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Toward a New Theatricality?

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 29-35 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0000

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There are reasons to think that professional criticism of early modern drama is emerging from a period of methodological consolidation, comforted by a sense of its canonical importance but nagged by a certain intellectual restlessness. Few areas of criticism can claim to have undergone a more radical reinvention over the past forty years, and arguably no field has had a more significant impact on the way that literary scholarship as a whole has come to be practiced in the academy. In retrospect, the rise of “historicism” as an international critical orthodoxy can be traced directly to the studies of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, and their contemporaries that were published during the 1980s and early 1990s by New Historicist and Cultural Materialist critics working in both the United States and the United Kingdom. When I entered graduate school in 1994, these methods were being reinvigorated by a turn to the history of the book, through which drama was coming to be regarded primarily as a printed form; today, the study of print culture and the history of reading arguably forms the dominant mode of historicist inquiry in the field. This shift toward the history of the book was possible partly because of the strong grip that terms such as “culture” and “materialism” continued to hold on the critical imagination; it can also be understood as part of a more general drive toward an “objective” criticism based on archive and fact, one that would allow literary studies to stand next to history as a royal discipline in the humanities division of the university (and one that would make literary study newly amenable to research funding). But whatever the causes, there are good reasons for its currency: the kinds of evidence that critics consider have been significantly expanded; plays we had come to know well suddenly look very different when their variant editions are examined for their interpretive value; thanks to the work of Peter Stallybrass and Zachary Lesser, among others, we have a much more subtle grasp of the ways in which publishers shaped the dramatic marketplace.1

It seemed to me then, however, and it still seems to me now, that in a paradoxical way the specifically theatrical history of drama has faded from view. Shadowed by the history of the book, critics writing on early modern theater have faced several unsatisfactory alternatives. Behind, an increasingly dated New Historicism, preoccupied with the spectacle of power and the power of spectacle. To one side, the excavations of the theater historian, rich in detail but undermotivated in concept; to the other side, performance reviews and studies of adaptation that remain focused on a singular event or on a parade of cultural moments. In the distance, the underrealized theoretical potential of performance studies, already ceding its ground to the shimmer of new media. In response, a growing number of critics have found renewal in omnivorous profusion: the recent turn to science and technology, phenomenology, philosophies of action, the spatiality of stage directions, actor’s parts, globalization, political philosophy, religion and ethics, the history of the senses, environmental criticism, the study of animals, music and acoustic performance—to name a few areas of active research—manifests how creative and eclectic current criticism of early modern drama has become.

Some of this work has arisen as an attempt to recover areas that New Historicism tended to marginalize: the history of rhetoric and humanism, of classical philosophy and its diffusion, the history of science. Some work sets out to advance theoretical problems that New Historicism made central but determined in too narrow a way: the nature of “political” thought, now resituated in relation to classical philosophy and political theology; the history of gender, sexuality, and desire, especially in relation to queer subjectivity; the nature of “race” and other forms of geographic difference, with an eye to the East and not simply to the New World; the possibilities of drama as a mode of ideological critique, now of the category of the “human” rather than of the “subject.” And good recent work has begun to dig more deeply into topics that have long been of enduring interest to historicist literary criticism, in all its varieties: the relation between...



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