- Shakespeare's Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage by Kurt A. Schreyer
This is a first book, with all that that implies: the courage of discovery, wide reading, an assurance about putting past (and not so past) scholars right while approving the methodologically congenial, as well as confidence in its argument. The risk is always that in the search for support in like-minded books, scholars fail to consider the assessments of and reactions to those books; it is difficult not to believe what we want to be true, and perhaps we don't talk enough with people from other disciplines. The title is clear: it belongs to the growing chorus that insists upon continuity between an undemarcated "Middle Ages" and a "Renaissance" that focuses on Shakespeare in order to claim for him immediate experience of the Mystery Plays, those cycles that made summer holidays attractive for pageantry. Although Schreyer certainly knows that he should be careful, he cannot help slipping into making Shakespeare the center. Writing about how theatre audiences might have learned to recognize the below-stage trap as a door to Purgatory, he claims that "before and during Shakespeare's boyhood, the teachings, objects, and practices associated with Purgatory underwent a profound repudiation" (114), using Shakespeare as a proxy for a period of confusion as well as change. He forgets the huge variety of the population.
His major success is to have used the succeeding announcements known as the Chester Banns, official documents now available in the REED (Records of Early English Drama) volume for Cheshire, which supported the continuation of cycle plays for the civic pride of Chester, their guilds, and people who came to watch them. That is, they resisted attempts to suppress old-fashioned religious plays in order to support a complex and popular civil activity based on tradition and historical precedent. It is amusing to find Ranulph Higden, the fourteenth-century translator of Bartholomeus Anglicus as well as a certain amount of historiography, being referred to as one of the Ancients of the city. But it must be [End Page 116] understood that Schreyer's title begs the question and reproduces the narrowing of view which is the name "Shakespeare." The book is not mainly about Shakespeare, but Shakespeare serves as a proxy for proof.
The core of his work lies in the three central chapters of examination of the material continuities from the cycle plays to early modern London drama: the ass's head prop, Purgatory, and the Harrowing of Hell. His three rather different examples say much about the research that has gone into the making of the book but are, perhaps necessarily, diffuse. In chapter 3 (the "Ass's Head" chapter) he tells us a lot about anti-Catholic mockery of the Pope, but does not seem to know what to do with what he's found. The ass is a protean trope for many things, not least a huge phallus, but—like the dunce, mumming, and mummery—the sexual importance of the Ass and its Bottom make no clear contribution. He jumps past other manifestations of popular drama in the Middle Ages to construct a line of descent from the Mysteries to the death of Shakespeare.
The REED series has, as time has gone on, performed a phoenix-like self-destruction and reconstruction, demonstrating how many false starts there were in the project that have been self-corrected by the evidence as it has accrued. But problems continue to arise. Not least is the usual problem of assuming that the documents in the REED volumes were read by numerous people, believed by many, or likely to represent widespread current views. It is the same mistake often made about the polemics against the London theatre and its actors. Right at the beginning he chides E. K. Chambers for glorifying Shakespeare at the expense of a little-studied Middle Ages, but many of the documents we now take for granted were unavailable, though Chambers and Bentley...