Festive Enterprise: The Business of Drama in Medieval and Renaissance England

Festive Enterprise: The Business of Drama in Medieval and Renaissance England

by Jill P. Ingram


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Festive Enterprise reveals marketplace pressures at the heart of dramatic form in medieval and Renaissance drama.

In Festive Enterprise, Jill P. Ingram merges the history of economic thought with studies of theatricality and spectatorship to examine how English Renaissance plays employed forms and practices from medieval and traditional entertainments to signal the expectation of giving from their audiences. Resisting the conventional divide between medieval and Renaissance, Festive Enterprise takes a trans-Reformation view of dramaturgical strategies, which reflected the need to generate both income and audience assent. By analyzing a wide range of genres (such as civic ceremonial, mummings, interludes, scripted plays, and university drama) and a diverse range of venues (including great halls, city streets, the Inns of Court, and public playhouses), Ingram demonstrates how early moderns borrowed medieval money-gatherers’ techniques to signal communal obligations and rewards for charitable support of theatrical endeavors. Ingram shows that economics and drama cannot be considered as separate enterprises in the medieval and Renaissance periods. Rather, marketplace pressures were at the heart of dramatic form in medieval and Renaissance drama alike.

Festive Enterprise is an original study that traces how economic forces drove creativity in drama from medieval civic processions and guild cycle plays to the early Renaissance. It will appeal to scholars of medieval and early modern drama, theater historians, religious historians, scholars of Renaissance drama, and students in English literature, drama, and theater.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780268109097
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Publication date: 03/15/2021
Series: ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jill P. Ingram is associate professor of English at Ohio University. She is the editor of the New Kittredge edition of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and author of Idioms of Self-Interest: Credit, Identity, and Property in English Renaissance Literature.

Read an Excerpt

Utilizing festive forms to convey controversial messages was of course not unique to either medieval festive events or early modern drama, as demonstrated by scurrilous broadsides, libelous ballads, and fifteenth-century “mock testaments” that willed relics to dead popes in Hell. Yet what emerged post-Reformation in England was a growing literate populace and a burgeoning public theater audience that meant the explosion of the market for such messages. Larger audiences attracted politicized groups who mobilized particular “publics” to win over opinion to their positions. In such efforts, newly ascendant groups aimed for an ideological and discursive hegemony which gave them control over the parameters of legitimate public speech. My book’s final chapter examines such an aim in the late sixteenth-century phenomenon of the satirical Martin Marprelate Tracts (printed and circulated 1588-89). The anonymous Marprelate tracts pitted an anti-episcopal message against the bishops’ anti-Martinist writers, using a clandestine printing press to produce thousands of copies—with an output of twenty tracts in two years—to appeal to a popular readership. The festive form of Marprelate (written in a popular mode of garrulous, gossipy satire, and frequently alluding to festive figures such as Maid Marian, morris dancers, and gatherers) was employed in order to sell more pamphlets, and thus was rooted in its ability to be widely marketed. Just as the economic basis of festivity’s efficacy for the Marprelate writers—ensuring the pamphlets’ popularity—made it marketable, that same marketability made it aesthetically a failure. The pamphlet’s festive scurrility was overly personal, libelous, and singularly vulgar. I examine that artistic failure through Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594), which engages with the Marprelate controversy through the play’s implicit commentary on the misuses of festive railing satire. Shakespeare pens characters who echo utterances from Marprelate: libel, ad hominem attack, and mockery, all festive modes employed with the intent to harm personal reputation. The play suggests that such strategies do not serve festive entertainers, because they betray the festive license given to them by their public. There are limits to the usefulness of the festive exchange: the limits, Shakespeare suggests, are market-driven. In some cases, the fight to mobilize a public could fracture communities. I conclude my study with a consideration of how types of festive excess, appealing to different types of publics, serve consumers while degrading the quality of artistic output.

The festive enterprise I trace throughout this study operates through a language of form and gesture and within the structure of a social commerce that nonetheless contains limits. The boundaries not only of what is “sayable,” but the manner in which it is said, becomes adjudicated by a marketplace of paying customers. I trace a festive model more pervasive than previously acknowledged—a model that shaped the drama’s form but that also served as a vehicle for grievance: economic, religious, and aesthetic. Yet festivity’s primary function, because it was largely rooted in solicitations to give, was in its power to appeal to the good will of spectators, offering them an agency in creating and approving of performances. When that function was applied to the early modern stage, it exposed the power of the marketplace. Market-driven entrepreneurs such as John Taylor, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare understood the fact that prosperity—of a jest, of a playhouse, or of a solicitous line of dramatic poetry—lay in the judgment of the audience. They wrote that understanding into the structure of their works, where reminders of their debts—not only to their audiences, but to original festive fundraising practices—reveal the social pressures upon both satire and commercial practices alike.

Table of Contents


1. The Festive Gatherer and the Empathetic Thief: The Genealogy of a Character

2. Forms of Investment: Mummings, Prologues and Epilogues

3. Reconciliation in The Winter’s Tale: Devotion and Commerce from Guilds to Church Ales

4. The Mobile Entertainer: John Taylor’s Penniless Pilgrimage

5. Coding Complaint in Gesta Grayorum and The Christmas Prince

6. “A Jest’s Prosperity”: The Market, Marprelate, and Love’s Labour’s Lost


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