Persecution, Plague and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England

April 21, 2011

In spite of the populism of the title, this is a difficult though forceful book. The Foucauldian "fugitive" of the subtitle gives the game away, for this is a reading of early modern theatre in the most uncompromising new historicist manner. Readers of the journal Representations or the works of Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose or Leonard Tennenhouse have long been familiar with this account of a theatre implicated in the discourses of political power and cultural control, acting beyond the agencies of individual playwrights, patrons, theatre managers or audiences and articulating nothing less than the very episteme of early modern England. Such a theatre is autonomous, hotly contested and always potentially subversive.

Ellen MacKay's original contribution is the suggestion that this theatre anticipated its own demise: "the ubiquity of the theater's disastrousness is no (anti-theatrical) prejudice, but a visible fact and, more unsettlingly, an implacable future". It is as though, as she puts it baldly, "the early modern English stage saw its dissolution coming". Perched on the edge of an ontological cliff, the theatre is a place of crisis, a hub of communicable disease and a site of conflagration. Prospero's mournful farewell is symptomatic and speaks as much for the imminent ending of theatre itself as it does for the closure of The Tempest: "life imitates its theatrical imitation by following it headlong into the abyss".

There is, as with much new historicist work, a sleight of hand here. The documentation surrounding early modern drama is scant, MacKay argues (craftily ignoring Philip Henslowe's Diary), not because it has been lost or never kept in the first place but rather because the theatre is obsessed by its own dissolution: the "transient and patchy theatrical record conveys an acute understanding of performance's perishing operation". This is protesting too much.

MacKay focuses on three related and repeated moments of calamity to do with justice, disease and destructive combustion - the persecution, plague and fire of the title. In each case, the metaphors gesture towards a decline in theatrical potency. While Hamlet maintains that "the play's the thing" wherein he will entrap Claudius' guilty conscience, MacKay shows how, in fact, "Hamlet sets up an implicative model that relies on enlisted evidence to manufacture the proof of a foregone conclusion".

Such a strategy surprisingly contradicts the opinions of many of the period's theatrical commentators (both pro and anti), who maintain that the re-enactment of a crime on the stage can (and indeed does) spontaneously prompt confessions from those in the audience witnessing their own offence. While accepting the later corroborating evidence of Claudius' guilt, MacKay thus demonstrates how uncertain is its implication by Hamlet's play-within-a-play, suggesting that Shakespeare is challenging the efficacy of such a means of detection and thus undermining theatre's moral claim.

The residual culture of the Catholic Church is discussed in Reformation writings as a plague that, argues MacKay, paradoxically "keeps idolatry's virus active". The memory of Catholicism is a "past whose beholding is sure to poison the present". Yet herein lies the (new historicist) problem: hypotheses are advanced at the level of the whole culture. First, this assumes a social homogeneity and, second, the supporting "proof" may be idiosyncratic. For instance, much of MacKay's evidence is drawn from the anti-theatrical polemicists, but there is no evidence that the reservations they articulated were ever popular or widespread; indeed, the likes of William Prynne were often crankily protesting from the lunatic fringe. Typical of new historicism, MacKay is often as much interested by the adroit articulation of her argument as by its validity.

Persecution, Plague and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England

By Ellen MacKay. University of Chicago Press. 352pp, £26.00. ISBN 9780226500195. Published 12 April 2011

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