Elizabethan Plays Provide Insight Into Time Period

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2019

Works of theatre are always a reflection of the society in which they are created. By studying plays, one can learn a wealth of information about the beliefs, lifestyle, and politics of the time in which they were written and produced. Such is the case with Elizabethan Drama. If one looks carefully at the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and their fellow playwrights, many interesting and topical details come to light. Because the theatre shows human interaction, thus revealing manners and thoughts, it can provide insight into the nuances of a time that may not come to light by just studying names, dates, and facts. It can also shed light upon the important issues and topics of the day. It is a “barometer” of the times. Just as citizens of today might stand around the water cooler discussing last night’s episode of a popular television show, so the Elizabethans would discuss the latest “hot” play by Heywood or Dekker. Just as future generations may learn something of the present day from current films and television programs, so too can historians learn a great deal about a time period by studying popular entertainments.

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One of the things that can be learned by studying Elizabethan Drama is the way people celebrated holidays and special occasions. In Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, for example, the following lines reveal that the day before Lent [Shrove-Tuesday] was a holiday that was celebrated with feasts featuring pancakes: “Besides, I have procur’d that upon every Shrove-Tuesday, at the sound of the pancake bell, my fine dapper Assyrian lads shall clap up their shop window and away.” Here, the phrase “pancake bell” provides a clue into the holiday celebration. While it may take some further study to completely understand this reference, it is an interesting bit of information that can lead to a deeper understanding of this particular holiday. Plays also reveal a great deal about what took place at common ceremonies. Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness opens with a wedding celebration where the guests, “With nosegays and bride-laces in their hats, dance all their country measures, rounds, and jigs.” This line reveals a bit about the wedding guests’ apparel and tells what kind of dances were popular at wedding receptions; thus, from just one line of dialogue, one can get a glimpse of the activities that took place at an Elizabethan wedding. Of course, seeing the play staged with historical accuracy would provide even more insight into the occasion. References in theatrical dialogue also point to other plays and entertainments that were popular at the time. The following lines from The Shoemaker’s Holiday indicate that Tamburlaine was a recognizable name for Elizabethan audiences, probably due to the popularity of Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy Tamburlaine the Great a few years prior: “Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here, and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign.”

In addition to details about ceremonies and entertainments, an enormous amount of information about societal protocol can be gleaned from the dialogue of Elizabethan plays. Take, for example, another line from The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Here, the Lord Mayor discusses his daughter’s possible betrothal with a man of the Court. He comments that it is not a good idea because his daughter is not of the same class as her would-be husband, “Too mean is my poor girl for his high birth; poor citizens must not with courtiers wed.” This brief line points to the strong class system that was present in England. The Lord Mayor’s comment shows that it was improper for one to marry someone who was not his or her social equal. This was a common theme in Elizabethan Drama. Another example occurs in A Woman Killed with Kindness when Sir Charles notes what a good match Anne and Sir Francis are due to their equal positioning on the social ladder: “You both adorn each other, and your hands methinks are matches. There’s equality in this fair combination; You are both scholars, both 1647 illustration of Greater London showing the location of the Globe Theatre young, both being descended nobly.” In fact, many Elizabethan comedies are based upon the predicament of youngsters falling in love with someone who is above or below their own station in life. People could relate to this topic and enjoyed the humorous complications that resulted from characters trying to overcome this hurdle.

Crime was also a popular topic with Elizabethan audiences, who loved to see plays based upon well-known criminal cases of the day. It seems that audiences have always been fascinated by accounts of macabre acts that they have heard about from their daily news sources, and Elizabethans were no different. They loved to see these cases acted out, often with much blood and gore. One of the most famous of this genre is a domestic tragedy published in 1592 by an anonymous author. Its full title is The lamentable and true tragedy of Master Arden of Feversham in Kent, who was most wickedly murdered by the means of his disloyal and wanton wife, who for the love she bare to one Mosbie, hired two desperate ruffians, Black Will and Shakebag, to kill him. For the sake of simplicity, this title is usually shortened to Arden of Feversham; the full title, however, gives a clue as to the draw these true crime stories had for an Elizabethan audience. By describing the story in a lengthy title, the author let Elizabethans know that they were going to see something exciting, sordid, and possibly somewhat gory. Because the story was based on an actual incident, the audience would not only see the events dramatized but would also find out what eventually happened to the criminals. For example, in the epilogue to Arden of Feversham, the fate of each perpetrator is recounted:

Thus have you seen the truth of Arden’s death.
As for the ruffians, Shakebag and Black Will,
The one took sanctuary, and, being sent for out,
Was murdered in Southwark as he passed
To Greenwich, where the Lord Protector lay.
Black Will was burned in Flushing on a stage;
Greene was hanged at Osbridge in Kent;
The painter fled and how he died we know not.

Evidence suggests that plays based on actual crimes were common throughout the Elizabethan period. Many of the play texts are lost to us, but their titles are still available. As John Addington Symonds notes, “Plays founded on these subjects of contemporary crime were popular throughout the flourishing age of the Drama, is abundantly proved by their dates and titles, and preserved in several records.” Filmgoers of today, in fact, are not very different from Elizabethan audiences in regards to their enjoyment of the reenactment of famous crimes. Some of our most popular and enduring films and characters are based upon books inspired by real criminals and their heinous deeds. For example, both Norman Bates of Psycho and Buffalo Bill of Silence of the Lambs were inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein and the gruesome acts he committed in a Wisconsin farmhouse in 1957.

Plays can also illuminate the morality present during a particular time period. Ethics and religious beliefs have always been an important part of society, and thus, they are also an important part of that society’s entertainments. Morality is a very strong factor in Elizabethan Drama because theatre was expected to teach the citizens a lesson in addition to entertaining them. The theatres became an important “school” for the Elizabethan people because citizens of all walks of life attended. It was one of the few activities that the nobility and the lower classes had in common. In his book, Symonds describes the wide array of people that could be found at the theatre: “the public to which these playwrights appealed was the English people from Elizabeth upon the throne down to the lowest ragamuffin of the streets; in the same wooden theatres met lords and ladies, citizens and prentices, common porters and working men, soldiers, sailors, pickpockets and country folk.” He calls the Elizabethan theatre a “school of popular instruction.” Since a large part of the populace attended the theatre, it was a great place to disseminate information and to teach moral lessons to a large cross-section of people. Sometimes these lessons were taught in a subtle manner, by the outcome of the action; at other times they were delivered to the audience in a very direct manner. An excellent example of this direct address occurs in A Woman Killed with Kindness. In the play, Anne has had an adulterous affair with one of her husband’s friends. She has repented, however, and now deeply regrets her actions. She confesses her disgrace and shame and also warns the women in the audience with the following, very pointed lines:

(To the audience) O women, women, you that have yet kept
Your holy matrimonial vow unstained,
Make me your instance. When you tread awry,
Your sins like mine will on your conscience lie.

