- Shakespeare and the Medieval World by Helen Cooper
Part of the popular The Arden Critical Companions series, Shakespeare and the Medieval World introduces readers to the influence of medieval culture on Shakespeare. This relationship has long vexed scholars, and Cooper describes her project as a “conscious-raising exercise,” one that “demonstrate[s] the pervasiveness of those deep structures of medieval culture in Shakespeare’s work and his times” (8, 2). Thus, Cooper’s text participates in the recent critical conversation found in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages (2009), Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings (2009), Medieval Shakespeare: Pasts and Presents (2013), and Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage (2014). Cooper’s approach differs from these texts, however, by maintaining a more exploratory focus. She explains, “This book aims to adjust the baseline from when we can measure the extraordinary achievements of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and rethink the nature of their originality” (3).
As one expects from a companion, Cooper’s text is organized by subject. Chapter one, “Shakespeare’s Medieval World,” catalogues the medieval poetic structures, architecture, customs, and politics readily found throughout his Stratford and London. After reminding us of Stratford’s thirteenth-century origins, Cooper considers the medieval look of sixteenth-century London. For instance, the same bridge that displayed the head of William Wallace in 1305 and Guy Fawkes in 1606, when Macbeth was composed, would continue to display heads until 1678. Further, in the century after the printing press, editions of Chaucer and Lydgate, as well as Robin Hood ballads and Arthurian romances, were the most popular texts printed in England. In the universities, Green and Marlowe, like Chaucer before them, learned principles of [End Page 163] decorum and logic, and university students were not allowed to marry, a continuation of clerical celibacy.
Chapter two, “Total Theatre,” recognizes how the “conviction that the proper subject of the theatre is the whole cosmos” carries over from the Middle Ages and signals a fundamental difference between classical and early modern drama (43). Cooper encourages us to broaden our understanding of dramatic influences beyond Seneca, Plautus, Terence, and Aristotle and see the impact of religious drama, especially the Corpus Christi plays that were rewritten throughout the sixteenth century and mark the first instance of the subplot in English drama. Regarding Shakespeare more specifically, Cooper reminds us of Stratford’s close proximity to Coventry, and that Shakespeare is the only Elizabethan dramatist to have had access to the cycle plays and whose work contains references to religious drama not found in the Bible (64). Thankfully, Cooper resists simply listing such references and instead considers how the allusions demonstrate how Shakespeare’s audience might have experienced the cycles.
Chapter three, “Staging the Unstageable,” finds that the ability of public theatre audiences to accept logical impossibilities results from a familiarity with medieval stagecraft. Cooper first considers various methods for “presenting the play,” such as the “chorus,” “prologue,” and “epilogue,” noting that such terminology “derived from Greek by way of Latin, but their use in English theatrical contexts long postdates the practices they came to designate” (74). She then turns to “immaterial beings,” such as devils, fairies, ghosts, and vice figures, and argues that the representation of such beings required a willingness of audiences to “make-believe [and] was assisted by the extensive continuity of method from medieval to early-modern staging” (81).
Chapter four, “The Little World of Man,” reads Shakespeare and other contemporary writers within the context of moral allegory. Cooper reminds us that “Plays of the later sixteenth century are often distinguished from their predecessors in terms of their focus on the individual rather than the type,” before explaining that individual characters nevertheless often function as a microcosm for humanity (106). She considers language, physiology, dramaturgy, type names, and dumb shows throughout Shakespeare that are rooted in morality plays. While Cooper recognizes that allegory does not sufficiently explain the individual in [End Page 164] Shakespeare, this chapter illuminates how allegory serves as the...