History, Religion, and Violence: Cultural Contexts for Medieval and Renaissance English Drama

By Chambers, Mark | Medium Aevum, July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

History, Religion, and Violence: Cultural Contexts for Medieval and Renaissance English Drama


Chambers, Mark, Medium Aevum


Clifford Davidson, History, Religion, and Violence: Cultural Contexts for Medieval and Renaissance English Drama, Variorum Collected Studies Series (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002). xi + 304 pp.; 17 plates. ISBN 0-86078-882-2. £52.50.

Clifford Daviclson's recent work History, Religion, and Violence is essentially a collection of loosely related articles on individual aspects of late-medieval and Renaissance drama, written over the past twenty-five years of Davidson's career. The work is held together by an overarching analysis of 'the inception of violence in history as it was understood in the early fifteenth and sixteenth centuries' (p. viii), using textual evidence and a wealth of iconography.

The first article - 'Marlowe, the papacy, and Doctor Faustuf - contains an interesting discussion of a difference in religious sentiments between the Aand B-texts of Marlowe's play. Davidson posits that these differences reflect a changing contemporary Protestant doctrine, much of which stems from the influence of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments and is realized in Samuel Rowley's supposed additions to the B-tcxt.

The next three articles - 'The History of King Lear and the problem of belief, 'The anxiety of power and Shakespeare's Macbetlf, and 'Antony and Cleopatra: Circe, Venus, and the Whore of Babylon' - deal with different contemporary social, historical, and religious influences on each of the plays, using a wide range of evidence. Davidson first attempts to demonstrate Shakespeare's supposed Catholic sentiments and the apparent influence of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 on themes in King Lear and Macbeth. he suggests that King Ijiar contains an anti-atheist 'feeling of nostalgia' which denigrates Renaissance religious scepticism, while Macbeth reflects contemporary royal concerns with legitimacy, ending with a discussion of the theme of the Dance of Death. The fourth chapter focuses primarily on thematic issues, using late-medieval and Renaissance iconography to discuss stoicism versus epicureanism, as well as Antony and Cleopatra's similarities to major characters from classical, biblical, medieval, and early modern literature and theology.

In part ?, 'Sacred violence and the mysteries', Davidson turns to considerations of late-medieval English drama, examining the roles of typological violence, the apparent shame associated with 'the unclothed post-lapsarian body' (p. 149) as opposed to Christ's perfect human body, and the veneration of blood and of bloody spectacle. …

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