Renaissance Drama 40: What is Renaissance Drama?

Renaissance Drama 40: What is Renaissance Drama?

by William N. West

In this fortieth volume of Renaissance Drama, we pause again, not with the idea that we could define, or even describe, what might be, ought to be, or is included in the study of Renaissance drama (or if it is even always or ever the Renaissance, or the drama, that we study). But this does not even seem to have been what moved the first conversations that


In this fortieth volume of Renaissance Drama, we pause again, not with the idea that we could define, or even describe, what might be, ought to be, or is included in the study of Renaissance drama (or if it is even always or ever the Renaissance, or the drama, that we study). But this does not even seem to have been what moved the first conversations that became "Research Opportunities" and Renaissance Drama. Rather, as they seem to have felt, we want to look at where we are and where our studies might lead us, and we too think we might as well make a beginning. For this issue, the editors invited a number of scholars working on different kinds of Renaissance drama, in a variety of ways and in several languages, to contribute brief essays addressing the state of the field of Renaissance drama, "the field" being convenient shorthand for the practical but productive indefinition under which we carry out our research and publish Renaissance Drama. In particular we asked them to consider these questions:

  • How and with what effects has the study of Renaissance drama (or early modern performance) changed over the past half-century?
  • What now is Renaissance drama?  What could Renaissance drama become?
  • What do you see as the most exciting (or least productive) development in the field?
  • How have other developments in literary studies, performance studies, or other historical periods affected work in the field?
  • What is missing from work in the field that it would be desirable to include or revive?
  • Are there strategies you would propose for working through the divisions in the field based on national boundaries, between languages and traditions, or between canonical figures like Shakespeare, Molière, and other kinds of work?  What kinds of distinctions do you see in the field?  How are they useful or misleading?
  • What new avenues in the field should open up further?  Where should we look now?
  • What is the most important work being done, or remaining to be done?

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Renaissance Drama

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2012 Northwestern University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8101-2845-3

Chapter One


What is a "development"? A question posed to contributors by the editors of this anniversary issue is: "what do you see as the most exciting (or least productive) development in the field" of Renaissance drama? Though there have certainly been "developments" over the last decades, they don't represent growth or progress, one meaning of the word, as in "child development" or "economic development." I see the three most important "developments" in the field over the last forty years as, first, the preoccupation with difference; second, the turn/ return to history in what has been labeled the "New Historicism"; and third, the so-called new textual or bibliographic studies, work on the history of the book and print culture. The problem, of course, with a word like "development" is the difficulty of escaping its sense of evolution, of "fuller expansion," or the bringing out of latent capabilities, of advancement through progressive stages, of bringing into fuller view.

All three of these developments have been productive and limiting at the same time. The study of difference has been an enormously galvanizing force in the field of early modern drama and in literary and cultural studies more generally, but it has also encouraged identity politics and a certain critical naïveté. "Difference"—whether sexual difference, different sexualities, racial difference, ethnic difference, or some other difference—is not an adequate mode or concept for literary criticism and theory or, for that matter, political action. Work that seeks to be radical and progressive is often in fact repetitive, coercive, even reactionary, endlessly recycling what might be termed, after Stephen Heath, the "difference fix" and calling upon "the same rhetorical and thematic constructions ... that very work claims to oppose." Our preoccupation with difference has become a subjection to a new mode of conformity that must be understood in relation to the capitalist system, the production of commodity "Others," each with its own identity, persecutions and subjections, rights claims, and so on that ideology critique continues busily to expose and articulate. With regard to gender, for example, the recuperation of new and different voices and histories has lost traction in the U.S. academy where, in Jonathan Goldberg's arresting articulation in his excellent study of early modern English women's writing, Desiring Women Writing, "finding lost women for other women is no longer enough." Despite Goldberg's admonition, the retrieval of and study of women writers continues unabated, but the study of gender as practiced by numerous critics in the 1980s and into the 1990s has changed markedly as interest in other categories of difference has supplanted gender in the practice of ideological critique. In the U.S. academy, gender studies have lost cultural prestige to the study of race, of queer sexualities, of nationalism and postcolonialism. Gender as a category of analysis has been "mainstreamed." It is deployed by a range of critics, male and female alike, along a multiplicity of axes and emplotments of difference. "Difference" itself has become overdetermined in both the psychoanalytic and mathematical senses: there are multiple forms of difference, not only sexual difference, and the number of differences now seems to outnumber similarities or universals. And while recognizing the importance of a critical practice that exposes constraints, exclusions, and repressions, we have come to recognize that they are not effective everywhere, all the time, but rent by sites of resistance, failures, moments of excess or lack that can also be productive and circumvent or disable subjection and domination. Difference remains a productive site of critical practice, but it is always plural—differences.

