Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft

Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage

Kurt A. Schreyer
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft
    Book Description:

    InShakespeare's Medieval Craft, Kurt A. Schreyer explores the relationship between Shakespeare's plays and a tradition of late medieval English biblical drama known as mystery plays. Scholars of English theater have long debated Shakespeare's connection to the mystery play tradition, but Schreyer provides new perspective on the subject by focusing on the Chester Banns, a sixteenth-century proclamation announcing the annual performance of that city's cycle of mystery plays. Through close study of the Banns, Schreyer demonstrates the central importance of medieval stage objects-as vital and direct agents and not merely as precursors-to the Shakespearean stage.

    As Schreyer shows, the Chester Banns serve as a paradigm for how Shakespeare's theater might have reflected on and incorporated the mystery play tradition, yet distinguished itself from it. For instance, he demonstrates that certain material features of Shakespeare's stage-including the ass's head ofA Midsummer Night's Dream, the theatrical space of Purgatory inHamlet, and the knocking at the gate in the Porter scene ofMacbeth-were in fact remnants of the earlier mysteries transformed to meet the exigencies of the commercial London playhouses. Schreyer argues that the ongoing agency of supposedly superseded theatrical objects and practices reveal how the mystery plays shaped dramatic production long after their demise. At the same time, these medieval traditions help to reposition Shakespeare as more than a writer of plays; he was a play-wright, a dramatic artisan who forged new theatrical works by fitting poetry to the material remnants of an older dramatic tradition.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5510-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Note on the Text
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    This book explores the relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and a tradition of late medieval English biblical drama known as mystery plays. Although the mysteries have often been narrowly defined as annual “Corpus Christi plays,” they were in fact a broad tradition that took many shapes and sizes on a variety of occasions, not necessarily seasonal or annual, and in different localities throughout fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England.¹ Until recently, the mysteries, like other manifestations of English festival culture, were obscured by the simplistic term “medieval drama,” which encouraged early modernists to ignore them.² They were also believed, according to an outdated...

  8. Chapter 1 Toward a Renaissance Culture of Medieval Artifacts
    (pp. 12-42)

    To understand Renaissance authorship, Shakespeare’s in particular, we need to appreciate medieval artifacts. But medieval objects have long played a definitive yet deprecatory role in the history of early English drama. In his three-volumeHistory of English Poetry(1774–81), the first comprehensive account of English literature from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, Thomas Warton confesses an irresistible yet somewhat embarrassed interest in them. “There is a curious passage in Lambarde’sTopographical Dictionarywritten about the year 1570, much to our purpose, which I am therefore tempted to transcribe.” Succumbing to the temptation, he quotes the Elizabethan lawyer and...

  9. Chapter 2 The Chester Banns: A Sixteenth-Century Perspective on the Mysteries
    (pp. 43-72)

    On 10 May 1572, an outspoken Reformed clergyman named Christopher Goodman wrote a letter to the earl of Huntingdon urging that he, as president of the Council of the North, suppress Chester’s annual mystery plays. One of a minority of university-educated Protestant divines in the region, Goodman, who had helped to translate the Geneva Bible during his exile, was an eloquent and determined reformer and increasingly successful in turning the local gentry against drama, minstrelsy, dancing, and animal sports.¹ Hinting at mayor John Hankey’s collusion with recusant factions, the letter begins with a brief historical sketch of the Chester mystery...

  10. Chapter 3 Balaam to Bottom: A Sixteenth-Century Translation
    (pp. 73-103)

    It has been assumed since at least the nineteenth century that the rude mechanicals ofA Midsummer Night’s Dreamare a comic rendition of the artisan actors of the provincial mystery plays. In 1898, for example, Georg Brandes observed that Shakespeare’s burlesque scenes “doubtless drew upon childish memories of the plays he had seen performed in the market-place at Coventry and elsewhere.” In doing so, says Brandes, Shakespeare was satirizing older forms of English drama.¹ More recently, Clifford Davidson and Stephen Greenblatt have read the craftsmen-actors ofDreamin the context of the “traditional plays” the boy Shakespeare might have...

  11. Chapter 4 “Then Is Doomsday Near”: Hamlet, the Last Judgment, and the Place of Purgatory
    (pp. 104-134)

    “Art thou there, truepenny?” (1.5.152). Hamlet’s question, directed at the “old mole” of a ghost in the understage cellarage of the Globe Theater, raises a question of the play: whatisthere, under the stage—Purgatory or Hell? The Ghost says, or rather implies, that he has come from Purgatory, where “the foul crimes done in [his] days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (1.5.12–13). “It is an honest ghost” (1.5.142), young Hamlet tells Horatio, and later he swears he’ll “take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (3.2.263–64). But he has also expressed fears that...

  12. Chapter 5 “Here’s a Knocking Indeed!” Macbeth and the Harrowing of Hell
    (pp. 135-161)

    Knock. Knock. Who’s there? In theHarrowing of Hellscenes of English mystery plays, the answer to that question was no joke. TheHarrowingmarks the climax of the battle between God and Satan for the fate of humanity. After the Crucifixion, Christ descends into Hell and lays siege to its battlements in order to “harrow,” or plunder, the souls in Limbo.¹ It was commonly believed that these imprisoned souls did not experience Hell’s many torments, but were, as Macbeth would say, “cabined, cribbed, confined” (3.4.23) in the darkness of Limbo, where they suffered the absence of God. “Foure thowsande...

  13. Epilogue: Riding the Banns beyond Shakespeare
    (pp. 162-178)

    To appreciate Shakespeare’s stagecraft we must first undermine his authorial immortality and question his originality. To the extent that we continue to view Shakespeare not only astheauthor—the pinnacle figure of English letters—but evenanauthor or originator, we will continue to buttress the medieval-Renaissance divide and abstract him from medieval dramatic artifacts. For, as Michel Foucault explains, “The name of the author remains at the contours of texts—separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence.”¹ The Chester Banns help to free us from this “author function” by conceiving a...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 179-234)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-250)
  16. Index
    (pp. 251-258)