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  • Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage by Kurt A. Schreyer
  • Claire Syler
Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage. By Kurt A. Schreyer. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. xi + 177 pp. $46.20 hardcover.

What if the original ass’s head fixed on Bottom in the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a renovated stage property originally employed in a Chester mystery play? What if the ghost of Hamlet’s father first entered through a trapdoor that, for early modern spectators, symbolically merged the portal to purgatory and hell? And what if Jacobean audiences heard the Porter’s knocking in Macbeth as echoes from the raps on hell’s gate in the Harrowing of Hell pageants? In Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage, Kurt Schreyer poses these and other historiographical questions and pursues answers through a deft analysis of the lingering traces of medieval culture situated within Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. Calling attention to the signifying plurality of staged objects, Schreyer unsettles the typical privileging of Renaissance performance by considering: “What would it mean if in fact the material remnants of the mysteries were vital and direct agents, not rude precursors, in the production of some of the most famous plays in the Shakespeare canon?” (4).

Much of Schreyer’s compelling study hinges on two premises. First, his argument assumes that Shakespeare’s audience was generally familiar with, or even had firsthand experience of, the largely provincial practice of mystery performance. Relying on the fact that widespread in-migration from the provinces [End Page 371] to London occurred during the late sixteenth century, Schreyer contends that many early modern audiences were theatrically primed to view plays on the London stage by their earlier experiences with the pageants. Second, Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft claims that material and immaterial remnants “have the ability to produce memory even as they are being resituated in new cultural contexts” (9). Consequently, the remnants that Shakespeare dramaturgically evokes afforded a kind of “synchronic diachrony” for Elizabethan and Jacobean spectators—lifting up the (Protestant) present while simultaneously reifying the (Catholic) customs of the past (7).

Building upon these introductory premises, Schreyer’s first and second chapters outline a historiographical approach. Chapter 1, “Toward a Renaissance Culture of Medieval Artifacts,” examines traditional literary and historical criticism (Thomas Warton, E. K. Chambers, Jacob Burckhardt), which generally views medieval artifacts as lost to early modern performance. Refuting these claims and, in contrast, arguing that pre-Reformation artifacts were indispensable to Renaissance culture, Schreyer examines three early modern discursive modes that “preserve contact with past matter: exemplarity, palimpsests, and anachronism” (19). The three discourses offer reinforcing historiographies, which each participate in Schreyer’s chief piece of evidence, and the topic of his second chapter, “The Chester Banns: A Sixteenth-Century Perspective on the Mysteries.” As the official proclamations that announced the upcoming cycle of pageants, the Banns present a summary of the local mystery tradition. Yet, as Schreyer astutely demonstrates, the two surviving versions of the Chester Banns—an “Early” or “Catholic” account and a “Late” or “Protestant” record—provide distinct renderings (48). The second chapter, then, demonstrates via comparison between the two how the Late Banns reframed Chester’s dramatic tradition as a harmless civic practice that honors the town’s history and does not celebrate popish idols. The rewriting of the Late Banns performed a kind of historiography that “knowingly antiquate[s] dramatic remnants in order to justify their present resurrection and return to the stage” (55). Schreyer finds the “synchronic diachrony” of the Late Banns to be a valuable example of the period’s temporal blend and, therefore, an important model by which to examine the historiographical complexities of Shakespeare’s plays (68).

The subsequent chapters investigate particular medieval remnants situated in Shakespeare’s plays. Chapter 3, “Balaam to Bottom: A Sixteenth-Century Translation,” is the strongest of Schreyer’s case studies and is both persuasive and engaging. The focal remnant in this chapter is the headpiece that “translates” Bottom’s character into an ass. Tracing the genealogy of the ass’s head from [End Page...


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