- Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster
Significant critical attention has been given over to the subject of early modern memory. The mnemonic arts, as Frances Yates told us, not only developed the powers of recall, but helped furnish the sense of the mastery of material and inner psychological space that paved the way for the prepossessed Cartesian subject. Since then, a number of distinguished historians and literary critics have enlarged our understanding of the importance of memory to the development of modern modes of consciousness through studies of the reformation of temporality affecting virtually every aspect of life from the organization of the working day and the [End Page 972] memorialization of the dead, to the coherence of rituals and the construction of nationalist myths.
Early on in Garrett Sullivan, Jr.'s concise but closely-argued Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama, we are reminded of the rhetorical importance of memory to the early modern English state via Richard Mulcaster's exhortation to Elizabeth I that she "remember old King Henry VIII." "Here," writes Sullivan of the interjection during the Queen's coronation procession, "remembering locates the monarch in relation to institutions (kingship) and ideologies (of right rule and Reformation) as they are represented by one of their objects" (10). Clearly, the political manipulation of national memory is a central theme, but by and large (and to his credit), what interests Sullivan more is the location of the individual within those coordinates. Through extended readings of plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and John Webster, his book demonstrates the fulsome impact of the trope of memory on subject-formation by emphasizing the enormous number of mnemonic invocations, transformations, elisions, and equivocations that pepper early modern English drama. While "remembering oneself," with all its guarded servitude to humanist-aristocratic self-control, remains the quality of highest import, it is really forgetting that constitutes the core of Sullivan's book — indeed, to me, his very last paragraph suggests that the words "Memory and" might be productively excised from the title altogether. His chapter on oblivion in Hamlet, for example, becomes a discussion on the dangers of the effeminizing somatic effects of lethargy, the cause of lassitude and inactivity, and the reason why, in humoral theory, women needed much more sleep than men. (Some discussion of Lyly's Endymion might have been enlightening here.) Similar perils of forgetting are outlined in the chapter on Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, where the demonic pact, read alongside a sermon by Donne, constitutes the willful overriding of an atavistic knowledge of God that resides in the soul, a "memory . . . clouded by sin and worldly ambition" (73), that ultimately results in a subjectivity so diffuse it is violently dismembered. But Sullivan reminds us that forgetting might also be a positive and productive force. The "erotic self-forgetting" of All's Well That Ends Well, for example, enables the staging of alternative identities and ways of being that allow Helena and Betram to recover lost identities and renegotiate the relationship between their desire and their social roles. Chapters on Antony and Cleopatra and The Duchess of Malfi — oddly, the only chapter to be cut up into numbered sections. Did the author forget something? — serve to reinforce these ideas through further investigation of the themes of fame, desire, sleep, and contested memories.
Memory, then, is central to the perpetually constellating and dissolving representations of selfhood that so engrossed early modern audiences. Granted, some of Sullivan's more universal conclusions may seem a bit familiar — that Shakespearean comedy is a laboratory for new forms of social, sexual, and hierarchical interaction with a habit of lingering after the final scene, or that Faustus is an orthodox piece of theology, albeit one that understands the vicarious thrill of mnemonic aporia as an alluring component of theatricality — but overall the text [End Page 973] is full of sophisticated insights. Sullivan is a splendid close reader, with an intelligent fastidiousness so admirably...