Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century

By Kent Cartwright | Go to book overview

1
The humanism of acting: John Heywood's
The Foure PP

To the extent that medieval morality plays reproduce a system of allegorical correspondences, they depend on straightforward acting: Good Deeds must demonstrate her name. Even when a work's meaning may signify in political or social rather than in exclusively religious terms, the moralities favor clarity of representation. 1 But sixteenth-century drama's shift toward humanist and secular subjects privileged ambiguity in a character's presentation, evident in the enigmatic acting of both the Pardoner and the Palmer in John Heywood's The Foure PPc. 1520s). 2 That ambiguity invades the lying contest that forms the play's climactic action, for there the script obscures whether the victor has spoken falsely or truly. With acting and audience perception an implicit theme, The Foure PP manifests an unusual complexity in the representation of truth and its didactic effect. Ambiguity of acting in secular humanist drama produces an unexpected openness of meaning, an effect with implications for English sixteenth-century theatre 3

While the protagonist of medieval dramatic allegory represents every man, Renaissance theatre inches away from fixed correspondences; interpretive possibilities begin to derive, at least partly, from the nature of theatrical experience itself. Sixteenth-century England, of course, struggled increasingly with the conflict between its habits of categorical thinking and the vagaries of experience, conscience, and historical fact. Against what they considered scholastic abstractionism, the humanists launched a return to historical context in philology, rhetoric, and biblical exegesis. Led by Erasmus, they advocated a learning oriented toward practical experience, just as early Tudor interludes aimed their didacticism at personal behavior and specific abuses of power. 4 To that end, Erasmus invented a rhetorical persona,

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