- The Queen’s Dumbshows: John Lyd-Gate and the Making of Early Theater by Claire Sponsler
Claire Sponsler’s lucid, precise, and highly enjoyable book is the latest entry in a growing list of monographs intent on reconsidering the parameters of “early theatre” in medieval Europe. Focusing not on mystery, miracle, or morality plays, which have dominated discussion of early English theatre for over a century, Sponsler instead orients us to a heretofore neglected area of inquiry: John Lydgate’s role as writer, arranger, and deviser of courtly and civic dramatic entertainments in the early fifteenth century. She frames her book as a challenge to literary history, offering up her exhaustive analysis of Lydgate’s dramatic corpus in order to “expand and complicate our understanding of premodern literary and theatrical history [and] shed light on the complex ways in which late medieval poetry and performance fueled each other and, in so doing, ask us to rethink how we understand both of them” (16). She moves performance into the center of her analysis, demonstrating the material, conceptual, and actual intersection of “two words that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries refuse to stay separate—literature and theatre” (ibid.).
Moving between these two words—worlds, really—requires Sponsler’s attention to textual and manuscript history; scribal practices and conventions; visual depictions of text; analysis of household, civic, and guild records; and imagination in reentering lost performance moments, as well as close textual and contextual readings of the content of Lydgate’s work. The breadth and variety of what is under discussion here alone justifies Sponsler’s focus, but her exemplary interdisciplinary work moving between the archive and the repertoire in fifteenth-century England provides both an enviable model to others and a thoroughly engaging trek into uncharted territory. Even for theatre scholars studying different eras, Sponsler’s scholarship deserves attention, if for no other reason than that it will change what “early English theatre” means to you.
The book unfolds in eight chapters, with early chapters providing crucial wide-frame and narrow-beam contexts, and later ones developing her point of view on Lydgate’s oeuvre. Chapter 1, “Shirley’s Hand,” begins by unpacking John Shirley’s role in recording Lydgate’s dramatic texts, and how Shirley transformed them for a reading public. This opening allows Sponsler to set the terms of the debate by showing how careful attention to the details of the manuscripts themselves, as well as the contexts and conventions in which their creation occurred, taken together support the thesis about the overlapping worlds of literary and theatrical production. Chapter 2 takes us out of the scribal workshop into the wider world of cosmopolitan London, inviting us to see the close connections between private performances in guildhalls and the creation of manuscripts.
After thoroughly setting the scene in these first two chapters, Sponsler then proceeds to more detailed discussion of what she is most interested in: Lydgate’s texts and their performance vectors. In chapter 3, she uses the oft-cited overlap of reading and hearing in medieval culture to show how several of Lydgate’s texts demonstrate the awareness that these poems were transmitted not only on the page, but also through visual display, as part of paintings or hangings. Her main goal here is to show how Lydgate was keenly aware of the performance dimension of his work, and that the reason why his extant manuscripts blur genre lines is that they show “the determinedly mixed-media form of these texts, a form modern critical categories have had difficulty recognizing” (93). Chapter 4 takes a different tack, using a more conventional kind of performance example—a Corpus Christi procession—in her discussion of Lydgate’s penchant for overlapping modes of communication. Sponsler hypothesizes a link between Lydgate’s “Procession of Corpus Christi” [End Page 147] and an actual procession held in Clerkenwell by the Skinners. Ultimately, she argues that Lydgate’s verses at a minimum operate as a devotional gloss on performance, as well as...