The lesson here is clear: women stay faithful to your husbands! It is not surprising that the theatre was expected to instruct as well as entertain during Elizabethan times. The drama had descended from religious mystery and morality plays, so playwrights had a long history of including moral lessons in their texts. Tragedies were particularly blatant in putting forth a moral message. In fact, historian D. J. Palmer conjectures, in “Elizabethan Tragic Heroes,” that this is one of the reasons Elizabethan tragedies are so complex and contain so many characters:

All Elizabethan tragedies in fact try to illustrate several lessons at once, by incorporating within their actions a whole series of tragic catastrophes, each with its own significance. From this point of view, therefore, the most appropriate kind of tragic hero for the Elizabethan dramatist was the figure whose progress through the play would involve as many other characters as possible, so providing opportunities for emphasizing a maximum number of moral lessons.

Tragedies also delivered some very pointed political messages as well. They were sometimes a rallying point for patriotism and served to remind the public that it was important to be loyal to the sovereign, as the following passage from Marlowe’s Edward II indicates:

Strike off their heads, and let them preach on poles!
No doubt, such lessons they will teach the rest,
As by their preachments they will profit much
And learn obedience to their lawful king.

Here, heads that “preach on poles” refers to the common practice of placing traitors’ severed heads on pikes around the city, after their beheading. They served as gruesome reminders of what might happen if one angered the monarch.

These are just a few examples of how dialogue in Elizabethan Drama can provide insight into that historical time. The plays educated the Elizabethan audience on proper morals, behavior, and customs, and they can also educate the modern reader. Plays are particularly fruitful places to find information about bygone eras because they recreate how people actually lived. As Symonds observes,

At all periods of history the stage has been a mirror of the age and race in which it has arisen. Dramatic poets more than any other artists reproduce the life of men around them; exhibiting their aims, hopes, wishes, aspirations, passions, in an abstract more intensely coloured than the diffuse facts of daily experience.

Elizabethan Drama provides a window into a wide spectrum of that society because it appealed to all walks of life, and the plays dealt with citizens of all walks of life. They were part of the essential fabric of the times. Perhaps Laura K. Egendorf best sums it up in her introduction to Elizabethan Drama when she states, “Unlike modern times, when Shakespeare’s plays are often considered high culture, the Elizabethans considered the theater to be essentially pop culture—the plays were the movies and television of the sixteenth century.”

Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on Elizabethan Drama, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Theatre and Punishment: Spectacles of Death and Dying on the Stage

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5262

The famous Triple Tree, the first permanent structure for public hangings, was erected at Tyburn in 1571 during the same decade which saw the construction of the first permanent structure for the performance of plays. At Tyburn seats were available for those who could pay and rooms could be hired in houses overlooking the scene; the majority of spectators stood in a semicircle around the event while hawkers sold fruits and pies and ballads and pamphlets detailing the various crimes committed by the man being hanged. Other kinds of peripheral entertainment also occurred simultaneously. In short, hangings functioned as spectacles not unlike tragedies staged in the public theatres. The organization of spectators in these two arenas and the official localization of these entertainments, despite their long and hitherto divergent histories, through the erection of permanent structures during Elizabeth’s reign suggests the close alliance between these communal worlds in early modern England. Evidence also suggests that theatre and public punishment provided entertainment to upper and lower classes and that both events were generally well attended. Contemporary letters abound in accounts of executions and hangings, details of which are interspersed amid court gossip and descriptions of Parliament sessions. In a letter to Dudley Carleton, for example, John Chamberlain describes the hanging of four priests on Whitsun eve in 1612, noting with mild surprise the large number of people, among them ‘divers ladies and gentlemen’ who had gathered to witness the event which took place early in the morning between six and seven.

I am not alone in suggesting links between these modes of popular public spectacle. Greenblatt argues for the implicit presence of the scaffold in certain kinds of theatre when he writes

the ratio between the theater and the world even at its most stable and unchallenged moments, was never perfectly taken for granted, that is, experienced as something wholly natural and self-evident. . . . similarly, the playwrights themselves frequently called attention in the midst of their plays to alternate theatrical practices. Thus, for example, the denouement of Massinger’s Roman Actor (like that in The Spanish Tragedy) turns upon the staging as a mode of theater in which princes and nobles take part in plays in which the killing turns out to be real. It required no major act of imagination for a Renaissance audience to conceive of either of these alternatives to the conventions of the public playhouse: both were fully operative in the period itself, in the form of masques and courtly entertainments, on the one hand, and public maimings and executions on the other.

Presumably the relationship between theatre and the scaffold worked both ways: if dramatic deaths could suggest public maimings and executions, the latter could as easily and as vividly evoke their theatrical counterparts.

Indeed contemporary narratives about public hangings and executions, whether fictional or documentary, frequently insist on the analogy. I would like to consider two such narratives, Dudley Carleton’s documentary letter to John Chamberlain describing the near hangings of Cobham, Markham and Grey in 1604 and Thomas Nashe’s fictional narrative about the execution of Cutwolf witnessed by Jack Wilton.

Carleton details in vividly theatrical terms the trial, hangings and near executions of several conspirators, including two priests, implicated in a plot to harm King James I shortly after his ascension to the throne in 1603. The letter moves from a casual narrative to a concentrated exposition of the drama as it unfolded. Carleton begins his account with the hangings of two papist priests: ‘The two priests that led the way to the execution were very bloodily handled; for they were cut down alive; and Clark to whom more favour was intended, had the worse luck; for he both strove to help himself, and spake after he was cut down. . . Their quarters were set on Winchester gates, and their heads on the first tower of the castle.’ This was followed by the execution of George Brooke whose death, Carleton points out, was ‘witnessed by no greater an assembly than at ordinary executions’, the only men of quality present being the Lord of Arundel and Lord Somerset. Three others, Markham, Grey and Cobham, were scheduled to be executed on Friday; Carleton narrates the sequence of events as they occurred retaining information about their narrow escape from the gallows until the very end:

A fouler day could hardly have been picked out, or fitter for such a tragedy. Markham being brought to the scaffold, was much dismayed, and complained much of his hard hap, to be deluded with hopes, and brought to that place unprepared. . . . The sheriff in the mean time was secretly withdrawn by one John Gill, Scotch groom of the bedchamber . . . The sheriff, at his return, told him [Markham] that since he was so ill prepared, he should have two hours respite, so led him from the scaffold, without giving him any more comfort . . .

