Literature and Theatre
Cathy Shrank’s essay considers the impact of citing scripture in fifteenth-century English morality drama. She studies its evolution from a genre that focuses on the psychomachia of the individual human soul to one that maps a struggle for the soul of the nation. Shrank explores what happens to biblical quotations – and the language in which they are cited – and how they are used to establish the ethos of characters in performance after the Reformation.
Monika Fludernik concentrates on William Rowley’s A Shoemaker, A Gentleman, comprising one of the few existing treatments of martyrdom in early modern dramatic literature. She studies this play within the context of earlier Elizabethan depictions of martyrdom, as well as with reference to the medieval tradition of saints’ legends. Fludernik also brings this play into dialogue with other contemporaneous plays about issues of martyrdom and religious identity: The Virgin Martyr, written collaboratively by Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger; and Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess.
Paul Whitfield White challenges the accepted scholarship concerning the decline of biblical drama in early modern England. He argues that during the latter half of Elizabeth’s reign, and continuing into the seventeenth century, all of the major patronised companies operating both within London and beyond, including those travelling to the continent, staged biblical plays. White proposes that these plays were characterised by diversity in dramaturgy, ideological purpose and reception.
Eva von Contzen discusses the enactment of the Creation, the Fall, and the Nativity. She focuses on the concept of ‘joint attention’ through which characters not only act out – literally embody – the events from the Bible, but also invite the audience to imagine the actions in an active, experiential way. By means of this strategy, the plays interpret the shared humanity of Christ in a very literal, experiential sense for the audience and believer.
This collection of essays offers new perspectives that foster our understanding of the crucial role the Bible played in medieval culture as well as in the wake of the Reformation across Europe. The thirteen essays open up new horizons for the study of biblical drama by putting special emphasis on periodisation, the intersections of biblical narrative and performance, and the strategies employed by playwrights to rework and adapt the biblical source material. Special emphasis is placed on multitemporality, transnationality, and the modalities of performance and form in relation to the uses of the Bible in medieval and early modern drama. The three aspects are intertwined: particular modalities of performance evolve, adapt and are re-created as they intersect with different historical times and circumstances. These intersections pertain to aspects such as dramatic traditions, confessional and religious rites, dogmas and debates, conceptualisations of performance and form, and audience response – whenever the Bible is evoked for performative purposes. The collection thus stresses the co-presence of biblical and contemporary concerns in the periods under discussion, conceiving of biblical drama as a central participant in the dynamic struggle to both interpret and translate the Bible.
Silvia Bigliazzi traces the development of lamentation scenes through different patterns of chorality. She first devotes special attention to the laments of the three Marys in the York and Towneley cycles before she discusses George Peele’s early modern play, The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe, in which the two formal Choruses comprise a religious device subservient to a political design of male power. This play ultimately demonstrates how female pathos is no longer part of the tragic ritual.
M. A. Katritzky studies the evolving changes to the ‘merchant scene’ in European (Romanish, Latin, German) plays. This scene specifically relates to the Holy Women’s Visitatio Sepulchri, developed from Gospel accounts of the Marys’ visit to the tomb of Christ. Katritzky considers this scene in juxtaposition to significant manuscript and stone images, thereby underlining how it intersects with evolving traditions of the biblical stage as it absorbs and reflects varied historical, political, religious, and transnational influences.
This chapter focuses on the role of Noah’s wife as a radical, impious questioning of both patriarchal and divine authority in the Chester play of Noah’s Flood. Lawrence Besserman argues that in the performative foregrounding of this character, through her refusal to board the Ark, can be seen as coinciding with the emergence of outspoken female critics (e.g. Margery Kempe, Joan White, anonymous female Lollard ‘preachers’) of a male-dominated Church hierarchy.
Elisabeth Dutton focuses on how Reformation Protestant writers asserted the historicity of scriptural events. She asks a crucial question: How do the Protestant playwrights manage to create any form of ‘scene’ by which their audiences might be able to situate themselves in these events? Dutton argues that to encourage these audiences, these playwrights – specifically John Bale, John Foxe, and Nicholas Grimald – used the accessible, physical reality of props to thereby overcome the challenges of presenting a Protestant history.