Elizabethan "Modernism," Jacobean "Postmodernism": Schematizing Stir in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

By Hunt, Maurice | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Elizabethan "Modernism," Jacobean "Postmodernism": Schematizing Stir in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries


Hunt, Maurice, Papers on Language & Literature


Certain features of modernism and postmodernism illuminate a difference between the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods that has thus far resisted satisfactory explanation. Proving that remote decades were protomodern and protopostmodern is not the emphasis of this essay. Instead, I maintain that the concepts and terminology of modernism and postmodernism form metaphors especially effective for grasping Elizabethan and Jacobean writers' struggle to arrest and contain flux in paradigms true to shifting perceptions of the world. In his later Jacobean plays, Shakespeare solved an aesthetic problem of the relationship of flux to ordering stasis to a degree not attained by other Jacobean playwrights. Certain strategies of postmodernism vis-a-vis a defunct Elizabethan "modernism" create a model for fully comprehending his achievement. In this respect, critical ground has already been broken. Patricia Fumerton has shown that, "when approached in a historical manner, aesthetics provides a mediation between the Renaissance and our own age of postmodernity that is not a dismissal of history but precisely a representation or interpretation of history. . . . The sense of truncated history is not an exclusively postmodern phenomenon. Indeed in many ways the aristocracy of the English Renaissance . . . lived the discontinuous, fragmentary detail more intensely then us" (2,18). Fumerton demonstrates that postmodernism clarifies hither-to obscured features of the English Renaissance, a fact confirmed by the growing number of explicitly postmodernist interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.(1) Hugh Grady has remarked that "we are now witnessing the emergence of a Postmodernist Shakespeare through the development of critical paradigms which incorporate aspects of contemporary Postmodernist aesthetics" (207). The present essay represents a contribution to this project.

Occasionally cultural historians make the claim that Elizabethans witnessed the birth of the modern world. Finding the origin of social modernism in the later sixteenth century, Marshall Berman has characterized its "agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experiential possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement" (18). "To be modern," Berman concludes, "is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air" (345-46).(2) Judged by these criteria, most (if not all) cultural periods of Western history were modern to some degree. One could argue that Western culture since the fifth century BC has been modern in Berman's sense. The writings of Euripides, Tacitus, and Lucretius, among those of other ancient authors, reveal troubled, pluralist, sceptical, ideologically divided societies. David Aers in Culture and History effectively critiques the idea (actually a secularized myth of the Fall) that once upon a time everything was safe, solid, secure, and that then anarchy--the modern condition--was loosed upon the world (see also Aers, "Whisper"; Bennett; Macfarlane; and Patterson). Literary works as diverse as Beowulf and Otto Bishop of Freising's History of the Two Cities (1146-47, 1157) reflect strong anxiety about social disintegration (see Huizinga 1-45, 182-200). In short, locating the birth of modernism according to Berman's definition is a risky, near-impossible business.

Nevertheless, Berman's portrayal of modernity is a useful tool for analyzing Elizabethan and Jacobean culture and literature because, by many contemporary accounts, men and women of these periods believed that the turmoil shaking their lives was either singular or rarely precedented. Lawrence Stone and Susan Amussen (among others) have shown that the new, intense feeling of instability permeating both the family and society as a whole in the later English sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries possessed novel overtones. …

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