Lord Grey’s turn followed and he spent considerable time repenting for his crimes and praying Greenwich Palace, where William Shakespeare presented plays to Queen Elizabeth I to be forgiven, all of which, Carleton wryly remarks, ‘held us in the rain more than half an hour’. As in the case of Markham, the execution was halted, the prisoner being told only that the sequence of executions had been altered by express orders from the King and that Cobham would die before him. Grey was also led to Prince Arthur’s Hall and asked to await his turn with Markham. Lord Cobham then arrived on the scaffold but unlike the other two, came ‘with good assurance and contempt of death’. The sheriff halted this execution as well, telling Cobham only that he had to first face a few other prisoners. Carleton then describes the arrival of Grey and Markham and the bewildered looks on the three prisoners who ‘nothing acquainted with what had passed, no more than the lookers on with what should follow looked strange one upon another, like men beheaded, and met again in the other world’. ‘Now’ Carleton continues, ‘all the actors being together on the stage, as use is at the end of the play’, the sheriff announced that the King had pardoned all three. The last-minute pardon, always a possibility in executions, arrive in time to save at least three of the conspirators. Carleton concludes his account by noting that this happy play had very nearly been marred ‘for the letter was closed, and delivered him unsigned; which the King remembered, and called for him back again. And at Winchester there was another cross adventure: for John Gill could not go so near the scaffold that he could speak to the sheriff, . . . but was fain to call out to Sir James Hayes, or else Markham might have lost his neck.’

The initial hangings of the priests and George Brooke and the last-minute pardons to Cobham, Markham and Grey are invoked by the sheriff as examples of the ‘justice and mercy’ of the monarch. But Carleton’s narrative, despite its support of this view, hints at the possibility of reading the King’s final sentence as indecision rather than a calculated balancing of justice and mercy. The King resolved this issue ‘without man’s help, and no man can rob him of the praise of yesterday’s action’, Carleton tells us, but goes on to explain that

. . . the Lords knew no other but that execution was to go forward, till the very hour it should be performed: and then calling them before him, he [the King] told them how much he had been troubled to resolve in this business; for to execute Grey, who was a noble, young, spirited fellow, and save Cobham, who was as base and unworthy, were a manner o injustice. To save Grey, who was of a proud, insolent nature, and execute Cobham, who had shown great tokens of humility and repentance, were as great a solecism; and so went on with Plutarch’s comparisons in the rest, till travelling in contrarieties, but holding the conclusion in so indifferent balance that the lords knew not what to look for till the end came out, ‘and therefore I have saved them all.’

Strikingly absent from the King’s reasoning is any consideration of Markham, who we remember ‘almost lost his neck’ and who we have been told earlier was expressly ordered to go first to his death by the King. Did the manner of the last-minute pardon deliberately arrange for the possibility that if any hanging took place, Markham, who seemed in the king’s disfavour, would be the only one to lose his neck? Remarkably Carleton himself mimics the power of abeyance in his method of narration, retaining the surprise of the outcome until the very end and keeping his reader confused even as the court had been.

The extended theatrical metaphor used by Carleton emerges also in Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton (1987) which concludes with Jack Wilton’s narration of his experiences in Bologna where he witnesses the execution of Cutwolf, a notorious murderer. The promised account of Cutwolf’s wrack upon the wheel proves to be tortuous and we are led to it through yet another narrative, this time by Cutwolf himself who, before he dies, provides an ‘authentic’ account of the villainy that has led him to the wheel. Jack reproduces Cutwolf’s ‘insulting narration’ as he terms it because of its punitive value:

Prepare your ears and your tears, for never, till this thrust I any tragical matter upon you. Strange and wonderful are God’s judgements; here shine they in their glory. . . Murder is wide-mouthed, and will not let God rest till he grant revenge. . . Guiltless souls that live every hour subject to violence, and with your despairing fears do much impair God’s providence, fasten your eyes on this spectacle that will add to your faith.

Several points in this exhortation are worth noting. Not by accident, this dramatic narrative has been reserved for the conclusion of the work. Jack here invites the reader to witness the spectacle of the execution, and as we shall see, the reader’s role, initially analogous to Jack’s, gradually merges with that of the crowd; that is, his role as witness gradually transforms into a more ambiguous one, somewhere between spectator of and participant in the torture. The incident, we are told, exemplifies God’s glory and though we know that Jack refers here to the idea of divine retribution, the words suggest that he might be referring also to the nature of the execution itself as it dwells on torture rather than quick death. Jack insists that ‘guiltless souls’ who have not yet experienced violence but who live in constant fear of it can hope to strengthen their faith in the Almighty from this vision. In other words, this spectacle of torture should produce effects such as might follow a divine vision. Most importantly, the event on which we are expected to ‘fasten’ our eyes provides, according to Jack, a supreme example of the enactment of divine revenge. Like Carleton’s narrative which purported to illustrate monarchical power even while it exposed its arbitrariness, Jack’s account, despite its claim about illustrating divine authority, emphasizes instead its precarious similarity to mortal vengeance.

Cutwolf follows this dense exhortation with a long-winded narrative of the murder of Esdras of Granado. He prefaces his story with a strange assertion of his dignity: ‘My body is little but my mind is as great as a giant’s. The soul which is in me is the very soul of Julius Caesar by reversion. My name is Cutwolf, neither better nor worse by occupation than a poor cobbler of Verona—cobblers are men, and kings are no more.’ The analogies between body and mind and body and soul seek to offset the ugliness of the speaker, ‘a wearish, dwarfish, writhen-fac’d cobbler’ as Jack describes him. But while they serve to dignify the speaker, they work in reverse as well: Cutwolf’s insistence on the manhood of kings and his reminder about the public death of Julius Caesar suggest not a fantastic and unreal substitution of important figures for common villains, but a very possible replacement, whose reality would have been apparent to the spectators and to contemporary readers of this narrative (indeed, only some years earlier in 1587, Mary Queen of Scots had been beheaded on English soil). And as visitors to London such as Thomas Platter note, the heads of several traitors from noble families graced London Bridge and provided a constant source of tourist attraction. The thirty to thirty-five heads on display at any given time intended to provide a grim warning to those entering the city but descendants of the ‘traitors’ frequently regarded the heads of their forbears as trophies of past glories. The thin line that divided royalty from traitors who nearly managed to seize the throne was evident daily to travellers and residents in the city and Cutwolf’s highly suggestive substitution of royal bodies for criminal ones was, as I hope to show, implicit in all executions, especially narrated or dramatized ones like that being described here by Nashe.

