The Sorcerer's Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England

October 9, 2008

The most conspicuous trademark of New Historicism is its use of anecdote. In their attempts to foreground the relativity of canonicity, the New Historicists would not begin their analysis of Othello or Utopia until they had pondered an ostensibly unrelated altarpiece or the intricacies of Vesalian dissection.

In order to situate the literary work within an extra-literary setting, the New Historicist abandons the tedious rigour of traditional critical discourse in favour of a pyrotechnic display of prose which, in the manner of a metaphysical conceit, forces us to concede likeness between a play by Shakespeare and a stained-glass window - an insistence on discordia concors that, in itself, is thoroughly Elizabethan.

The heir to the partial anecdote is the fully fledged narrative. Witness the recent rash of popular "factional biographies" of Shakespeare - for instance, those by Michael Wood, Rene Weis, Stephen Greenblatt, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Germaine Greer, Bill Bryson, Peter Ackroyd, Stanley Wells, James Shapiro, Charles Nicholl and Jonathan Bate.

All of these are characterised by a more generous dash of hearsay or supposition than would have been fashionable in 1970, the year that saw the publication of Samuel Schoenbaum's monumental Shakespeare's Lives supplemented five years later by William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. In the move towards narrative, we have shifted from "documentary" to "docu-drama" so that the subject of the biography is himself now a character in (a) play: indeed, Greenblatt is on first-name terms with Shakespeare - or should that be Stephen with Will?

The Sorcerer's Tale is of a piece with this unembarrassed trend to write the past as though it is alive and kicking. Alec Ryrie's biography of Gregory Wisdom, confidence trickster and would-be hit-man, takes us into the "seamy underworld of Tudor England" complete with its dramatis personae of pimps, whores, quack doctors, indigent vagrants, "sturdy beggars", cony-catchers and ever-anxious city authorities. It is a world bustling with venality, lechery and mendacity as the displaced rural poor, the discharged military and the dissipated aristocracy are forced cheek by jowl into the alchemical cauldron that is Early Modern London.

Ryrie examines various dimensions of this alarming existence - medicine, the Church, astrology, crime - using as his point of entry the sorcerer of his title. The aptly named Wisdom, like Ben Jonson's Subtle, constantly refashions himself into a magician, a physician, a painter and ultimately a thief. The characters we meet along the way - the treacherous thug, Ninian Menville, or the dim-witted aristo, Henry, Lord Neville, who parts with the readies for a miraculous ring that will apparently reverse his losing streak - could have come straight from a Thomas Middleton play, and indeed Ryrie's prose style quickens them into compelling dramatic personalities. At its best, it is a combination of Keith Wrightson and Agatha Christie.

The problem with this populist style is that it too frequently effaces the pastness of the past: Elizabethan purgatives are "the original detox", underworld criminals are "shysters", alchemy "was somewhat like nuclear fusion today" and "astrology was the magical equivalent of soft drugs".

These Simon Schama-like aphorisms invigorate the story but they offer analogies that disintegrate on closer consideration. The very title, The Sorcerer's Tale, signals its engagement with imagined narrative and Ryrie anticipates the traditionalist's objections when he writes, "what might have been a worthy, steady piece of academic history has turned into something more sensational".

Typically tantalising is his supposition that the alchemist was not above being seduced by his own prodigious claims - a suggestion that illustrates Ryrie's articulate combination of intrigue and hypothesis. Although novelistic, this account of the murk and hubbub of Early Modern London is vivacious and engaging.

The Sorcerer's Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England

By Alec Ryrie. Oxford University Press. 224pp, £12.99. ISBN 9780199229963. Published 9 October 2008

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