Similarly, while the New Historicism initially sent the field in productive new directions, many of those have issued in an impasse. Many commentators have traced New Historicism's own history—at once a reaction against the formalism of New Criticism and an older brand of historical criticism exemplified by E. M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture. Inflected by what can be loosely termed "poststructuralism," New Historicist critics opposed the reductive view of literature, or in our case, drama, as "a mere reflection of something extrinsic to itself" and of the critical act as "explaining (not reading) texts in terms of their relationship to a fixed ground." History is not "knowable" as a set of facts but must also be "read"; cultures distant in time and space were texts, but the readers of those texts do not occupy a position outside from which to explicate—whether historians or literary critics—they are themselves ideologically inscribed in and by history. Yet already in 1986 in her essay on New Historicism, which she defined as "a sustained attempt to read literary texts of the English Renaissance in relationship to other aspects of the social formation," Jean Howard articulated the dangers posed by the so-called New Historicism. It might well be, she suggested twenty-five years ago, "a backlash phenomenon: a flight from theory." That worry has been borne out—too often work classified under the rubric of the "new" historicism looks exactly like that of an old historicism bent on discovering topical references and tracing equivalences between literary texts and events, ideas and persons. In their articulation of the movement, Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt profess that "there is no longer a unitary story, a supreme model of human perfection, that can be securely located in a particular site." They call for "the abandonment of the project of charting the translatio imperii, the great westward trajectory of civilization from Athens to Rome to, say, London." Both Howard's characterization of New Historicism and Gallagher and Greenblatt's critique of Eurocentricism reveal the centrality of "English" to new historicist work: "literary texts of the English Renaissance" and, "say, London."

From the perspective of my own work, whatever its aspirations, and despite in some cases the work of its best practitioners, New Historicism has narrowed the field of Renaissance drama increasingly to English national literatures, nationalist ideologies, and national identity. If Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1983) is viewed as the opening gesture of the movement, I would date the narrowing I am describing to the publication in 1994 of Richard Helgerson's Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England, which spawned dozens of studies devoted to Englishness, the making of England, and English national identity. Even the recent spate of Turk books analyzes the production of Muslim alterity in the service of English national identity and nation building. If in Self-Crowned Laureates Helgerson drolly characterized literature as "England's most dynamic growth industry," we might invert his witticism to say "England" has been early modern literary studies' most dynamic growth industry. That Helgerson's work should have played such an important role in this contraction of the field is ironic since Helgerson himself was profoundly committed to comparative work.

That the European context of Renaissance drama continues to matter takes me to the last "development" in the field of Renaissance drama I have been tracing, the more recent renewed interest in book history and print culture. From the archives of book history, we find that the earliest extant advertisement of Shakespeare's First Folio appeared in a supplemental listing of English books to a Latin catalog for a German book fair. Long before Shakespeare became the British national poet whom the nineteenth-century critic and antiquarian Maurice Morgann famously celebrated "as the patron spirit of world empire on which the sun will never set," even before Shakespeare's famous First Folio saw print in 1623, booksellers were peddling their intellectual property in Shakespeare internationally, at the principal center of the European book trade, the fair held every spring and autumn at Frankfurt am Main. In the English edition to the half-yearly advertisement known as the Mess-Katalog, John Bill, the King's Printer, in 1622 published, under the title Catalogus uniuersalis pro nundinis Francofurtensibis, an appendix of English works containing the entry "Playes, written by M. William Shakespeare, all in one volume, printed by Isaack Iaggard, in. fol." Shakespeare, whose plays are said to articulate Englishness, and whose First Folio is perhaps the most famous book in English, was first offered for sale on a European market. The ad insists that at the very moment scholars in the field work to locate the formation of the modern English nation, Shakespeare was already transnational. As a scholar working in comparative literature, interested in languages, yet also a Shakespearean, I look forward to seeing Renaissance Drama continue its expansive view of theater as witnessed in the recent publication of the double issue devoted to Italy in the drama of Europe.

