Shakespeare's Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification

By Hugh L. Grady | Go to book overview

1
'An Universal Wolf': Reification in Early and Late Modernity

CULTURAL CRISIS AND THE LONDON THEATRES

He makes his entrance on to an otherwise bare platform, doubtless with a suitably villainous sneer. Spectators with long theatrical memories might recognize him as a new incarnation of that old crowdpleaser the Vice of late medieval morality plays. However, he is no allegorical abstraction, but the representation of a historical personage and a potent cultural icon for audiences in London at the end of the sixteenth century. And what he says is very much of the essence of his age:

I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Birds of the air will tell of murders past.
I am asham'd to hear such fooleries!
Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure,
When like the Draco's, they were writ in blood.1

For audiences then and now, this speech by Marlowe's Machiavel is lurid, too 'theatrical' to be fully convincing, almost like an invitation of Satanic evil into the portals of Christendom. But the speech, I think, both alludes to and forms a memorable moment of a larger cultural enterprise, one undertaken by some of the most iconoclastic of the European Renaissance's cultural producers and one which became, on the London stages of Marlowe and Shakespeare, a major theme: exploration of the possibilities of a completely secular, desacralized culture. Of course the culture of Renaissance England was permeated with religious beliefs, even though the London stage was secular and

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1
Christopher Marlowe, [The Prologue], The Jew of Malta, in The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Roma Gill ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 191. Subsequent quotations from Marlowe are from the same edn.

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