century, Bryan Crockett argues that stage and pulpit performances elicited similar responses to the political and theological divisions marked by the incessant polemics of the age." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


A good bit of the most fruitful literary theory in early modern studies has for the last fifteen years or so implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) relied on the paradigm of masking: religious discourse for example is only superficially about contact between the human and the divine. In fact it is encoded language of political subjugation. One removes the mask to reveal the face of power. Despite the enormous appeal of this kind of analysis, I can't help thinking that it ascribes to early modern thought an anachronistic innocence of the mask's potential. For the Renaissance is the great age of the mask, the persona. If ever a culture understood what a mask can and can not disguise, it is that one.

The drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries flaunts its theatricality. It delights in calling attention to its own artifice, to its layers upon layers of metatheatrical maskings. At times the literary-critical discussion has lost sight of the way this kind of drama actually functions. At its best, whether conceived by Webster or Brecht, metatheater leaves the audience not with the feeling that essential reality has been unmasked but that reality is complex, conflicted, implicated in the masks it wears. A case in point is a moment in Webster The Duchess of Malfi that bears on the standard theme of appearance masking reality but that complicates that theme in an exchange entirely gratuitous in terms of the play's action. In typically graphic prose, Bosola compares an old woman wearing heavy make-up to

a lady in France, that having had the smallpox, flayed the skin off her face, to make it more level; and whereas before she look'd like a nutmeg grater, after she resembled an abortive hedgehog. (2.1.28-31)

With sufficient ingenuity one could perhaps unmask the phallogocentric core to Bosola's tirade, but it seems safe to say that the experience of the scene in the early seventeenth century (or the twentieth) would not have been so neatly edifying. To behold this actor in make-up playing the part of an ambitious courtier disguised as a melancholic (or perhaps a malcontent) saying what he says to a boy actor made up to look like an old lady trying . . .

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