"Medieval Shakespeare: Pasts and Presents" by Ruth Morse, Helen Cooper, Peter Holland

Medieval Shakespeare: Pasts and Presents - Ruth Morse, Helen Cooper, Peter Holland

200th Review.


People often ask me, "Why do you keep reading Shakespeare (in English)?" Well, I'm not really sure. That's why I never know what answer to give. Mainly because it's meaningful to me, which invariably raises the question, "Why is it meaningful to you?", and on and on.


First of all I find Shakespeare a tremendous source of inspiration, because there's no situation that I've come up against that somehow hasn't been described in those plays.


When I read him over and over again, it's like going back to some great piece of music. It’s dramatic poetry/prose, so each time you hear/read it, it reacts on you in a different, usually a richer, way. Why in English? Because Shakespeare in translation is a different beast altogether. Not better or worst. Just altogether different.


Why this book in particular at this junction in time? I've always been interested on the link between Shakespeare seen from the medieval and Renaissance lens. As this book confirms, Shakespeare is both a Renaissance and Medieval man. Much of what made him unique, in fact, was that he synthesizes both those traditions in his dramas.


This volume uses as premise that the 'medieval' can be identified not only in specific works Shakespeare read, which were the foundation for his works (eg, Chaucer's Troilus, which supplied the entire love half of Trolius and Cressida), but also in his conception of language, theatre and culture.


Shakespeare's medieval elements have a tendency to show up as no more than mere cyphers in his work rather than as the foundation for his works that this volume rectifies.


This book comprises 12 papers, all of them, from Shakespearean luminaries (they're both versed in Medieval as well as in Early Modern English/Literature):


1 - "Shakespeare's Middle Ages" by Bruce R. Smith


Synopsis: Shakespeare's interest in 'middles', and the valency they carry in terms of time and space as well as history, in theatrical and medical, as well as in conceptual senses.


2 - "Late Shakespeare and the Middle Ages" by Bart van Es


Synopsis: Looks to the early 17th century as the fulcrum in the understanding of the medieval, the tipping-point between the inherited medieval and a conscious medievalism, with Pericles as the text that makes the distinction most apparent.


3 - "The mediated 'medieval' and Shakespeare" by A.E.B. Coldiron


Synopsis: Gives an overview of the range of texts and habits of mind entering England from continental Europe.


4 - "Not my voice?: Shakespeare corrected; English perfected - theories of language from the Middle Ages to modernity" by Jonathan Hope


Synopsis: Duality between spoken vs written Shakespeare. One of the most interesting papers. It explores the Shakespeare’s contribution to the English Language. Shakespeare’s works were built on the accumulating absorption into English of French, Latin and words of different etymologies. This imparted to English a subtlety of register unique in Europe that he was able to exploit to the full. Even the speech of the common folk is marked by its heavy reliance on Old-English-derived words. The juxtaposition of text derived from German monosyllables and text created based on Latinate terms is one of the traits that makes Shakespeare unique. What makes Shakespeare one of a kind is not only his ability to create outstanding texts, but also how he used the lexical resources of the whole language he inherited.


5 - "The afterlife of personification" by Helen Cooper


Synopsis: Concerned with the practice, developed with a high degree of sophistication in the Middle Ages, of treating abstract nouns as agents.


6 - "Shakespeare and the remains of Britain" by Ruth Morse


Synopsis: Shakespeare's incursions into the legendary prehistory of the island conquered and populated by the Trojan refugee, Brut, contributed to prolonging the influence of rhetorical historiography as as attitude towards possible pasts.


7 - "King Lear in BC Albion" by Margreta de Grazia


Synopsis: Tackles what is perhaps the most divisive critical issue in Shakespeare's most comprehensive tragedy: whether it offers a Christian message beneath a historically necessary veneer of paganism, or whether it takes its paganism seriously to present a God-forsaken world without any providential control.


8 - "The art of playing" by Tom Bishop


Synopsis: Overview of the question of the role of Play in Shakespeare, and the inheritance of certain ideas of play as the foundation for theatrical activity in his drama.


9 - "Blood begetting blood: Shakespeare and the mysteries" by Michael O' Connell


Synopsis: Focuses closely on the practices of such 'play', in its remainder of how extensively medieval religious drama was still being acted in the early decades of Elizabeth's reign.


10 - "From scaffold to discovery-space: change and continuity" by Janette Dillon


Synopsis: Overview of the Early Modern understanding of stage space in terms of place-and-scaffold staging (medieval practice of dividing the performance space into the place or platea as the main staging area, and the one or more platforms or booths around or behind it that served to define the particularities of place or to move the action to a different plane).


11 - "Performing the Middle Ages" by Peter Holland


Synopsis: Studies the varying ways in which successive directorial practices, from Macklin and Garrick to Branagh and Al Pacino, have tried to resolve the choices between representing a fake-authentic medieval, and modern methods of supplying a visual equivalent to all the many meanings the plays can reveal.


12 - "Conclusion: the evil of Medieval" by David Bevington


Synopsis: Shakespeare and the Middle Ages are not just two contiguous categories that can be linked; nor is it enough to speak of Shakespeare's Medievalism, as a position he consciously or unconsciously adopts towards a 'medieval' already appearing anachronistically in his own lifetime.


Despite the fact that concepts such as “The Middle Ages” (from the birth of Bede c 673 to the establishment of Caxton’s printing press in 1476) or “The Renaissance” (from 1476 to the Restoration in 1660) must be somewhat arbitrary, this collection of papers makes a clear and convincing case for the interpretation for Shakespeare as both a Medieval and Renaissance Man.


As this book also confirms, Medieval Shakespeare is anything but simple. Nevertheless it’s still a fascinating subject.