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  • ‘To allure vnto their loue’: Iconoclasm and Striptease in Lewis Wager’s The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene
  • Patricia Badir* (bio)

Lewis Wager’s Reformation play The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene purports to be a “godlie, learned and fruitefull” play designed to teach and extol Protestant virtue. 1 From the outset, this Edwardian morality play assumes that the agendas of Protestantism and of the theatre are not necessarily incompatible, as the heroic drama of the Reformation is staged by means of the vita of Mary Magdalen. 2 Never acquiescing to the scourge of the antitheatricalist pen that apparently marked the play as “spitefully despised,” the play’s Prologue insists that the work encourages [End Page 1] manly virtue, praises God with unyielding vehemence and teaches true, stalwart devotion to the King. “[T]here was neuer thyng inuented,” one is informed, “[m]ore worth, for mans solace to be frequented” (ll. 12, 36–37). 3 Making its robust Calvinism absolutely clear, Life and Repentaunce assures that the Magdalen’s exquisitely dressed, pre-penitent body reflects not only the dangerous entrapments of femininity but also the pitfalls of perverse piety and, by extension, the decadent and degenerate Catholic Church. At the point of her conversion, the stone tablets of God’s Law are presented to Mary by a personified looking-glass in whom she finds “knowledge of sinne.” The figure of Lawe announces:

Wherefore as I sayd to a glasse compared I may be, Wherin clerely as in the sunne lyght, The weakenesse and sinne of him self he may se, Yea and his owne damnation as it is ryght. [ll. 1137–40]

Mary is hereafter re-fashioned into a Protestant exemplar: “sadly apparelled,” supine and pious in her contrite posture. The play closes with long, sobering speeches from grave characters such as Justification and Love and the spectator witnesses the conversion of an immoderate, Catholic image into an appropriately fortified Protestant exemplar of the Word.

A mirror is, however, at once the vehicle of the plain and simple truth and a tool for vainglorious deception. Wager’s play, this essay will argue, is a similarly paradoxical glass. Mary’s return to the stage in decent dress is conceived of as analogous to the stripping of the altars as the spectator’s idolatrous gaze is redirected to the naked truth of the scriptures. But, as in the presentation of the modern striptease, the divestment of Mary does not reveal the truth as promised. The magical and seductive trappings of the Magdalen’s sumptuous past, like the stripper’s exotic costume and props, go on pervading the saint’s figure even once they have been cast aside. The metaphorically naked Mary invokes Roland Barthes’ semantic of the striptease as she is re-dressed in “the enveloping memory of a luxurious shell.” 4 The spectacular allure of the old faith permeates her body enacting “the dialectic between iconophilia and iconophobia” now recognized as integral to the propagation of Protestant culture. 5 Life and Repentaunce beguiles and deceives by means of the very scenography it condemns as degenerate. [End Page 2]

The allegorical representation of Mary Magdalen as the prototypical parishioner is not Wager’s invention. Magdalen’s medieval biography begins with the conflation of at least three New Testament figures: Mary Magdalen from whom Christ expels seven devils and who attends the sepulcher, Mary of Bethany who anoints Christ with her precious oils and Luke’s unnamed sinner who bathes Christ’s feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee. 6 By the thirteenth century, exegetical commentary and popular legend had further transformed this composite figure into the ex-prostitute whose exemplary penance rendered her the patron saint of all sinners. 7 Though initially the embodiment of material worldliness, Mary denies the temptations of luxury and the pleasures of the flesh and becomes the most sober and chaste of Christ’s devotees. Katherine Jansen has argued that this “masterful stroke of endowing the concept of penance with corporeal existence” helped to diffuse the cult of penance in the late middle ages. 8

The degree to which Wager was familiar with the medieval Magdalen, represented in the English canon by the surviving...

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