Cutwolf’s mesmerizing narrative follows this bold preface detailing similarities between his death and that of royal traitors. Cutwolf tells the crowd that to revenge the murder of his elder brother he had hunted Esdras for twenty months across Europe. He describes his joy at finally chancing upon him on the streets of Bologna: ‘O, so I was tickled in the spleen with that word; my heart hopped and danced, my elbows itched, my fingers frisked, I wist not what should become of my feet nor knew what I did for joy.’ His emotions parallel the mirth of the crowds who have also ‘made holiday’ to view Cutwolf’s torture. Cutwolf then describes how he visited Esdras at his lodgings the next morning and confronted him with the murder of his brother. Faced with Cutwolf’s determination to bury a bullet in his breast, Esdras eloquently tries several arguments to stay Cutwolf’s revenge. He first promises money, then eternal service, and proceeds to request that his arms and legs be cut off and he himself left to live a year in prayer and repentance. When this fails, he requests that he might be tortured: ‘To dispatch me presently is no revenge; it will soon be forgotten. Let me die a lingering death—it will be remembered a great deal longer.’ Is the narrator, himself to be tortured and allowed to die slowly, perhaps taunting his spectators into revising their sentence on him through this ambiguous request spoken by a similar murderer? Or is he suggesting his inevitable power as a lingering example for the future, as one who through this double narration will remain forever in memory and in print? After all, pamphlets and ballads enumerating various atrocities committed by criminals circulated during such executions and popularized the figures thus condemned. The ambiguous nature of the condemned man, both powerful and powerless, both mesmerizing the crowds and used by them as part of their festivity, seems to have been an inherent element of execution rituals. A similar ambivalence becomes a central ingredient also in Charles’s execution performed more than half a century later, an event treated in detail in Chapter 6.

Esdras continues to reason with Cutwolf, alternating between promises and pleas, but his murderer remains undeterred. Cutwolf relishes the moment to the fullest and seems to be offering Esdras what he asked for earlier, a lingering mental torture. He even presents himself as a divine avenger:

There is no heaven but revenge. . . Divine revenge, of which (as of the joys above) there is no fullness or satiety! Look how my feet are blistered with following thee from place to place. I have riven my throat with overstraining it to curse thee. I have ground my teeth to powder with grating and grinding them together for anger when any hath named thee. My tongue with vain threats is bollen and waxen too big for my mouth. My eyes have broken their strings with staring and looking ghastly as I stood devising how to frame or set my countenance when I met thee. I have near spent my strength in imaginary acting on stone walls what I determined to execute on thee.

Cutwolf thus presents himself as the frightening figure of death himself, one who has rehearsed the drama of this encounter again and again. Esdras continues to plead for time, claiming that bodily torture would delay his death and provide him with an opportunity to save his soul. His assailant, however, determines to extend his power beyond the grave: ‘My thoughts travel’d in quest of some notable new Italianism whose murderous platform might not only extend on his body, but his soul also.’ In a spectacular coup de theatre he asks Esdras to renounce God and swear allegiance to the devil. The reader thus perceives a seemingly bewildering set of relationships: Esdras has requested that he be tortured rather than killed in order that he might have time to save his soul; Cutwolf, as if in response to this request, orders Esdras to give his soul to the devil and forswear all hope of salvation; and Esdras, in direct opposition to his earlier request and hoping to be saved from death, seizes the opportunity and gives Cutwolf more than he had hoped for by renouncing God and salvation completely. Does Cutwolf’s request function as a test of the victim’s authenticity in professing a desire to save his soul? At any rate Esdras’s response actually takes Cutwolf by surprise:

Scarce had I propounded these articles unto him but he was beginning his blasphemous abjurations. I wonder the earth opened not and swallowed us both, hearing the bold terms he blasted forth in contempt of Christianity . . . My joints trembled and quaked with attending them; my hair stood upright, and my heart was turned wholly to fire . . . The vein in his left hand that is derived from the heart, with no faint blow he pierced, and with the full blood that flowed from it writ a full obligation of his soul to the Devil.

Having thus forsworn salvation, Esdras expects to be spared. Thus when his assailant asks him to open his mouth and gape wide, he does so without demur. The entire event, described by Cutwolf as the enactment of a ceremony, parodies Catholic communion rites and Esdras seems to regard Cutwolf’s request as another stage in this enactment. Cutwolf’s description of what follows, Edsdras’s murder, is significant in its choice of words: ‘therewith made I no more ado, but shot him full into the throat with my pistol. No more spake he, so did I shoot him that he might never speak after, or repent him’ (emphasis added). The revenge directs itself specifically against the spoken word for it alone, as the narrative strives to show throughout, retains the supreme power to create reality. To Cutwolf at least, not Esdras’s actions but his sworn allegiance to the devil, which he has no time to retract, damns him to hell. His murderer in a final paean to revenge allies himself clearly with God and heaven: ‘Revenge is whatsoever we call law or justice. The farther we wade in revenge the nearer come we to the throne of the Almighty. To His scepter it is properly ascribed, His scepter he lends unto man when He lets one man scourge another.’ This appropriation of godly powers incenses the crowd who apparently reserve the honour for themselves: ‘Herewith, all the people (outrageously incensed) with one conjoined outcry yelled mainly: “Away with him, away with him! Executioner, torture him, tear him, or we will tear thee in pieces if thou spare him.”’ Their desire to torture Cutwolf parallels Cutwolf’s earlier treatment of Esdras and both actions mimic the Almighty’s ever-vigilant vengeance invoked throughout this narrative.

We arrive thus to the centrepiece of Jack’s story, the torture of Cutwolf, a festive communal celebration which both fascinates and unsettles Jack; presumably the reader too would find the culinary metaphors used to describe the occasion both fascinating and horrifying. I quote the passage in full:

At the first chop with his wood-knife would he fish for a man’s heart and fetch it out as easily as a plum from the bottom of a porridge pot. He would crack necks as fast as a cook cracks eggs. A fiddler cannot turn his pin so soon as he would turn a man off the ladder. Bravely did he drum on this Cutwolf’s bones, not breaking them outright but, like a saddler knocking in of tacks, jarring on them quaveringly with his hammer a great while together. No joint about him but with a hatchet he had for the bones he disjointed half, and then with boiling lead soldered up the wounds from bleeding. His tongue he pulled out, lest he should blaspheme in his torment. Venomous stinging worms he thrust into his ears to keep his head ravingly occupied. With cankers scruzed to pieces he rubbed his mouth and his gums. No limb of his but was lingeringly splinter’d in shivers.

The analogies comparing the executioner to a fisherman, a cook, a fiddler, a drummer and a saddler present Jack’s fascination with the scene, shared also by the crowd who have instigated the tortures. ‘This truculent tragedy of Cutwolf and Esdras’ produces its desired effect on Jack who, sobered by the scene, marries his courtesan and leaves ‘the Sodom of Italy’ to live an honest life thereafter in England.

