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The Dream of a Perfect History

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 47-56 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

There are times, many more than I would openly admit, when I envy the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who in 1919 published Hersttij der middleleeuwen, which in English translation was then entitled The Waning of the Middle Ages and is now, after a subtler retranslation, known as The Autumn of the Middle Ages. The source of my envy stems from the fact that I thought, early in my career, that Huizinga confidently presented his study (in its original manifestation) as a “holistic” examination of life in medieval France and the Netherlands. In the preface to his book he wrote, “The point of departure for this was the attempt to better understand the work of the van Eycks and that of their successors and to understand it within the context of the entire life of that age.”1 This is, of course, the sentiment of a previous time. Gone are the days when historians could genuinely claim to understand anything fully, much less hope that any particular study can capture the “entire life” of a particular subject. For modern historians, looking backward, there is no clear definition of persons, places, or events; and this can easily lead to a profound case of the doldrums. Consequently, I am (if only a bit) cheered when, upon a careful rereading, this time of the later translation, I realize that Huizinga’s world was not as ideal as I had imagined, that perhaps he even shared more modern perceptions about aspects of the past being indeterminable. After all of his impeccable research and painstaking reflection, he finally characterized the “autumn” of the Middle Ages vaguely, as a time, he wrote, when the “tone of life” was changing. Its end could be identified only, Huizinga concluded, as a time “when the joyful insight (or was it an illusion?) [had] ripened that all the glories of the ancient world, of which for so long men had seen themselves the reflection, could be reclaimed.”2

Be that as it may, whatever doubts Huizinga perceived did not prevent him from writing an evocative narrative; and it remains the business of historians to attempt, however imperfectly, to reconstruct the past in narratives that are bound to vary according to time and tide. At the end of the nineteenth century, the “great” theater historians—more “antiquaries” than the professionalized scholars we recognize today—seemed, like Huizinga, capable of speaking comprehensively on every aspect of every subject. Playhouses, acting companies (whether touring or London based), dramatists, and performance methods were all within their grasp. I return to their work occasionally, primarily because such scholars as John Payne Collier and F. G. Fleay laid the foundation in areas in which my own research is heavily invested; and while I sometimes laugh at their naïveté (who would possibly think that Collier’s forgeries in the Henslowe-Alleyn manuscripts are real?), I concurrently marvel at the sheer quantity of detail they managed to cover in their intellectual travels, and all before the onset of the computer age.

By the early part of the twentieth century, amid a growing sense that the box loads of accumulating information needed to be systematized, a new generation of historians (some might argue, more sophisticated antiquarians), such as E. K. Chambers, A. Feuillerat, and W. W. Braines, and their more academically professionalized successor (namely, G. E. Bentley), produced what quickly became iconic resources.3 For some decades now, historians have been memorizing such sources wholesale, and literary critics have been consulting much smaller parts of the same books for their own purposes. Yet it seems that scholars are no closer to a comprehensive understanding of the theater during Shakespeare’s age. Furthermore, they have become even more reticent to attempt anything like a broadly based narrative in light of modern concerns emphasizing the instability of historical narrative.4 And they are also confronted with increasing (and massive) amounts of data. Given these factors, the trend has been for scholars to restrict their areas of inquiry. Few speak of “the Elizabethan playhouse” or “the Jacobean stage,” preferring instead to confine their studies to particular playhouses or acting companies.5 To me, this is both a happy development and a...



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