- Death and Drama in Renaissance England: Shades of Memory
Emblematic images of skulls, ambulant skeletons, and other representations of death haunt the pages of William E. Engel's study of Renaissance literature and memory, Death and Drama in Renaissance England: Shades of Memory. According to Engel, such images illustrate a seventeenth-century "aesthetic of decline," a sense of impending "oblivion," which to Engel covers everything from individual death to the collective ruin threatened by political and social crisis. However, even while manifesting this cultural unease, Engel argues, emblems and other Renaissance art forms provided audiences with a sense of overcoming decline. In demonstrating this through his study of Renaissance drama, foreign language phrase books, and historical compendia, Engel examines artistic applications of the classical ars memorativa (art of memory), a battery of mnemonic techniques revived during the Renaissance. Engel argues that the Renaissance imagination saw the regenerative power of the memory arts in general (with their promise to stem forgetfulness and thus human limitation), and their application in emblems and other literary texts, as weapons against death and decline.
Like an emblem writ large, Engel's book is most effective when images complement text. His argument, therefore, is perhaps best demonstrated through one of the book's many illustrations. On the frontispiece to Walter Ralegh's The History of the World, which Engel discusses in the final section of his study, an anthropomorphic figure of history, holding the Earth above her head and standing before four pillars representing mortal learning, tramples the slouched figures of "Death" and "Oblivion" (126). While this image, in the context of Ralegh's history project, has specific resonances concerning what Ralegh saw as post-Elizabethan political decline, Engel argues that its portrayal of the triumph over "oblivion" corresponds to a general view of memory as regenerative force.
While Engel provides some background on the memory arts, his book will be best received by those with prior knowledge of this subject and of earlier studies like Frances Yates's The Art of Memory. Nevertheless, in structuring his argument for those with lesser backgrounds, Engel does well to focus first on drama, with its natural connection to the memory theater, a frequently cited and easily illustrated component of the memory arts. Classical and Renaissance practitioners of the memory arts were counseled, as one technique, to place items they wished to remember in various locations of a mental theater. These thought-items were often iconic images meant to represent larger ideas. By remembering the layout of images within one's mental theater, one could recall a desired image, which would then discharge its corresponding information. Memory theaters thus functioned much as emblems do, with the memorable iconic image acting as powerful mnemonic placeholder for the emblem's verbal message. Engel argues that Renaissance drama employs emblematic principles as well, particularly through [End Page 91] dumb shows such as the pantomime preceding the Mousetrap play-within-a-play in Hamlet. Such "kinetic emblems," as Engel calls them, replicate the typical emblematic form, with the visual dumb show followed by commentary from characters viewing it, thus continuing the pattern of memorable image and verbal message. Through various such readings of memory-arts principles active in dramatic structure, Engel provides a useful methodology for examining other contemporary works.
Of the three sections of Engel's study, this examination of drama should find the greatest audience, especially among those as familiar with Ford, Chapman, and Greene as with Marlowe and Shakespeare. The book's second section, on translation, represents the popular phrase books of John Florio as extensions of memory theater principles into the realms of philology and national psychology. While Engel offers provocative readings of these seemingly mundane texts, the very short section feels slight surrounded by more extensive discussions of drama and historical compendia. This latter section, which concludes the book with readings of Ralegh's History and Alexander Ross's continuation of Ralegh's The History of the World: The Second Part, examines these works through...