Contrary to being a sharp contrast to England, the Italy of Jack’s narrative provides an exaggerated version of events such as public executions witnessed around London. This ‘truculent tragedy’ might easily provide a narrative of staged public punishments in England, and the reaction of the crowds, though it disgusts Jack, differs hardly at all from similar reactions by English crowds to the deaths of personalities such as the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud in the seventeenth century. Jack’s disgust does, nevertheless, underscore the stance of many literary figures as they both exploit and criticize London’s fascination with the spectacle of death. The author’s ambivalent stance combining horror and fascination may be treated as typical of many Elizabethan depictions of punishment whether in popular narratives of travel or on the public stage. These accounts of public punishment exploit the reader’s fascination with the spectacle of death but, by evoking horror and revulsion, they mock his reliance on spectacles of torment for entertainment. As Jonathan Bate describes it, the ‘structure of the [Nashe’s] story leaves the reader with more than a sneaking sympathy for what has been said on the scaffold, especially as the act of execution has a clinical cruelty which makes it in effect no different from the act for which it is a punishment. The narrative has made us discover the Italian within all of us.’

A series of questions may be raised about these documents, especially Nashe’s detailed narrative. Is Cutwolf the devil’s emissary who deceives Esdras into damning himself or a divine agent avenging an unjust murder? Is the executioner a victim of the people’s desire to see some sport or an agent of vengeance? Does the text negate or authorize the power of the word? Do the events constitute ‘a truculent tragedy’ as Jack claims or do they enact a festive communal ritual? Some of these ambiguities and paradoxes, especially the ambivalent positions of the victim, the crowd and the executioner, so clearly dramatized in Nashe’s fictional account, were inherent to the ritual of execution itself and occurred also at actual executions in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods.

Nashe’s account also provides a prose analogy to numerous tragedies of revenge enacted on the Elizabethan and early Stuart stage; it incorporates many ingredients that have been identified with this dramatic genre: obsessive revenge pursued by a melancholy revenger who physically and mentally degenerates through his pursuit of the victim, inordinate delay characteristic of this pursuit, the ambivalent tension between revenge and justice that remains unresolved, the viciously circular nature of revenge that destroys many in its course, and the public death of the revenger himself often performed in the midst of communal celebration and festivity. Nashe’s theatrical account incorporates all the major ingredients of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

This alliance between theatre and public punishment evident in Carleton’s and Nashe’s narratives and throughout the early modern period could be extended even farther: the masked and hooded dramatist, both present and absent from his production, invites comparison with the hangman. Like the hangman, the dramatist created spectacles and functioned as an entertainer whose efficiency was subject to the strictest scrutiny and criticism. Even his precarious position, as servant both to the Crown which sanctioned his activity and the populace who viewed his spectacle, compares with the hangman’s. The hangman functioned as the most important instrument of the law; dramatists also repeatedly envisaged themselves as holding an analogous position. Thomas Heywood, for example, in The Apology for Actors (1612) insists on the moral efficacy of stage plays which could incite confessions from villains by the mere spectacle of horror and villainy. He cites three instances where spectators, moved by the dramatic events they witnessed, confessed to previous crimes and were thus brought to justice. One of his examples, a woman who at the end of a performance confessed to having poisoned her husband seven years earlier, also provides a remarkable instance of what Hamlet seems to expect from Claudius (and less directly from Gertrude) after the staging of The Murder of Gonzago when he tells us

I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ.

The power of theatre to provoke transformation had become commonplace in the period and receives ironic treatment in a later tragedy, The Roman Actor, where Caesar tries to cure avarice in Philargus by staging a play. The comic resolution of the staged play in which a miser repents of his earlier folly finds little satisfaction in Philargus who would prefer a tragedy: ‘had he died / As I resolue to doe, not to be alter’d, / It had gone off twanging.’ Philargus thus resolves to guard himself against the possibility of transformation, only to contend with the frustration of Caesar who demands that he ‘make good vse of what was now presented? / And imitate in thy suddaine change of life, / The miserable rich man, that expres’d / What thou art to the life?; when thwarted in this desire to see Philargus transformed by theatre, Caesar orders that he be hanged instead. Renaissance familiarity with the concept that theatre could provoke transformation may be gauged by the recurrence of this idea on the stage, whether it is invoked seriously as in Hamlet or treated ironically as in The Roman Actor.

Depictions of evil and tragedy on the stage, as Heywood argues, performed both punitive and psychological functions. And like tragedies in general, public executions and hangings served both as a negative example and a reminder that past villainies would not remain undiscovered or unpunished forever. The sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson in the late eighteenth century, that there was no point in hanging a man if it was not going to be done in public, certainly prevailed in the earlier period and provided philosophical justification for the staging of both real and spectacle dismemberment, actual and theatrical tragedy, in early modern England. ‘Cruelty,’ Colin Burrow argues, ‘is part of Shakespeare’s world, and it generates a high proportion of the energy of his drama’; the attitude applies to Renaissance drama in general and perhaps even to the public execution of Charles I by Parliament in 1649, a theatrical spectacle which historically demarcates a boundary for this period.

I do not intend to collapse these modes of spectacle completely but to suggest that the close connection between these forms of popular public entertainment may be worth exploring in detail. The theatre and the scaffold provided occasions for communal festivities whose format and ends emerge as remarkably similar. More specifically, I would like to use the erection of the Triple Tree and the public execution of Charles I as events which frame a period remarkable for its vibrant, intense and highly competitive dramatic creativity. Both forms of festivity underwent radical scrutiny in later years, though the removal of hangings and executions from the public arena occurred only considerably later. Despite their divergent histories in later years, theatre and the scaffold merged in January 1649 to provide an unique and unprecedented spectacle of public tragedy and apparent political liberation. I trace the influence of the scaffold on the development of theatre in the late sixteenth century and the contribution of theatre to the staged political drama of the mid-seventeenth century.

The close alliance between these popular entertainments emerges most vividly in plays of the late sixteenth century such as Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. But even plays such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear, Jonson’s Sejanus and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi which do not stage hangings and executions invoke the format of public punishments, frequently to undermine the state’s efficacy in staging deaths as a deterrent to further crimes and sometimes to mock the audience’s reliance on the value of death as entertainment. Kyd’s tragedy, which simultaneously invokes the spectacle of death and threatens to destroy the frame that separates theatre from the scaffold, more than any other early play insists on the precarious distance that separates staged dramas of death from public punitive events such as hangings.

Traditional criticism regards Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy as important primarily for its historical position at the head of the revenge tradition. Its violence has frequently been attributed to Senecan models and its dramatic deaths, including the spectacular coup de theatre in the closing scene, analysed primarily for their influence on Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. And yet, though the Senecan influence has been well documented, critics have only recently drawn attention to contemporary cultural practices such as public hangings at Tyburn to explain the play’s particular fascination with the hanged man and the mutilated and dismembered corpse. No other play of the Renaissance stage dwells on the spectacle of hanging as Kyd’s does and the Senecan influence will not in itself account for the spectacular on-stage hangings and nearhangings in the play.

