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Reviewed by:
  • Early Responses to Renaissance Drama
  • Nick Moschovakis
Early Responses to Renaissance Drama. By Charles Whitney. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006; pp. xi + 354. $96.00 cloth.

This book stoutly tackles the problem of studying dramatic reception in a period that predates modern theatre criticism. How much can we hope to learn about the way early playgoers and readers responded to work by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson? What reactions might those playwrights have anticipated when they dramatized, say, a king’s subjection by a shepherd in Tamburlaine, or the gulling of a lady’s steward in Twelfth Night?

The trickiness of answering such questions about any audience is compounded for early modern English audiences by the sparseness of the documentary record. Few comments on pre-Restoration plays survive; even fewer contain more than one or two sentences that specifically discuss any single work. It is with a bold spirit, then, that Charles Whitney seeks to recapture—as convincingly as he can—the elusive reactions of historical men and women to particular English Renaissance plays.

Whitney’s strategy for bridging gaps in the evidence is to redefine what counts as evidence for early modern responses. The central, most successful part of his strategy is to comb early modern English documents for allusions to dramas, scenes, dialogues, and characters. Drawing frequently from the personal history of the document’s author, Whitney infers the motives behind each statement and suggests plausible (if not provable) accounts of his subject’s thoughts and feelings about Renaissance plays.

Whitney’s book is organized around large bodies of allusions to popular characters (Tamburlaine and Falstaff), or around socially defined categories of playgoers (from the Inns of Court, to gentlewomen, to fishwives). At times, Whitney tries to make parts of this material serve a more ambitious thesis: that there was a mid-seventeenth-century transition from early modern to modern modes of responses. This broader thesis felt rather sketchily argued. Far more compelling were Whitney’s many enlightening close readings of archival evidence.

The most valuable contribution of Early Responses to Renaissance Drama is its focus on an unexpectedly large and eclectic collection of allusions, many not previously examined in detail. Directly and indirectly, these allusions testify to a range of ways in which different audience segments and individuals processed their memories of play-going and play-reading. The sources are as socially diverse as could be hoped for. To be sure, most of Whitney’s evidence disproportionately represents the nobility and gentry—the classes most likely to have had their speech recorded or writings preserved. Yet within these limits, the commentators vary. They are male and female, Protestant and Catholic, worldly and contemplative. They include many better-known authors of pamphlets, poetry, diaries, autobiographies, and correspondences such as Thomas Nashe, John Davies of Hereford, Thomas Middleton, Simon Forman, John Taylor (the “Water Poet”), Anne Halkett, [End Page 159] John Milton, and Dorothy Osborne, to name a few. Other authors are less canonical and their writing is less likely to be familiar, even to specialists in the period: Elizabeth Wriothsley (wife to Henry and cousin to Essex), Robert Tofte (poet), Richard Brathwait (conduct-manual author), Jane Owen (recusant writer), and Joan Drake (a gentlewoman whose spiritual biographer, John Hart, reported her allusions to The Alchemist).

In his analyses of these highly disparate voices, Whitney is chiefly concerned to reconstruct the conscious or semiconscious sentiments that they conveyed. He wants us to hear the dominant concerns of early modern English individuals in the echoes, appropriations, and pointed appraisals of what they heard onstage or read in playbooks. For example, in one of Whitney’s most persuasive readings, Anne Halkett (née Murray)—a lady of the Caroline court and later Royalist intriguer, celebrated for her Memoirs (1678–79)—describes her participation in a conversation in 1650 by alluding to a scene from John Fletcher’s Humorous Lieutenant. Whitney’s explication of the allusion, relating it to the dramatic plot and text, teases out what was plausibly a rich, complex, dialectical sense of identification with the character Celia, whose experiences and responses both mirrored and contrasted with Halkett’s own (224–33).

Whitney treats other evidence similarly throughout...


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pp. 159-160
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