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  • The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare by Steven Mullaney
  • Sean Lawrence (bio)
Steven Mullaney. The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. x + 231. $35.00.

Steven Mullaney's The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare opens with a striking image: the charnel house of old St. Paul's cathedral being emptied into a swamp on the Thames, forming the very land over which theatregoers passed to reach Shoreditch and the first Elizabethan theatre. As he immediately admits, however, "few, if any, would have been aware of what lay beneath their feet" (5). He nevertheless claims that this image, the move from the charnel house to the theatre, can serve as an emblem "more structured and less easily understood than an anecdote" of shifts in what he calls "the Elizabethan social imaginary" (4–5). This seems to mean that the position of the bones remained significant, even if nobody knew about them, as a sort of repressed memory.

The book as a whole is driven by what Paul Ricoeur calls a hermeneutic of suspicion, which Mullaney distinguishes from skepticism. Indeed, Mullaney seems anxious to put "hermeneutic skepticism" in its place, declaring that it is "not an end in itself but the beginning of further inquiry" (119). He stresses the continued importance of the repressed, the suppressed, the erased, and even the forgotten to the Elizabethan mind. He explicitly refuses "to limit evidence to the explicitly articulated, reported, or theorized." He asks, indeed, "how can we know what an Elizabethan audience thought or felt as they watched, heard, and responded to any given performance?" and responds to his own question with "the blunt answer would be 'we can't'" (61). Nevertheless, he argues that theatre "could probe and feel and even touch some of the crucial integuments and sinews of the social body that had become disarticulated" (93). If we can't tell what the Elizabethans thought, however, we certainly can't tell where "the crucial integuments and sinews of the social body" would lie. An earlier generation of critics liked to talk about an Elizabethan mind or world picture which could only be avoided, E. M. W. Tillyard once remarked, by not thinking at all. Mullaney sees the early modern mind as still open to study, but under the name of "social imaginary," and only in its disjunctions and disarticulations. The object of his [End Page 107] study is not the ideas that drove Elizabethan thoughts, but the anxieties that drove Elizabethan emotions. He finds these anxieties ubiquitous, even when forgotten.

Having abandoned the usual criteria for historical judgement, Mullaney may simply be finding what isn't there. He admits that few theatregoers would know that they were passing over bones from the charnel house, for instance. He fails to note in addition that, since London drew a steady stream of immigrants, many Londoners would have no relation to the dead of hundreds of years earlier. Rather than an active forgetting in "quite extreme and explicit pogroms against the past" (105), one might simply find that the past had already been forgotten, or was never much remembered to begin with, and hence its plastic representation in the charnel-house bones could become mere swamp-fill. Somebody in early modern England had to have demystified the representations of the past, or else they would be unable to undertake the work of destruction at all. Indeed, on page 10 Mullaney admits that "the campaign against charnel houses was limited in scope," though on the facing page he reverts to describing a "rage against the dead," which we are assured "was pervasive in unofficial as well as official forms." He borrows the phrase "rage against the dead" from one John Weever, who is now principally remembered for documenting funeral monuments eventually destroyed after his own death, as was his own: the rage against the dead that Weever polemically describes in order to justify his own practice seems to have had more effect after him than before him. Like Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World and, even more, Hamlet in Purgatory, Mullaney accepts the views of Catholic polemicists...


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pp. 107-110
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