During Elizabeth’s reign 6160 victims were hanged at Tyburn and though this represents a somewhat smaller figure than those hanged during Henry VIII’s reign, Elizabethans were certainly quite familiar with the spectacle of the hanged body and the disembowelled and quartered corpse. In Kyd’s treatment of the body as spectacle, we witness most vividly the earliest coalescence of the theatrical and punitive modes in Elizabethan England. Kyd also heightens the ambivalence inherent in the public hanging as spectacle and deliberately weakens the frames that separated spectators from the spectacle.

Source: Molly Smith, “Theatre and Punishment: Spectacles of Death and Dying on the Stage,” in Breaking Boundaries: Politics and Play in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 1998, pp. 17–40.

The Beginnings of Elizabethan Drama: Revolution and Continuity

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4148

A standard assumption of literary history is that a group of young men, born of “middle-class” parentage in the 1550s and 1560s and graduating from Oxford or Cambridge between 1575 (Lyly) and 1588 (Nashe) created between them the normal forms of Elizabethan Drama, casting behind them the primitive techniques and attitudes of preceding generations, designated “Tudor Drama,” “Late Medieval Drama,” or whatever other diminishing title distaste elects to supply. I call this assumption “standard” not because I seek to denigrate it (in the recurrent modern mode); there is much evidence that these young men perceived themselves, and were perceived by contemporaries, as constituting what would nowadays be called a radical movement and that the movement marked the beginning of something genuinely new. But the very obviousness of the general point leaves a number of supplementary questions unanswered because not asked. In particular I wish to ask the question how this group came to achieve their effect on drama. The question is a purely instrumental one that does not seek to go beyond the evidence generally available in the words they wrote. This leaves, of course, the further issue of the status we give to these words. If we are to understand what the “University Wits” say as a simple description of the facts of the case, then we must suppose that it was expertise in classical culture that led to the creation of the new drama. But this connection seems to be part of the rhetoric of their social situation rather than expressive of any vital link that joins university culture to popular drama. I shall argue that the link can be seen more clearly in terms of the central issue of Elizabethan intellectual life—the theological debate about the relation of individual conscience to the established hierarchies of the world. I shall argue that it was the perception of the individual voice as justified (in all senses of that word), even when socially isolated, that released the more obvious formal and literary powers we easily recognize. That the University Wits despised the popular theater they found when they came to London can hardly be disputed. The university milieu which had given them their claim to importance had anchored their sense of identity in the Humanist learning they had acquired there, their fluent command of a battery of Greco-Roman names, historical and fictional stories, self-conscious logical and rhetorical devices, tags and quotations, which provided the lingua franca of Humanist-educated Europe. In social terms these were, of course, means of defining an elite status, and they seem at first to offer only resistance to a demeaning function in popular entertainment, where (as Shakespeare was to point out) “nature is subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.” Robert Greene more than once tells us how he suffered a sad decline into playwriting; and even though his narrative is more interesting as myth than as history it is worth pausing on. In Francesco’s Fortunes (1590) we hear that Francesco (the Greene alternate) “fell in amongst a company of players, who persuaded him to try his wit in writing of comedies, tragedies, or pastorals, and if he could perform anything worthy of the stage, then they would largely reward him for his pains.” And so Francesco “writ a comedy which so generally pleased all the audience that happy were those actors in short time that could get any of his works, he grew so exquisite in that faculty.” In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) the story has become even more slanted. Roberto (the same hero, with another name) has come to an impasse in the Bohemian life he had thought to lead. He has been out-smarted and made penniless by the prostitute he planned to control. He is thrust out of doors, and sitting against a hedge he vents his wrath in English and Latin verses. On the other side of the hedge there happens to be a player, who now approaches Roberto:

Gentleman, quoth he (for so you seem), I have by chance heard you discourse some part of your grief . . . if you vouchsafe such simple comfort as my ability will yield, assure yourself that I will endeavour to do the best that either may procure your profit or bring you pleasure; the rather for that I suppose you are a scholar, and pity it is men of learning should live in lack.

Roberto, wondering to hear such good words . . . uttered his present grief, beseeching his advice how he might be employed. Why easily, quoth he, and greatly to your benefit; for men of my profession get by scholars their whole living. What is your profession, said Roberto. Truly sir, said he, I am a player. A player, quoth Roberto, I took you rather for a gentleman of great living, for if by outward habit men should be censured, I tell you you would be taken for a substantial man. So am I where I dwell (quoth the player) reputed able at my proper cost to build a windmill.

The player goes on to indicate that he has greatly prospered by penning and playing folktales and moralities. “But now my almanac is out of date.” He now needs a graduate, like Roberto, to catch the more sophisticated tastes of the present “in making plays . . . for which you shall be well payed if you will take the pains.”

Roberto, perceiving no remedy, thought best to respect of his present necessity to try his wit and went with him willingly; who lodged him at the town’s end [in a brothel]. . . . Roberto, now famoused for an arch-playmaking poet, his purse like the sea sometime swelled, anon like the same sea fell to a low ebb; yet seldom he wanted, his labors were so well esteemed.

His new profession earns him the muchneeded money, but money earned under these circumstances is seen to be incapable of securing moral stability. Roberto so despises those from whom he earns his money that he can only define his difference from them by cheating them: “It becomes me, saith he, to be contrary to the world, for commonly when vulgar men receive earnest they do perform; when I am paid anything aforehand I break my promise”. His money is spent among criminals and debauchees to support a way of life which produces execution for some and repentance before death for Roberto. It is at this point that Greene can proceed to warn “those gentlemen his quondam acquaintance that spend their wits in making plays” (Marlowe, Peele, [?Lodge/Nashe] and “two more that both have writ against these buckram gentlemen”) to “never more acquaint them [the players] with your admired inventions”.

The story as thus told is a powerful one. But as far as the history of Elizabethan drama is concerned, the details leave much to be desired. There is no evidence that Greene’s dramatic talents had the electrifying effect he describes. And we should note that he tells much the same story about his prose romances of love. In The Repentance of Robert Greene (1592) we hear not only that the “penning of plays” turned him into a swearer and a blasphemer, but that

These vanities [plays] and other trifling pamphlets I penned of love and vain fantasies were my chiefest stay of living, and for those my vain discourses I was beloved of the vainer sort of people who, being my continual companions, came still to my lodgings, and there would continue quaffing, carousing and surfeiting with me all the day long.

