- Performing Masculinity in English University Drama, 1598–1636. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama by Christopher Marlow
As the title of this monograph promises, Christopher Marlow’s study explores the definition of a scholar’s masculinity or manliness in “onstage performances of manhood” (172) by college students of Oxford and Cambridge through roughly the first four decades of the seventeenth century. The plays and playing are treated as attempts to produce a self-authorized “form of male identity” that Marlow refers to as “scholarly masculinity” (7). While readings of the representation of this scholarly masculinity in seventeen college plays are the primary concern here, this brief exploration also takes up the performance of masculinity in a broader context of extracurricular college shows, rituals, ceremonies, saltings, and riots in five wide-ranging chapters that address the identifications and contra-identifications that occur within the “social contexts” (11) and webs that shaped the student and his experience of the drama (chapter 1), the implications of such identifications for the “glories and disappointments of the university man” (11) with the promises of scholarship in the world at large (chapter 2), scholarly testing of authority in enactments of unmannerly misrule and timid obedience (chapter 3), critiques of the imposed ideals of scholarly self-discipline and restraint within [End Page 309] friendship bonds and the fit between philosophical and instrumental modes of masculinity (chapter 4), and the difficulty of managing assertions of “manhood” within the context of the “micropolitics” (139) of initiation into the local college community (chapter 5). This book thus provides a solid, thoughtful introduction to the plays’ concerns with the distinctions between manliness associated with “university and nonuniversity cultures” (174) as depicted in English university drama over the periods it addresses. Those more expert in the field may wish it had done more to justify its timeline and scope as well as the foundational warrants for its approach. Yet, it both builds intriguingly upon F. S. Boas’s groundbreaking study University Drama in the Tudor Age, now approaching its centenary, and argues persuasively for the necessity of further investigation into this worthy subject.
Marlow begins by considering to what extent engaging in performance was perceived as manly by early modern scholars and concludes that, in spite of anti-theatricalist objections, it was. Indeed, “one of the arguments this book makes is that involvement in university drama was seen by most as a manly act” (3). The plays, he suggests, “made by men,...made men, onstage and off, in their image” (6) by providing a delimited “space of negotiation” (7) that allowed students “to explore and critique” “authorized male roles” in the world at large (6). Interestingly, Marlowe focuses primarily on those plays written by fellow students in English, since, he argues, the vernacular was “a medium in which the fault lines between academic and popular understandings of ideologically fraught concepts such as masculinity [were] likely to be exposed” (4). Ultimately, what he finds is a drama that “sometimes accepts the model of masculinity predominant in its culture, and sometimes rejects it” (174). The plays are thus said to chart the scholars’ varied responses to expectations that they perform the “behaviour that properly belonged to them as men” even as they assumed the learning and tastes that distinguished them from the unlearned (172).
The author offers close readings of performed acts of masculinity recorded in select works or records written or performed between 1598 and 1636, all of which he treats as “artefacts” (6) that reflect actual understandings about the link between masculinity and performance in their respective communities of origin. What differentiates this drama in terms of its power to shape understandings is that it was, with the exception of six plays performed before royalty, primarily performed by youths before their similarly youthful, same-sex “coterie” audiences (67). Performance is considered primarily via the lens of Judith Butler’s “understanding of gender as a fluid identity constructed diachronically through a series of performed acts” (7), a theoretical positioning that...