- Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture, and: Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800 (review)
- Comparative Drama
- Western Michigan University
- Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2005
- pp. 251-256
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Reviews251 Carol Thomas Neely. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xiii + 244. $52.50 casebound; $21.95 paperbound. Virginia Mason Vaughan. Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800.Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2005. Pp. xiv + 190. $75.00. These two books by respected scholars are comparable in many ways— particularly because of their shared interest in "marginal" groups who functioned as "others" in English Renaissance culture. Virginia Mason Vaughan explores staged representations of black skin color over the course of three centuries in early modern England, while Carol Thomas Neely studies staged representations of "mad" or "distracted" persons, especially in the hundred or so years beginning with the mid-1570s. In style, method, argument, and even in physical design, the two volumes have much in common, and both are also comparably successful. Both books, for instance, are concerned to untangle what Vaughan calls the "collapsed chronology" (3) of some earlier scholarly accounts oftheir subjects . In other words, each seeks to examine the process of historical change patiently and minutely, warning against the tendency of some earlier writers (including, in Neely's case, Foucault) to make sweeping generalizations in a way that erases our awareness of gradual, incremental developments. Each book, men, necessarily engages in helpful and illuminating dialogue with earlier scholarship, and indeed Neely's volume is especially impressive in this regard. Her footnotes (and both books, thankfully, do place their notes at the foot of each page, rather than in the rear) are often quite lengthy and detailed. Each book makes its readers aware of trends and tendencies in earlier scholarship, and each also indicates clearly how the present volume differs from its predecessors . Each book, then, provides a solid introduction not only to its nominal topic but to earlier relevant studies. Both books also, by surveying a multitude of dramas and studying how patterns "are repeated from play to play" (Vaughan, 4), provide a comprehensive overview of staged works dealing with their respective topics, even as they also call attention to the ways in which particular plays altered customary patterns . Neely has an advantage over Vaughan in this respect since many of the plays dealing with madness are fascinating works by major, canonical authors (especially Shakespeare) and thus are likely to be ofinterest to a broader range ofreaders because they are often aesthetically intriguing.Vaughan,on the other hand, surveys (and summarizes) not only canonical plays but also some that 252Comparative Drama seem ofslight literary merit (however interesting they may be in other respects). Vaughan, though, does focus major attention on Othello (surely one ofthe most interesting plays ever written). Readers who have admired her wonderful earlier work on that play will welcome her new thoughts here (and they may also wish that Neely had paused to examine the issue of madness in this Shakespearean tragedy, as she does so well when writing about Hamlet,Macbeth, and Lear). Both books emphasize the need to be familiar with period-specific terminology . Thus Vaughan writes (for instance) that the Moors discussed in her book would mainly "have been considered 'blackamoors' in the early modern period, as opposed to the tawny Moors ofnorthern Africa" (5). Likewise, Neely begins with an extensive discussion ofthe various terms used by early moderns to describe what we would term mental illness, and she particularly stresses the usefulness ofthe terms distracted and distraction since these words imply"early modern attitudes toward madness as a temporary derailing" rather than as a necessarily permanent condition (2). In both cases, then, the books seek thoroughly to historicize their discussions ofconditions that might otherwise seem to invite discussion from ahistorical perspectives. Other similarities between the two volumes are numerous. Both make effective use ofillustrations; both draw, in illuminating ways, on the work ofscholars from other disciplines (this is especially true of Neely); both allude briefly to present-day works of art dealing with the nominal topics of their volumes; both employ a method that encourages comparisons and contrasts between and among a whole series ofworks; both tie their titular themes to issues ofsex and gender; and both show how an "exotic" condition could be used to help define"normality." In...