Greene is much clearer about the status he is losing than about the skills he is acquiring. He implies that all he has to do to succeed is to turn his university-trained cleverness toward the writing of popular literature and lo! he will grow “exquisite in that faculty.” The extant popular plays of Greene, Peele, and Lodge, however, do not at all support this idea; they are quite unlike any model the university could have provided from the works of Seneca, Plautus, or Terence. In their multitudes of characters, their wide range across space and time, their carelessness of plot consistency, their interest in romantic love, their reluctance to stay inside the boundaries of genre, their tendency to heavy moralizing, such plays fit almost exactly the terms of neoclassical scorn with which Sir Philip Sidney had greeted the English plays of the early 1580s. James IV The Edward I, Battle of Alcazar, Alphonsus of Aragon, and A Looking Glass for London and England all fall easily under Sir Philip’s rubric of “mongrel tragicomedy [with] some extreme show of doltishness” and are in fact much more like those warhorses of the popular stage, Clyomon and Clamydes or The Famous Victories of Henry V, than they are like anything in classical drama.

What, then, did the university contribute toward a new theatrical creation that was not provided by a professional knowledge of the stage? The evidence that contemporary comment provides is extraordinarily evasive. In the second part of the Cambridge play The Return from Parnassus (1601–03) the graduates Philomusus and Studioso seek to follow along the Greene path and try to secure employment as actors and scriptwriters from the leading actors of Shakespeare’s company, Burbage and Kemp. The brush-off they receive indicates some of the impediments that still lay, even in the next decade, in the path of those who sought to travel from a Humanist education to a career in the popular theater. Kemp tells the graduates: “Few of the university men plays well; they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter.”

Kemp’s entirely plausible expression of what we can recognize as the recurrent tension between the stage and the academy seems to be confirmed on the other side of the same coin by the rhetoric of self-definition that the Wits themselves indulge in. Nashe, for example, relies entirely on attainments in the classical languages to make his distinction between authentic and merely imitative playwrights. In his preface to Greene’s Menaphon (1589) entitled “To the gentlemen students of both universities” Nashe tries to draw an impassible line between authentically learned men and those hangers-on or pretenders that he refers to ironically as “deep read schoolmen or grammarians,” students, that is, who have never passed from the grammar school to the university. These will, he assumes, display the superficialities of a classical education; but it will be easy to detect them as outsiders masquerading as insiders, for they are “at the mercy of their mother tongue, that feed on naught but the crumbs that fall from the translator’s trencher.” These are essentially lower-class persons whose incapacities betray them as existing only at the intellectual level of the “serving man” or of the dealer in “commodities” (that is, the merchant).

Nashe’s attack on lower-class pretenders to learning becomes more specific in the famous following passage in which he deals with the kinds of plays that such grammar-school authors are capable of writing. Again, the central issue is ignorance of Latin: such men can “scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need”; they are the “famished followers” of “English Seneca” (often thought to refer to Thomas Newton’s 1581 collection of Seneca’s plays), because they are incapable of reading the original; and yet they “busy themselves with the endeavors of art”—where “art” has the sense of specialized knowledge that is found in such phrases as “Master of Arts.” It looks, from much of the reference in this passage, as if Thomas Kyd is the playwright most particularly aimed at. And indeed if The Spanish Tragedy came out in 1588 (as is often supposed) then Kyd must have provided in 1588/89 an obvious example of a nonuniversity playwright with a great theatrical success on his hands. The obvious objection to such identification is that The Spanish Tragedy has few if any of the characteristics specified; indeed it is unusually full of Latin verse, some of it, apparently, of Kyd’s own composition, and if the play within the play was actually performed in “sundry languages” then it also contained considerable dialogue in French, Italian, and Greek as well. Such evidence, however, tells us little about the intention that prompted Nashe’s words. “Grub Street hacks,” “outsiders” are clearly necessary to the selfdefinition of any group seeking to lay claim to the “inside” position, and Nashe is no more likely to have been in search of accuracy and justice, when he attached names to labels, than Pope was in The Dunciad. If a Kyd had not existed, Nashe would have had to invent him (as, in the passage in question he very nearly did).

If Thomas Kyd was in fact merely a famished follower of authentic graduate playwrights, then it is a great gap in nature that we do not know who these men were or what they wrote; there are not even plausible candidates. It seems more rational to suppose that there were no such model playwrights; and this probability is reinforced by the parallel case of Shakespeare. Greene’s famous 1592 attack on Shakespeare as yet another despicable outsider, jumped-up actor, and jack-of-alltrades (“Johannes fac totum”), pranking himself in the “feathers” he has stolen from the graduates, has no more detail of evidence to support it than appears in the case of The Spanish Tragedy. Titus Andronicus and Richard III are indeed plays that draw on a considerable, even if only grammar-school, acquaintance with the classics. If this derived from new work in drama by the University Wits, then once again one must note that the lines of filiation have disappeared. But it is more probable that the whole issue of “authentic” and “imitative” dramaturgy is only the fantasy of a socially insecure group of graduates, anxious to destabilize the opposition.

To deny the accuracy of such polemical rhetoric is not, however, to deny altogether the creative importance of this generation of University Wits in the history of Elizabethan drama, though it is certainly to deny their claim to tell the whole story in their own terms. One fact remains, which must not be underplayed or denied: the success of Marlowe’s First Part of Tamburlaine (usually dated 1587) completely fulfilled the self-confidence of the group of graduates to which he belonged. Here at last we have a work of popular entertainment which openly claims classic status, whose presence visibly altered the landscape in which it appeared and charged its environment with new meanings. Of course, given the general lack of information, it is impossible to say that there were no popular plays like Tamburlaine written before Tamburlaine; but the self-consciousness of innovation which pervades its language, the comments of contemporaries, the immediate appearance of imitations, all combine to tell us that this was seen as an originating event, even if it was so only because it was so seen. The originality of Tamburlaine was not noted primarily, however, in terms of dramaturgy. His contemporaries spoke of Marlowe as above all a poet, and the Prologue to Tamburlaine shows that Marlowe agreed with them. But the point being made is not only about versification, narrowly conceived; it is rather a point about the spirit that speaks through a poetry which is (as Michael Drayton was later to remark) “all air and fire” or (to quote Marlowe himself) “Like his desire, lift upward and divine.” And this is, it will be noticed, a return to dramaturgy by the back door. For the theatrical function of a poetry as distinctive and powerful as that of Tamburlaine is to require of the auditor that he follow the action inside a particular given focus. In crude terms one can say that in Tamburlaine Marlowe presented the history of the outsider, the man of talents rather than of background, not in the traditional terms of social marginality but locked into a system of values where energy and desire are everything and need the great outside only to secure the greatest resonance “like the fa-burden of Bow bell,” as Greene remarked. Set against the hero’s unfettered expression of individual will, the “insiders” of Tamburlaine are seen as passive, conformist, hesitant, as if only waiting to be taken over or destroyed by the individual whose force comes from believing in himself more than in anything outside.

