- Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance
Michael Witmore's Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance argues that prevailing post-Foucaldian analyses fail to account for the [End Page 1024] presence of an unacknowledged agency in the early modern era's recognition of the kinship between children and the faculty of the imagination. His study ranges over such cultural fictions as civic pageantry, theater, and witchcraft trials. Rather than merely replicating and supporting hierarchical structures, Witmore argues that these cultural productions of the imagination also manage to elude such a reductive dialectical paradigm of power and subversion. Witmore's goal is to illuminate this new territory of agency and to examine the cultural anxiety produced by the dynamic link between children and the imaginative fictions associated with them. He organizes his argument around the four modes that he applies to his analyses: animation, touch, impetus, and recursion.
Chapter 1, "Ut Pueritas Poesis: The Child and Fiction in the English Renaissance," is perhaps the most valuable of the book. It historically contextualizes Renaissance discussions of the nexus between children and imagination within the era's theoretical debates over issues in rhetoric, poetics, drama and theatricality, biblical exegesis, and post-Reformation liturgy. In pre-Enlightenment and pre Romantic England, the philosophical valuation of the faculty of the imagination was indeed vexed. The consensus view recognized the imagination as mediating between the senses and the appetites, on the one hand, and between the senses and rationality on the other. There was controversy, however, over whether to regard the power of the imagination positively or negatively, whether it led one to or away from the truth. Beginning with Plato's denunciation of imagination as childishly irrational imitation, and moving from there to Aristotle's acceptance of mimesis in the Poetics as innately human and healthy, Witmore then traces the debate from Quintilian and Cicero to Luther and Calvin and through a range of English Renaissance authors such as Foxe, Munday, Cranmer, Whitgift, Hooker, and Thomas Wright. While Witmore notes a link between a Puritan rejection of the theatricality of both the stage and Roman Catholicism, he argues convincingly that Puritan thinking revealed ambivalence toward imaginative play by allowing for a distinction between self-conscious recognition of fiction as fiction and the "idolatrous self-absorption" (45) of traditional Church ritual.
Chapter 2 focuses on the role of the multitudes of child performers—singers, actors, orators, and dancers —impressed into service for the coronation pageant of Queen Elizabeth. Witmore begins by examining the Renaissance fascination with automata, mechanical clocks especially, to illustrate his first "mode" of the imagination, which he refers to as animation. While Witmore recognizes the argument that civic pageantry indeed employs its subjects to validate royal authority, he argues that Elizabeth's coronation cannot be reduced to "the creeping power of Foucaldian discipline" (90). The role of the children performing in the coronation display is not utterly mechanical in its service to monarchy. Instead, Witmore demonstrates that here the imagination operates by its own rules to create an "ontological space" (91) that withdraws, in its status as fantasy, from the highly pressurized political forces that set it in motion. The child performers, then, communicate "as representation, not through it" (68).
The English children's theater is the concern of chapter 3, where Witmore [End Page 1025] examines the role of child characters and child actors in the drama of Marston, Jonson, and Beaumont. Here he elaborates on the mode of touch, arguing that these three playwrights self-consciously employ the child actors' physical presence on stage metadramatically to articulate their ideas about the power of the imagination. The theatrical experience is itself rendered a childlike fiction, one that functions on a "phatic" level prior to and concurrently with any "deliberate exchange of messages or narratives and serves as the ground for such an exchange" (106).
Chapter 4, on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, develops Witmore's mode of impetus. Drawn from an analogy...