- Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster
Garrett Sullivan's Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama opens with Shakespeare's description of the effects of desire on Venus after Adonis's goodnight kiss: "'careless lust stirs up desperate courage, / Planting oblivion, beating reason back, / Forgetting shame's pure blush and honor's wrack'" (ll. 556–58).1 Clearly, this passage describes the defeat of all that remains of Venus' modesty. "But," Sullivan asks, "how precisely is Venus's giving herself over to lust an act of forgetting?" (1). We tend to think of remembering and forgetting as narrowly cognitive activities; by this logic, reason and shame would seem to have slipped from Venus's mind. However, after more than five hundred lines of trying to convince Adonis to abandon his own modesty, it seems unlikely that Venus simply fails to recollect hers. "It makes more sense," Sullivan concludes, "to understand the forgetting of shame and honor as encompassing not just cognition but the entire body's operations. . . . To 'forget' shame and honor . . . is to . . . act in terms of a different set of desires and imperatives, to become a different person" (1). Forgetting is less a mental misstep than a "pattern of action" or "a mode of being" (10). As Sullivan notes, "More than any other topic, it is the arts of memory that have dominated the study of individual memory in the early modern period" (4). In place of the [End Page 353] solitary mnemonist reflecting upon the contents of his or her mind, Sullivan invites us to imagine a mnemonic subject awash in a river of humors and suspended in a dynamic social environment where ostensibly "mental" events are best understood as physiological, cultural, and performative processes. Put differently, Sullivan recontextualizes memory and forgetting. Appropriating Shakespeare's territorial metaphor, Sullivan aims to "'plant oblivion' squarely amidst ongoing critical conversations about subjectivity, embodiment and early modern drama" (2).
Sullivan's appropriation is apt. Although Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama is intended to "correct a critical overemphasis on artificial memory" (5), Sullivan does not aim to overturn previous forays into early modern mnemonic culture but to reconfigure the critical landscape in which such investigations take place. Accordingly, much of the introduction is taken up with retooling mnemonic concepts to make them amenable to the analysis of subjectivity and rehabilitating insights from critical discussions of subjectivity in order to foreground their relevance to memory. Thus, Sullivan defines remembering as "the claim made on the subject that he or she remember," where "remember" means not the renewal of specific memory traces but rather the performance of "a discrete social practice or set of practices" (9). Sullivan's paradigmatic example is the Ghost's command that Hamlet "'Remember me' (1.5.91)" (13). Strictly speaking, Hamlet never ceases thinking about his father; however, the prince repeatedly fails to remember him in the way that matters most to the Ghost—by avenging his murder. This failure to act in accordance with prescribed behavior opens up a gap between Hamlet's inward and outward performance of memory: Hamlet "recollects" but does not "remember." In those moments where a subject deviates from his or her prescribed social role, this departure goes by the name of "self-forgetting." Sullivan argues that theatrical texts are interesting precisely because they "serve as experiments in which forms of selfhood outside of the parameters and dictates of 'propriety'—of 'knowing one's place'—are generated, experiments conducted under the rubric of (self-) forgetting" (20). Sullivan's book is dedicated to unpacking the mnemonic logic of such dramatic experiments.
Sullivan pursues this objective from at least two different directions. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 most obviously form a discrete unit and offer readings of single plays, specifically, All's Well That Ends Well, Doctor Faustus, and Antony and Cleopatra. These chapters focus sequentially on different types of self-forgetting: erotic, spiritual, and the neglect of one's country. Sullivan's choice of texts is...