Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Places of the Gods on the English Renaissance Stage

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Places of the Gods on the English Renaissance Stage

Article excerpt

THIS PAPER DISCUSSES TWO SORTS OF PLACES on the English Renaissance stage that appear to be associated with the divine: ruins (including megalithic monuments because that was how they were construed), and high places. First, ruins. In England's Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape, Anne Janowitz declares: "The national images of both England and of Great Britain are built on Roman ruins... In his translation of Du Bellay's Antiquitez de Rome [1558], Spenser maps out the criteria for the topos of poetic permanence, and enacts the building of an English sonnet sequence upon Roman ruin." (1) I want to argue that it is not only Spenser who uses the locations and foundations of Roman ruins as building blocks for his own work in The Ruines of Rome (1591), but that it is a widespread and crucially important phenomenon in English Renaissance writing. As Huw Griffiths observes:

The literary, historical and mythical material that English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries draw on in their development of a sense of nation is littered with ruins, both real and symbolic. Amongst these ruins are the ransacked citadel of Troy, the plundered remains of the Roman Empire, the fallen Tower of Babel and the empty shells of the English and Welsh medieval abbeys... Ruins in this period are, almost necessarily, ironic. They disclose failure in the place of achievement. (2)

Rodrigo Cacho Casal concurs: "The Renaissance regarded the city of Rome as one of the privileged archives of the past. Its ruined buildings were also, however, a reminder that many achievements of the classical period had been irremediably lost." Spenser would certainly have agreed with this; for him, the thought evoked by the ruins of Rome is "Behold what wreake, what ruine, and what wast." (3)

Nevertheless, even if ruins signified failure, people wanted to see them, both in real life and on the stage. We can see something of this craving for even vicarious experience in the title of Samuel Lewkenor's 1600 A Discourse Not Altogether Unprofitable, Nor Unpleasant for Such As Are Desirous to Know the Situation and Customes of Forraine Cities without Travelling to See Them. More adventurously, in 1587-88 Marlowe's Faustus declared:

   Now by the kingdoms of infernal rule,
   Of Styx, Acheron, and the fiery lake
   Of ever-burning Phlegethon, I swear
   That I do long to see the monuments
   And situation of bright splendent Rome. (4)

This was a widely shared wish, yet at the same time felt to be never fully possible: indeed Leonard Barkan argues that "The Renaissance inherits the supposition that ancient flourishing Rome and desolate modern Rome do not exist in the same dimension." (5) This paper explores, then, how written descriptions and fictional and dramatic imaginings sought to fulfill the wish to see ruined locations. Arguably, ruins functioned rather differently in drama from in poetry. Cacho Casal comments on "the development of the poetry about ruins" and suggests that a verse such as Francisco de Quevedo's Silva--like Spenser's "Ruines," a translation of Du Bellay--"becomes a portrait of immortal achievements linked with the Latin and humanistic traditions." (6) Drama, though, was often perceived as ephemeral rather than immortal, and the huge popularity of historical and classical plays meant that one of its primary functions was to stage the dead to the living, as when the Emperor in Doctor Faustus longs to see Alexander. Ruins in plays offer a heightened example of this potentiality, and therefore ruins--or at least some ruins--function not only as signifiers of loss or absence but also can specifically be places where the living meet the dead. So too, although in different ways, did high places, to which the second half of this paper will turn.


The boundary between life and death was in some respects a very uncertain one in Renaissance culture. In his 1587 report of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert Wyngfield assures his readers that "Then her dressing of Lawne fell from hir Head, which appeared as graye as if she had been threescore and ten Years olde, powled very shorte, her Face much altred, hir lips stirred upp and downe almost a Quarter of an Hower after hir Head was cutt off. …

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