- Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster
In Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, Garrett Sullivan investigates early modern notions of memory with an inventive emphasis on forgetting. His comprehensive evaluation of Renaissance discourse establishes a framework through which he analyzes the theatre's treatment of memory and forgetting, particularly in relation to the construction of self-identity in Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Webster. This fluid analysis offers a fresh perspective on the work of these playwrights and elucidates their contributions to memory theories.
In his introduction, "Planting Oblivion," Sullivan examines the power forgetfulness held over Shakespeare's Venus who "planted oblivion" to freely embrace her lust for Adonis in the poem Venus and Adonis. This poem inspires Sullivan's consideration of forgetfulness, not just as memory's counterpart, but as an agent in "conversations about subjectivity, embodiment, and early modern drama" (2). Sullivan's theoretical approach draws on scholars of early modern memory, specifically Mary Carruthers's discussion of the competing memory metaphors of the time: the wax tablet and the storage room. Sullivan approaches memory as a somatic, individual experience, using this understanding to analyze how and why dramatic characters participate in self-forgetting, and specifically how this self-forgetting affects their status as exemplars—or examples of good behavior for audiences to remember and imitate in their own lives. Sullivan identifies the three modes of self-forgetting, which he explores in chapters 2–4, respectively: "erotic" self-forgetting in All's Well That Ends Well, "religious" self-forgetting in Dr. Faustus, and "the forgetting of one's country" in Antony and Cleopatra (15). He is particularly interested in ways in which self-forgetting relates to a character's sense of subjectivity. Having defined memory and forgetting through his dramatic analysis, Sullivan proceeds to construct them within an early modern context.
In his first chapter, Sullivan explores early modern theories of memory in terms of mythology. For example, his analysis of the Lethe myth reveals its impact on early modern understandings of lethargy and sleep as enablers of forgetfulness. Christian ideology echoed the ancients and intensified the oppositional relationship of memory and forgetting, which aligned memory with morality and forgetting with idleness and depravity. To Sullivan, these early modern notions reflect "a pre-Cartesian conception of mind and body as entwined and imbricated in one another" and therefore define memory in terms of physical "discipline and order" and forgetfulness "with practices and physiological processes antithetical to the ideals of body comportment" (39). After a fascinating discussion of humoral theory and its understandings of gender and forgetfulness, Sullivan details early modern conversations about the theatre as both a mnemonic device and a breeder of idleness.
Having established the theatre institution's relationship to memory, Sullivan delves into literary analysis for the remaining five chapters. In his [End Page 324] second chapter, he frames All's Well's Helena and Bertram in terms of erotic self-forgetting. Helena's desire for Bertram encourages her to forget her father and herself by extension, which allows for her reintegration into society; Bertram, on the other hand, must forget himself and his erotic desire for Diana to be accepted back into the king's good graces after his dismissal of Helena's affections. Sullivan proposes that self-forgetting and self-making are reciprocal for Bertram. When he forgets his escapades with Diana, he reconfigures his character as chaste. Because both Helena and Bertram forget themselves to the power of their erotic desire, Sullivan understands them as failed exemplars.
He continues this discussion of exemplarity in his third chapter, which assesses Dr. Faustus as a warning to audiences about the dangers of forgetting self and God. Sullivan proposes Faustus's enticement by the spectacle of the seven deadly sins as Marlowe's commentary on the moral criticisms launched at the theatre. Having suggested Faustus as a negative exemplar, Sullivan complicates this limited notion by incorporating Stephen Greenblatt's analysis of the character as the European Man...