restricted access Defining the Proper Members of the Renaissance Theatrical Community
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Defining the Proper Members of the Renaissance Theatrical Community

For most people, “Renaissance Drama” is like a diner fronted with a garish sign spelling out shakespeare in flashing bulbs. My point in this essay is that scholars shouldn’t be joining the rest of the world in that misconception. Even though many—if not most—of us write some sort of cultural criticism, we routinely turn to Shakespeare (with a detour now and then toward Jonson) to sum up all of Renaissance culture. It’s as if EJ’s Luncheonette in Manhattan were taken to be a model for Mother’s in New Orleans and the Tip Top Cafe in San Antonio.

When scholars limit themselves to Shakespeare, the oddness of Renaissance culture is unnoticed. Consideration of the field from the vantage point of Thomas Middleton’s work, or perhaps that of an even lesser- known dramatist—Lording Barry, say, or Edward Sharpham—reveals Shakespeare to be a model of sexual sobriety, in particular. Why haven’t people discussed the male prostitute in Middleton’s Your Five Gallants, who cheerfully dashes from woman to woman, paid by them mostly in clothes? What about the scene in Lording Barry’s The Family of Love, when two young men strip down to their shirts and whip each other onstage?1 Or the exchange in John Day’s The Isle of Gulls when Gynetia declares that the best sport is to “see an old man with a young man kiss,” only to be countered by her husband, who prefers “[t]o see an old duchess a young lady kiss.”2 If one [End Page 113] removes Shakespearean blinkers, Renaissance drama is revealed to be a strikingly unexplored field.3 When is the last time you read an article on—or even a reference to—Robert Tailor’s supremely strange play The Hog Has Lost His Pearl? If we don’t want the next generation of Renaissance drama scholars to spend their time listlessly noting Shakespeare’s propensity for Coen brothers–like violence, we should be teaching the drama of his contemporaries along with Titus and emphasizing Renaissance drama (not to mention Renaissance culture) as the wide, various, and totally weird field that it is. Samuel Johnson is generally credited with being the first bardolater, after his contention that Shakespeare’s work offers “a Map of Life, a faithful miniature of human transactions.”4 Frankly, scholars who analyze early modern culture using Shakespeare as virtually their only—or even most important—source come dangerously close to earning themselves the same label.

In the interests of being generous with my complaints, I’ll note that consequences of scholarly preoccupation with the two most canonical authors, Shakespeare and Jonson, are felt not only in cultural studies but more generally in theater studies as well.5 Shakespeareans, for example, tend to ignore the question of collaboration, since it looks as if Shakespeare engaged in the practice only when writing tiresome plays. But almost every other dramatist in London collaborated often, probably far more frequently than we currently recognize. I’m not proposing that we rip apart extant plays, searching for various voices. But I do think that we need to keep in mind that Shakespeare belonged to a small theater community in which playwrights constantly adopted, appropriated, and mocked one another’s work. Shakespeareans seem to maintain a dual mentality in this regard. They readily admit that Shakespeare borrowed virtually all of his plots, and Robert Greene’s admonition that he was “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers” is often quoted.6 But at the same time, scholars reflexively act as if the established hierarchy of canonical writing prevailed at the time as well: in short, that playwrights borrowed from Shakespeare because he was so good and that Shakespeare was too good to have needed or wanted to pinch language from his fellow authors. The attitude was established long ago. “It would be odd if Shakespeare in his portrayal of humanity,” wrote David Frost in 1968, “did not occasionally coincide with other dramatists, particularly since he [End Page 114] shared with his immediate contemporaries a common culture and the same literary tradition...