Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Regina Buccola: “Staging Superstitions”

Regina Buccola

Book Review

Verena Theile and Andrew D. McCarthy, eds. Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Ed. Helen Ostovich. Ashgate (Burlington, VT, 2013), 284 pp. ISBN: 9781409440086. $98.96 (USD)

1> Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe functions as a collection of scholarly work in the best sense of the genre: it brings together diffuse thinking on a broad range of issues related to early modern theatrical representations of the collision among shifting religious beliefs, persistent superstitions, and the discoveries of philosophy and its early modern intellectual offspring, science. Moreover, the scholarship included represents a broad spectrum of those working in the field, from the recent MA in English Kristina Caton and the newly-minted PhD in history Deborah Lea to seasoned scholars in the field such as historian Darren Oldridge (who offers the Foreword to the collection) and Per Sivefors (who analyzes the significance of dreams and prophecies in the plays of John Lyly). The ground between is judiciously filled by contributors at roughly the middle of their careers, engaged in building upon strong foundations in their research.

2> Books in the Ashgate series Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama are meant to offer innovative thinking on early modern plays in performance or to situate these works in the context of popular and intellectual culture. The majority of the essays in Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe fulfill the second of these functions. In the first essay in the collection, for example, philosopher Peter Morton offers an analysis of Lutheran homiletic practice vis-à-vis demonological treatises, arguing that the two traditions inform one another, both working toward the common goal of bringing their followers in line with Lutheran doctrines. Morton’s essay implicitly treats homilies as performances of which we have surviving records in the form of published sermons, such as those of Melchior Neukirch of Brunswick. While neither Morton nor Theile and McCarthy in their introduction to the collection make this connection, one could analogize published sermons as written records of an oral performance and their relationship to the religio-cultural context from which they emerged to published plays as records of their original performances in a similar matrix of socio-cultural influences.

3> Morton’s essay is made to bear tremendous weight in terms of the European scope of the collection as promised in its title. His is one of four of the ten collected essays that deals substantively with the European continent, and one of those four is Verna Theile’s essay devoted to Faustus, which spends most of its time in England, with Marlowe’s incarnation of the devil-dealing doctor. Theile and Morton’s essays, together with Adam Kitzes’s wonderful essay on Barnabe Riche’s curious pamphlet The True Report of a Late Practice, Enterprised by a Papist (London 1582) constitute the collection’s first section, nominally devoted to “Early Modern Superstitions: Religion, Reformation, and the History of Fear.” Kitzes’s essay is firmly grounded in England and, like Morton’s, it performs yeoman’s service in terms of laying out the dynamics of varied and shifting early modern beliefs and the complex ways in which this unstable terrain got navigated in print and in practice.

4> The second and longest section of the collection, “Witchcraft on Trial,” might well have been titled “Witchcraft on Stage,” since all four of the essays in it deal directly with theatrical representations of witches or witchcraft practices. Both Deborah Lea and Meg Pearson’s essays concern Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome’s play The Late Lancashire Witches, but Lea offers the unique perspective of a historian’s take on the theatrical representation of Lancashire, an area plagued by two successive waves of witchcraft accusations in the first few decades of the seventeenth century. In “The Supernatural on the Stage,” Lea argues that Heywood and Brome ultimately depict not merely a region’s susceptibility to witchcraft in The Late Lancashire Witches, but the community’s obstinate commitment to Catholicism, or at least their reluctance to let go of all of its rituals and ceremonies. Pearson situates Heywood and Brome’s play in the context of the 1634 trial of the second wave of Lancashire defendants against charges of witchcraft. Her title, “Vision on Trial in The Late Lancashire Witches” points to the fact that Heywood and Brome repeatedly undermine the acts of witchery that they depict, with stage business that is transparently obvious as trickery to the audience, and not the work of invisible demonic spirits. Given the comedic tenor of the play, Pearson argues that Heywood and Brome subtly undermine the gravity of the charges against the accused (whose actual legal fates are unclear) even as a court had just heard the same charges as no laughing matter. The simultaneity of these disparate responses to the same circumstances offers another indication, beyond the well-known pamphlet sparring of James I (Daemonologie) and Reginald Scot (The Discoverie of Witchcraft), of widely divergent responses to witchcraft beliefs in early modern England.

5> The final two essays in this section both require greater leaps on the part of readers, for different reasons. Kristina Caton’s essay devoted to “The Joint-Stool on the Early Modern Stage,” with particular emphasis on the stool’s key function as a prop in Macbeth and Arden of Faversham, takes a frustrating, back-door approach to its argument. Caton is actually forging new ground here, which should be an asset; however, consistently she makes revelatory assertions about the plays under discussion first, and then provides the evidence that supports these claims. Ideally, her argument would work the other way around, offering evidence, for example, of the strong associations early modern theatergoers would be likely to make between joint-stools and witchcraft or hidden demonic powers before asserting that the prop is meant to invoke these associations in Macbeth. Given its curious inverse progression through its argument, Caton’s essay requires patience, but that patience is, ultimately, rewarded.

6> Hilda Ma’s essay “The Medicalization of ‘Midnight Hags’” veers dangerously close to the infamous “how many children had Lady Macbeth” style of argument, presupposing that Lady Macbeth is too young to be post-menopausal and therefore must be experiencing premature menopause, resulting in her erratic behavior. Ultimately, Ma claims that Lady Macbeth and Queen Elizabeth I are fused as figures of a monstrous post-menopausal nursery that can, in turn, be conflated with the perverse caretaker function of the weird sisters. In such a reading, not only is Lady Macbeth allied with the weird sisters, but this group of perverse nurturers offers an implicit critique of the late Queen. The hyper-hypothetical nature of this argument makes it likely that only those already open to such a reading will be persuaded by it.

7> The third and final section of the collection, “Stage Dissections,” offers the most European contributions, with two-thirds of its essays invoking continental thought. Liberty Stanavage’s essay reads Prospero’s magic through the lens of Giordano Bruno’s work on magic and memory, arguing that Prospero’s insistence on constructing the memories of everyone around him evinces that his magic is performative, rather than “real.” Whereas many of the essays in the collection assume reader knowledge of the plays that they discuss, Per Sivefors offers a wonderfully nuanced reading of prophecies and dreams in John Lyly’s plays, weaving thoughtful summations of Lyly’s allegorical work into his analysis. Wrapping up the collection, M. A. Katritzky tells “Traveler’s Tales,” in a largely descriptive, summative essay chronicling widespread (both geographically and historically) reference to witchcraft in public theatrical and private court performances, from commedia dell’arte to English court masques and Jacobean plays.

8> Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe provides a deep well of ideas into which the reader may dip at will. Even essays such as Lea’s and Pearson’s, both dealing with The Late Lancashire Witches, function as entirely separate entities, with their own interpretive summaries of the work. The collection concludes with a fine, exhaustive bibliography; many of the works that appear in it are not cited in any of the essays in the collection, representing diligent work by editors Theile and McCarthy. Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe is a useful resource for institutional libraries and scholars of early modern superstitions – particularly those related to demonism and witchcraft – in the fields of history, philosophy and literature.

Regina Buccola is an Associate Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She is also the Scholar in Residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. That theater is the subject of her most recent book, an essay collection co-edited with Peter Kanelos, Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word (NIU Press 2013). She is also the editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide (Bloomsbury 2010) and the author of Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early Modern British Drama and Culture (2006).
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

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