- Emulation on the Shakespearean Stage by Vernon Guy Dickson
Early in Emulation on the Shakespearean Stage, Vernon Guy Dickson quotes Quintilian’s The Orator’s Education: “I do not want Paraphrase to be a mere passive reproduction, but to rival and vie with the original in expressing the same thoughts” (quoted 11). Appearing in the final paragraph of Dickson’s book, another quotation from The Orator’s Education tempers the ancient rhetorician’s teaching on contentious imitation: “no man can draw level with a man in whose footsteps he feels bound to tread” (quoted 172). In Dickson’s account, emulation in the English Renaissance combined these precepts. At once competition and homage, textual expression and lived behavior, “emulation was not seen as rote repetition but as an act of invention or construction, self-construction in daily life—governed by decorum, though also potentially generative of transgressive invention” (12). This understanding of emulation, moreover, “created a culture that bred individuals who read selves closely like texts and attempted to shape themselves based on a wide range of models, precedents, and persons, historical and contemporary—sometimes as agonists, sometimes as exemplars, sometimes simply as peers” (xvii). In mounting the case for this “culture of emulation,” Dickson draws on and deviates from René Girard’s “mimetic rivalry,” Stephen Greenblatt’s “Renaissance self-fashioning,” and Thomas M. Greene’s “era of imitation.” Emulation on the Shakespearean Stage thus ends up enacting the very concept it examines. The result is a study of English rhetorical theory and dramatic practice that provides a useful review of foundational scholarship and reads early modern drama in often generative ways.
Emulation on the Shakespearean Stage begins with a genealogy of the culture of emulation in which early modern dramatists and their audiences engaged. In chapter 1 Dickson reviews principal early theories of imitation, with particular attention to Aristotle and Quintilian and to Thomas Wilson, Roger Ascham, and Sir Philip Sidney. This chapter proves especially useful in demonstrating [End Page 225] the differences in priorities between ancient and early modern rhetoricians and among English writers. For instance, although they all emphasize self-fashioning through emulative education, Wilson privileges imitation in the context of classroom learning; Ascham, of social codes of behavior; and Sidney, of virtuous action (14–24). This “blurring of texts (fiction and nonfiction, art and life),” Dickson argues, is not only “foundational to emulative theory” in the Renaissance but also “the necessary condition of the humanist ideal of an emulative theater” on the Shakespearean stage (62).
The next four chapters closely read plays by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Philip Massinger that take classical Rome, including its texts, culture, and ethos, as the object of emulation. Each of the plays also portrays “a confounding enactment” of Roman models (29). This compelling turn of phrase appears in chapter 2, arguably the strongest chapter in the book. Here, Dickson demonstrates how in Titus Andronicus “characters compete to outdo available texts and each other’s imitations of these texts and precedents,” constructing “a destructive pattern of conflicted, partial, and uncritical emulations” (28). Classroom learning sets the Shakespearean stage for Roman patterns of behavior that ought to promote social and political action worthy of emulation, but miscalculations in characters’ discernments of what and how to emulate lead to escalating retributive violence rather than mercy. Although “not as overt as Titus” (53), Hamlet enacts the failure of emulative reading of classical models to yield anything other than rote repetition. In chapter 3 Dickson focuses on Hamlet and the lapse of decorum (“match[ing] deeds to…words, a primary Roman virtue” ) in its protagonist’s emulative education. Competing models of proper behavior, including Claudius, the players, and Laertes, “adumbrate [Hamlet’s] modes of thinking and methods for gaining insight and taking appropriate action” (72). Although finally Hamlet “learns the force of delivery and decorum” (95), his execution of revenge evinces a bankruptcy of “rhetorically inventive insights to find a clear way to reimagine the revenger’s role” (96). In chapter 4 Dickson analyzes Jonson’s...