Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1 (2003) 103-105
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The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642. By John D. Cox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 257. $59.95 cloth.
John D. Cox's analytical survey of English stage devils is one of numerous continuity studies published during the past decade which have sought to lower artificial barriers between English "medieval" and English "Renaissance" drama. To scholars not regularly working on both periods, Cox's argument may come as something of a revelation; and for those who span the breadth of early modern drama, his exploration is both refreshing and rewarding. Such a book, which in effect traces some three hundred years of a single character type, risks a myopic focus on devils and insufficient vision on their sociocultural contexts. On the whole, Cox navigates adroitly between the particulars of a daunting number of plays and the generalizations that bind them into continuity. Using E. K. Chambers as a stalking-horse has become almost a cottage industry, and Cox joins the workforce: "One task of the present book is to retell the story of English stage devils for the first time since Chambers but with different assumptions" (1).
Chambers saw the development of English stage devils as evolving from what Cox terms "benighted superstition" to "enlightened secularity" (1). Chambers viewed devils as "a secular incursion in sacred drama" (2), which is but another way of expressing the now thoroughly discredited notion that drama moved from "minster to marketplace" in response to the improprieties of unruly stage devils. Cox's work tacitly challenges two other assumptions: first, that the development of English drama was linear and sequential, each phase predicated on an earlier; and, second, that drama progressed from the simple to the complex, from the peasant piety spelled out in the mystery pageants to the soaring architectonics of Shakespearean tragedy.
Cox, too, sees stage devils as oppositional but not as evolving from sacred to secular. Instead, he argues that devils remained "a way of imagining how and why the sacred needed to function redemptively in the life of the individual and the community" (2). The first four chapters examine pre-Reformation stage devils as they "reveal communal values by default, illustrating (often satirically) what fifteenth-century English society saw as most destructive of its sacral cohesion" (18). Chapter 1 focuses on the oppositional relationship between devils and that which the community defines as good, a relationship that had been continuously staged in early English drama from the mid-fourteenth-century York [End Page 103] Cycle pageants to the 1642 close of the theaters. As Cox notes, the dramatic longevity of devils "has neither been noticed nor explained in the critical record" (5), an omission that becomes even more startling in the face of this book's abundant evidence. His conceptual explication of that longevity later in the book is compelling, but less so is a pragmatic foray in which he speculates that devils endured in part because "costumes and the materials for assembling them remained the same" (5). Scant evidence for devils' costumes survives; extant images in religious art go far beyond black feathers or fur; and of all actors' costumes, one might guess that devils' took a considerable beating in performance.
Chapter 2 is devoted to the mystery plays, chapter 3 to the noncycle plays, and chapter 4 to early social satire. Essentially, Cox sees their focus on the "betrayal, rigged trial, beating, torture, and execution of their principal character, who is a landless peasant" (30) as political; and his argument is persuasive. Thus Lucifer's rebellion is a palace revolt, his colleagues or followers are almost always the socially privileged, and "the demonic destruction of community occurs in repeating the sin of Lucifer—that is, in abuses of power by the powerful" (22). The oppositions that the cycle plays explore—"gratitude and self-congratulation, communal solidarity and individualism, humility and pride, love and hate, trust and mistrust" (21)—hold as well for the noncycle plays, Cox contends. In contrast to Bevington's evolutionary view...