Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 151-154
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Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century
Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century. By Kent Cartwright. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. x + 321. $59.95 cloth.
Received critical and scholarly opinion over the past century has held that the major drama of Shakespeare's age grew out of the earlier morality plays, and while this has been modified--as with a more recent concern that the morality plays could be as political as religious, perhaps even more so--the paradigm has remained largely uncontested. The elite drama of schoolmasters and humanists had little to do with popular performances--whether in churches, innyards, or (eventually) the public playhouses. Where they might have found some influence, as when the university men became public-theater playwrights, those who, like Lyly, remained intellectual and even cerebral provided static plays that were soon enough dramatic failures. These are today's common assertions, and Kent Cartwright in Theatre and Humanism challenges every one of them. In a study that sweeps through a century of English drama leading directly into Shakespeare, dense with learning, cultural references, and meticulous readings of plays as inherently performative staged texts, Cartwright's fundamental reassessment of the roots of Renaissance drama is absorbing to read and compelling in its argument.
Part of the strength of Cartwright's book is in its direct engagement with playtexts and with theater. Part of it is his asking the question no one seems to have thought to confront: how is it that a national drama whose strength was allegory and didacticism [End Page 151] under Henry VIII could evolve into a drama that by 1579 was attacked as dangerously emotional and censored as immoral? What rupture could have permitted, even exacerbated this? Catrwright argues that there was no rupture but a slow development that shifted emphases as England's Tudor century unfolded. Seeing early plays as performative, dealing with costumes, properties, blocking, and, above all, spectacle, he finds that the humanist poetic of drama was, from the start, not only emotionally engaging but deliberately inviting (and so complicit with) the audience's responses. The dramatic paradigm was not good versus evil but rather "the scripted and the felt, the conceived and the experienced," received wisdom as against the quotidian world itself (17). The fixed morality pattern was shattered as early as the reign of Henry VIII because even for the playwrights of Thomas More's circle, life was neither neat nor predictable: "Humanist drama may evolve toward a self-contained world, but with its play of enigma, empathy, suspense, and pleasurable confusion, humanist theatre draws spectators inside that environment as participants, respondents, and even fellow creators who incriminate themselves emotionally or imaginatively in the illusion" (20). By the end of Cartwright's study, amid often dazzling original observations on nearly every page, it is perhaps the case he makes for Marlowe's Zenocrate that I find most persuasive and satisfying--how Marlowe uses her (as other playwrights use other "witness" characters) to cause the spectator (always affected, too, by spectacle) to find Tamburlaine not only fearful but forcefully attractive. This is a Marlowe who is fundamentally theatrical, pulling in spectators; it does not hurt his case that it also makes compelling--and commercially successful--theater. Lyly, just as concerned with the possibilities and strategies of spectacle, works in other ways, and brings to theater a sense of plays as serial, one opening up to the next. Greene, whose intertextuality builds plays by borrowing from, alluding to, or parodying other plays, may not essentially change the strategies of Lyly and Marlowe, but he multiplies them. And Shakespeare, of course, then employs them all; there is a wonderful catalogue of Shakespeare's borrowings from Lyly's dramaturgy on page 191: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Love's Labour's Lost, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Winter's Tale.
If I begin by looking at the end of Cartwright's study, it is because I find each chapter...