In closing, I would mention one other "development" in the field: the increasing availability of online databases and "print-on-demand" editions that make accessible for teaching and scholarly work early editions, out-of-print plays, and other materials important for the study of Renaissance drama. Digitalization has made it possible to access and search a host of materials: EEBO (Early English Books Online), ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online), WWP (Women Writers Project), the Perdita Project (a database for early modern women's manuscript compilations), EBBA (Early Broadside Ballad Archive), REED (Records of Early English Drama), DEEP (Database of Early English Playbooks), the Early Modern Women Database at the University of Maryland, MHRA Tudor & Stuart Translations, Gallica (the online resource of the Bibliothèque Nationale), the French Women Writers project (a part of American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language, or ARTFL), not to mention Google Scholar, Google Image, Google Books, and just plain Google. Suddenly a vast array of early texts which used to require costly travel and residence at research libraries both in the United States and abroad are widely available both to the researcher and to the teacher seeking to assign such materials. Though some of these resources are available to any online user, others are available only to faculty and students at resource-rich universities. But the democratic possibility of such scholarly resources has not been fulfilled, for the cost of such databases—even several years ago EEBO cost some $10,000 initially, with a hefty annual fee thereafter—has limited their availability. At the very moment when information technology should and could be making such databases widely and democratically available, instead we are recapitulating an earlier intellectual model in which knowledge is available to the privileged few who can afford to be admitted to, attend, and gain access to great university research libraries. On the one hand, then, the new databases have made a host of materials available that challenge the hegemony of print and the choices of the modern textbook publishing houses; on the other, poorer colleges and universities worldwide are often excluded from such technological and intellectual riches. No doubt this "development" too will have its backlash: we can only hope it isn't the destruction of the digitized material objects—books themselves.

Exclusive Of


Although I am happy to participate in this issue of Renaissance Drama, celebrating its forty or forty-nine years and contemplating the field and its future, I have to say that nothing in my training qualifies me to do so. At Columbia, where I was a graduate student from 1964 to 1968, one had to choose between studying the literature of the early modern period or studying its drama. I don't recall whether this was a formal requirement. You entered the program assigned to a field—in my case, seventeenth-century English literature (exclusive of drama); then, for the oral exam, in addition to the major field, you were examined in a minor field in comparative literature, an author (the choices were, so far as I can recall, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton), and one field of literature earlier than the seventeenth century (I chose the sixteenth century, again, exclusive of drama). Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was its own field, and, at least as I am remembering it, given the exam structure, doing it in tandem with a major in the seventeenth century was virtually impossible.

Staffing also made it impossible practically. Seventeenth-century literature was taught by Edward Tayler and Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, sixteenth by William Nelson; the only courses in the drama that I recall were given by S. F. Johnson. I remember attending a class or two of his and being utterly mystified. The session was on a scene of a Shakespeare play, and the class was working through it—or better, Johnson was working through it, word by word. To my bafflement, the play was being treated as if it had been written in some foreign language diffi cult to decipher. The means to decipher it was equally foreign—Johnson's terminology was, to me, utterly opaque. (I imagine I had not yet read R. B. McKerrow's 1928 Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students and knew nothing about the mysteries contained therein.) Close perusal of a text was not to me unfamiliar—my proseminar in seventeenth-century literature with Tayler had been a mind-blowing working through of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici over the course of an entire semester. But there, the density of language and thought constantly opened vistas. In Johnson's class that day, doors seemed to be shutting in the hope of capturing some kind of truth that I had trouble recognizing. I don't tell this story to disparage Johnson, just to suggest that the divide between his classes in Elizabethan and Jacobean and drama and those in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature seemed like one between two entirely different subject matters, two entirely different approaches.

I would not suppose that graduate study in English at Columbia now is much like it was then. For one thing, currently the best-known members of the Renaissance faculty are associated with the drama: Jean Howard, James Shapiro, and, until 2008, David Scott Kastan, whereas in the 1960s certainly the "stars" of the department included Mazzeo and Nelson, while Marjorie Hope Nicolson had just recently retired. (Not so many years earlier, however, Oscar James Campbell and Alfred Harbage had been Shakespeareans in the department, so the four years I spent there may not be very representative of how things had "always been," a chimera that graduate students inevitably construct on the basis of their institutional histories.) Hence, imagine my surprise when checking the website recently, I found that the possible major fields a student might present for his or her orals include the options of "sixteenth-century British," "seventeenth-century British," and "Renaissance drama." Although an older formula for the chronological fields has expanded from "English" to "British," and "Elizabethan and Jacobean" has mutated into "Renaissance," the division between literature and drama and the possibility of their mutual exclusion still obtain: presumably only one of these can be a major field.


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Meet the Author

William N. West is an associate professor of English, classics, and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University, a fellow of the Humanities Residential College, and a codirector of the drama major. He is the author of Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe (2002) and is currently at work on a book about early modern English theatrical performance and theatergoing.

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