It is time to ask the question how far the Marlovian vision and the Marlovian verse that conveys it are the product of a particular kind of education or representative of what we understand to have been the aspirations of the group of University Wits. Certainly there is little, if anything, in it that can be charged against imitation of classical authors read at university. But it is a mistake (as I have suggested above) to think that the focus of university education in this period was literary. The excitement of intellectual life in the sixteenth century came less from classical poetry than from the controversies of theology and from the techniques by which these could be conducted (see Kearney). From today’s point of view the whole interest of such activities looks merely technical; but if we are to understand the excitement roused in the spirit of the times we can hardly afford to stop there. Clearly in such matters as the acceptance or rejection of sacraments, the belief or disbelief in the efficacy of works, the view taken on the mediation of the saints, the status of Purgatory, the function of vestments, we are dealing with the interlocking parts of total systems, where one false move can betray a whole understanding of the life of man, not only in eternity but in the daily life of earth as well. If the excitement of Tamburlaine can be seen to grow out of the intellectual energies generated in such disputes, then it becomes possible to argue that the play reflects its graduate generation at a deeper level than those we have so far considered.

Writing in 1588, Robert Greene spoke of the self-confident energy of Marlowe’s verse as the expression of atheism: “daring God out of his heaven with that atheist Tamburlaine”. Perhaps it is improper to make too much of the vocabulary used here. The context of the comment (Greene’s jealousy of Marlowe’s success) is not one likely to guarantee accuracy in the critical remark made. And “atheist” was in this period only a term of general abuse, with little necessary connection to specifc doctrine. On the other hand Marlowe was soon to acquire, and perhaps already had acquired, a considerable reputation as a freethinker. The idea that the power of Tamburlaine is directly connected to “atheism” may indeed point us toward more complex issues than are usually attached to Greene’s scandals, for there are a number of interesting connections, which are largely obscured by the archaic vocabulary.

The more modern image of Marlowe is often presented in terms of that largely fictional genus “the Renaissance man”—Burckhardt’s creatively amoral egotist, whether seen as artist (Aretino, Michelangelo, Cellini) or as prince (Cesare Borgia, Julius II, Bernabo Visconti). But “Renaissance individualism,” at least as it reached England, had rather different sources. And these take us back to the question of atheism once again. The key figures in such general growth of individualism as one can observe in England are neither artists nor the sacred monsters of royalty (egotism in the powerful is a characteristic so constant that it is hard to imagine it as having a history); they are rather the purveyors of reformed theology, Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and their native disseminators. The “Renaissance man” type of egotist who defines his individuality against orthodoxy is necessarily limited in the range of imitation he can inspire, for it is integral to his stance that he remain exceptional. Luther, however, and the other reformers, embodied individualism not against but inside orthodoxy, and indeed declared the sense of self to be the necessary basis of “true” orthodoxy. In this form the sense of the unique centrality of individual consciousness could penetrate throughout the culture of Europe to a degree not possible for the tyrants and exploiters of an older mode. And this was, as I say, the form in which “the Renaissance” pervaded England, so that, in England at any rate, the New Learning or Humanism inevitably explored classical forms and attitudes inside a world filled with the noise of challenge to intellectual conformity. In his search for justification by faith alone the individual could no longer hope to discover his identity by finding his place in any external system, for faith can only be felt and known inwardly. The doctrine of the slavery of the will (the servum arbitrium) required, paradoxically, that the individual remain in continued personal contact with the sources of God’s Grace if he was to hope for eventual escape from the chains of Satan’s power. The Reformed individual was thus continually caught up as protagonist in the largest and most terrifying drama that can be imagined, required to struggle and ask and decide and achieve, in a Satanic world, and without any external mediation. It would be surprising if this raw demand for extraordinary human capacity, marking the eventual irrelevance of external restraint, could be kept out of other areas of life, most significantly those where individual destiny must mean something more like secular fulfillment than loss of self in the Grace of God. Of course, even the states which endorsed the Reformation struggled continuously against its antinomian tendencies, especially as these manifested themselves in political contexts. In England the hundred years or so between the 1530s and the 1640s saw a continuous effort to maintain system, order, consensus, in loyalty to the nation, the sovereign, the church, the tradition (as reinterpreted). Not all the weapons available to the state were equally effective, however. Nationalist fervor, suspicion of and contempt for foreigners, was a powerful means of securing consensus against the Pope, the Spaniards, and the Jesuits, but these positions were most powerfully argued by radical believers in the unmediated presence of Christ in the individual life. The corrosive solution that dissolved the foreign threat also ate into the English hierarchy.

The political argument against individualism was weakened on yet another front. The language of intellectual argument for loyalty inherited, inevitably, the language of Erasmian Humanism, of persuasion to civil order by the civilized consent of an educated elite (such as is addressed in the ironic mode of More’s Utopia, for example) of finely disputable interpretations of uncertain texts (as in Erasmus’s New Testament), of specialized and technical knowledge allowed to develop its own pragmatic justification (“arts” of war, health, navigation, algebra were all published in English in the fifties and sixties). The English “Renaissance” book with probably the widest influence, Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (“Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”) of 1563, was not only an epic of nationalism but also an epic of humble individualism (of widows, cooks, fishermen, brewers, and bricklayers, as well as scholars and clergymen) divinely justified in their rejection of the institutions of social control. The conflict depicted is not in the high romantic mode of The Golden Legend, set in exotic regions and the remote past. Foxe presents his readers with the recent and the local, describing lives rooted in the commonplaces of the ordinary and inculcating truth more by the evidence of shared experience than by any doctrinal argument. In all these cases, I would argue, a sense of the potential power of the unmediated individual, though disseminated primarily in religious terms, is bound to have created, in imagination at least, an idea that every self is capable of fulfillment and definition by resistance to conformity or convention. This is certainly the note in Elizabethan drama that we hear sounded clearly, for the first time, in Tamburlaine. The energetic individualism that appears in Tamburlaine has little or nothing to do with the “Renaissance individualism” of the late Quattrocento princes. Tamburlaine starts from nowhere and his dizzying rise to power is entirely self-generated out of assumptions that have nothing to support them in the world outside. He is totally free of the complacency of power, turning his eyes, as soon as he has achieved any one thing, to further horizons where he can test himself still further. The attitude of mind that is depicted here seems to be one that it is not inappropriate to consider as an atheistic version of the Lutheran soul in its search for justification through faith—atheistic because in this case the believer has simply excluded God from the equation and concentrated his faith on himself, at once justifier and justified.

Source: G. K. Hunter, “The Beginnings of Elizabethan Drama: Revolution and Continuity,” in Renaissance Drama: Renaissance Drama and Cultural Change, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Northwestern University Press, 1986, pp. 29–52.

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