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WILLIAM W.E. SLIGHTS Secret Places in Renaissance Drama The critic will certainly be an interpreter, but he will not treat Art as a riddling Sphinx, whose shallow secret may be guessed and revealed by one whose feet are wounded and who knows not his name. Oscar Wilde, 'The Critic as Artist' In 1584 Reginald Scot published his contribution to the minor genre of discovery literature. What he discovered - that is, revealed - to the world was not the mysteries of remote places or the tricks of cardsharps, but the much-feared secrets of witchcraft. He gave over the entire fourth book of his Discaveriea/Witchcraft to the sexualinterventions ofwitches, including the story of a young man who, under a witch's spell, was made 'to leave his instruments ofvenerie behind him.' The unfortunate young man had, then, to resort to a second witch for restitution thereofwho brought him to a tree, where she shewed him a nest, and bad him clime up and take it. And being in the top of the tree, he took out a mightie great one, and shewed the same to hir, asking hir if he might not have the same. Naie, quoth she, that is our parish priests toole, but take anie other which thou wilt. (Scot 77-8) The text obviously concerns itself with power - the power of some women to dis-member and re-member men at will. In a brilliant piece of ironic deconstruction through reinscription (a version of the story had appeared in the Malleus maleficarum of 1486), Scot mocks the scare tactics of Roman Catholic witch hunters.1 Clearly, Scot is having fun at the expense of the writers and gullible readers of the Malleus: a nest bulging with twenty or thirty penises munching on 'provender, as it were at the rack and manger' (78) is rather silly stuff, even as male fantasies go~ In Scot's text, the story has the force of an anticlerical fabliau, albeit one that had in former times been passed offby papists as a pious, cautionary tale. Its secrets are sham. The impo'tence/secrecy/women configuration of prejudice was by no means silenced in Renaissance England by Scot's discoveries. Indeed, as KeithThomas points out, 'The mythology ofwitchcraft was atits height at a time when women were generally believed to be more sexually UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 59, NUMBER 3, SPRING 1990 364 WILLIAM W.E. SLIGHTS voracious than men' (568).2 The allure with which women seduced men could easilybe conflated with the secretcharms used by 'witches' to undo men by rendering them impotent.3 Accounts of such activities were discreetly set apart from ordinary discourse and hence carried the aura of the Latin secretum, to separate or set apart. Whether recommending transgression or procreation, the voice that revealed sexual secrets was a voice of difference from beyond the margins of the publicly shared text, whispering an always alternate, sometimes subversive, and usually indeterminate version of the received 'truth' about sex. Considerable power inheres in the indeterminacy of such secrets, and our own age, in .which pornography proliferates and the term 'intelligence' is regularly prefaced by the modifier 'secret,' is well situated to assess the workings of such secret power on the Renaissance stage. Secrecy, in our age or Scot's, implicates the privy councils of state along with the privy parts of the body. I In her recent study entitled Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, Sissela Bok remarks: The power of ... secrecy can be immense. Because it bypasses inspection and eludes interference, secrecy is central to the planning of every form of injury to human beings. It cloaks the execution of these plans and wipes out all traces afterward. It enters into all prying and intrusion that cannot be carried out openly. While not all that is secret is meant to deceive ... all deceit does rely on keeping something secret. (26) The same kind of power that Bok writes about in terms of investigative reporting, espionage, political cover-ups, and other activities that characterize our own culture is echoed repeatedly in Renaissance texts. But beside this sinister sort of occlusion, there is another, more benign motive for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 363-381
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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