Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Bedlam, 'The Changeling,' 'The Pilgrim' and the Protestant Critique of Catholic Good Works

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Bedlam, 'The Changeling,' 'The Pilgrim' and the Protestant Critique of Catholic Good Works

Article excerpt

1

In Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England, Michael MacDonald notes that "Bedlamites swarmed through the imaginations of Jacobean playwrights and pamphleteers, but the famous asylum was in truth a tiny hovel housing fewer than thirty patients."(1) In drawing an interesting contrast between the broad expanse of the literary imagination and the more limited truth of historical reality, MacDonald wants the reader to consider the dramatic difference between the two. They are, his contrast implies, separate and incompatible, one false, one true.

But MacDonald does not always draw such a clear distinction between drama and history: while he suggests that playwrights have distorted our sense of Bethlem's size, he, like most scholars, seems willing to accept their version of massive visitations to the institution. When MacDonald considers that this hovel was such a popular attraction -- "the longest running show in London" -- he does not pursue the possibility that Bethlem's visitors, like the Bedlamites themselves, swarmed only in the imaginations of Jacobean playwrights even though, as an earlier writer has put it, the drama provides "the most extensive evidence of the contemporary popularity of Bethelehem Hospital as a place of amusement."(2) Fiction, in this case, constitutes the historical fact. And continues to do so despite recent studies which indicate that dramatic references to visitation are, like Jacobean representations of Bethlem's size, anachronistic, more in line with Restoration and eighteenth century, rather than contemporary, reality.(3)

When it comes to Bethlem, separating fact from fiction proves no easy task -- and with good reason. As a host of postrepresentational theories have taught us, drama, rhetoric, and literary fictions are not separate and incompatible from Bedlam's real or material history, but a productive part of it. The drama that heretofore has been considered a representation of Bedlam is a separate product of the same historical, cultural matrix that produced actual Bethlem; the critical trick, then, to reconfiguring the relationship between Bethlem and the drama is not to separate fact from fiction, but to discover where in that matrix the cultural forces shaping Bethlem intersect with the cultural forces shaping dramas about madhouses. This paper is largely an attempt to locate and describe one of those "intersections" in the disputes over Reformation charity; I will argue that the complex and agonistic efforts to form Protestant charity shape not only Bethlem, but help generate and shape two Jacobean madhouse plays -- Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling and Fletcher's The Pilgrim.

Will it take some nimble New Historical manoeuvres to make the horrific scenes and images of The Changeling -- Deflores's ugliness, his presentation of Piracquo's severed finger and Diaphanta's charred body, the howling madmen -- bed down with such an odd partner as charity? Similarly, in that Bethlem has become something of a material and ideological house of horrors in the popular and academic imagination, what rhetorical moves will make the famous asylum and charity more compatible? To paraphrase Alsemero and adopt his logic, these strange "tender" reconciliations require, at the start, not so much critical ingenuity, but the removal of a "visor" or mask of sorts. Bethlem and The Changeling only seem incompatible with charity because to see the relationship one must first see charity's relationship to early modern madness and, as Carol Thomas Neely has suggested, madness is a "black hole" for Renaissance scholars.(4) Neely points to Foucault and the influence of Madness and Civilization: "His traditional periodization . . . his focus on institutional confinement, his insistence on epistemic breaks, and his idealization of the Middle Ages have the effect of both valorizing and occluding the Renaissance" (779). Charity's relationship to Bethlem and The Changeling only seems strange, I would contend, because Foucault's influence has obscured the fact that madhouses and mad hospitals were considered -- like all medieval and early modern hospitals -- charitable institutions, and mad people were considered (among and amongst other things) charitable objects. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.