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Magic and Masculinity in Early Modern English Drama

By Ian McAdam

Publication Year: 2009

The prevalent worldview of early modern England, clearly shaped by Protestantism, dismissed magical belief as an ideological delusion inherent in Catholicism. That same Protestantism encouraged a strong sense of individualism, with its emphasis on self-transformation, through which a new masculinity found expression. Why, then, did magical self-empowerment retain such a hold on the artistic and cultural imagination of early modern English society?

Ian McAdam’s innovative study suggests that the answer to this question may lie partly in an increasingly ironic presentation of magic. While the magical beliefs of the period asserted, on the one hand, individual empowerment through a quasi-religious self-justification and a presumed mastery of the objective world, those beliefs also gave rise to various anxieties concerning power and control — anxieties that created difficulty with conceptions of masculine and feminine gender roles as well as cultural attitudes toward Nature and the natural. Thus, McAdam contends, the increased interest in magic was connected to a crisis in masculine identity, which was exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation and its concern with individual empowerment as well as class, sexual, and religious identifications. Moreover, as artistic presentations — especially in the theater — were concerned with magic as a form of psychological, ideological, and cultural control, the study finds the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism useful in explaining the notion of selfhood as it developed in early modern England.

In chapters that explore various literary texts, McAdam considers depictions of magic by tracing a chronological path that follows a dialectical struggle involving a precarious attempt to balance “supra-rational” and “sub-rational” impulses. Beginning with Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, which depicts some ambivalent attitudes toward magical self-empowerment and the cultural concern of a feminine sexual threat to masculine (magical) control, the book moves to the Calvinist constructions of manhood in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and eventually to considerations of male self-definition and its reliance on women, class considerations in more oblique magical contexts, and surrender to magical (and ideological) powers in the works of Shakespeare, Marston, Middleton, Chapman, and Jonson.

In addition to appealing to those who study early modern literature and drama, this book will interest scholars of gender and those concerned with the theological basis of human subjectivity in the Renaissance.

Published by: Duquesne University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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p. v

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pp. 1-22

In early modern England, Protestantism clearly underwrote an individualism through which the new masculinity found key expression. Protestantism also played a crucial role in the ideological dismissal of magical belief as a delusion inherent to Catholicism. Why, then, did magical self-empowerment retain...

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ONE Sex and Magic in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

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pp. 23-48

It is impossible to determine whether Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay predates or postdates Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen find implausible the “possibility that Greene may have pioneered in bringing a famous magician on stage . . . in view of Greene’s other...

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TWO Puritan Magic in Doctor Faustus

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pp. 49-96

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus eschews the somewhat archaic, romantic context of Greene’s Friar Bacon and more thoroughly “modernizes” the psychological situation of its protagonist, resulting in a play with greater cultural impact in early modern England, and certainly for readers today. Debora Shuger claims...

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THREE Ambiguous Magic in Shakespeare’s First and Second Tetralogies

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pp. 97-130

Like Marlowe’s Faustus, Shakespeare’s earliest histories offer an interesting, and often ironic, conjunction of the motifs of soldiering and witchcraft/magic. Sometimes poetically crude (the future master poet still producing, periodically, bad imitations of Marlowe), sometimes dramatically tedious (a fault arising...

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FOUR Shakespeare’s Comic Actaeon and the Turn to Tragedy

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pp. 131-165

The Comedy of Errors shares with the Henry IV plays a concern with Protestant manliness underwritten by allusions to Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, but it significantly deals more directly with men’s dependency on women for their self-definition. As R. A. Foakes in the Arden edition observes, “Shakespeare altered...

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FIVE Magic and Nature in the Later Shakespeare

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pp. 166-228

The Protestant emphasis on the importance of Scriptures written in the heart leads to the ideological and psychological paradox that religious discourse must be appropriated and internalized to the extent that it inevitably becomes secularized and individualized. But this discourse also beomes magically intensified, even...

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SIX Macbeth and the Jacobean Witchcraft Plays

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pp. 229-274

Macbeth offers only the most obvious example, perhaps even a dramatic archetype, of an encounter between the military and the magical, which, as we have seen, occurs frequently in the plays of the early modern period. I consider the tragedy, like Doctor Faustus, to be an exploration of the failure of Calvinist theology to...

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SEVEN Magic as Emasculation in George Chapman and Ben Jonson

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pp. 275-324

In his brief treatment of Bussy D’Ambois in Radical Tragedy, Jonathan Dollimore asserts that George Chapman’s tragedy, like earlier plays of the period, “interrogates providence and decenters the tragic subject but now the emphasis has shifted; before, the emphasis had tended to fall on the first of these projects, now and...

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EIGHT The Magician’s Garden: The Tempest and Comus

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pp. 325-376

With Wittipol in The Devil Is an Ass we perhaps fi nd the closest approximation of an acceptably modern, or postmodern, construction of masculinity in a magical context, where, significantly, the magical aspiration, completely debunked, is superceded by an intellectual and psychological maturity constituted by humane...

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pp. 377-388

The uncertainty we are left with at the conclusion to the analysis of Comus in some ways reflects a dialectical tension that we have observed, in various manifestations, within this study. The “grandiose autonomy desired by the Lady” and the “total fusion represented by Comus” both constitute narcissistic extremes of...


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pp. 389-431


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pp. 432-452


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pp. 453-466

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705040
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704241

Page Count: 471
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794700837
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Magic and Masculinity in Early Modern English Drama

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Subject Headings

  • English drama -- Early modern and Elizabethan, 1500-1600 -- History and criticism.
  • Masculinity in literature.
  • Magic in literature.
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