Out of the Ossuary

Michael Neill

  • The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare by Steven Mullaney
    Chicago, 231 pp, £24.50, July 2015, ISBN 978 0 226 11709 6

‘Memory,’ my mother remarked, distress masked by her usual self-mocking humour, ‘is a thing of the past.’ She was 85 and sliding into the dementia that would ultimately erase all remembrance. Increasingly haunted by the fear that she had, literally, nothing to say, nervous of gaps in conversation, she would make things up, their frequently bizarre character a reminder that social inhibition is itself a function of deep-laid memories: ‘Oh, the royal family? Of course they suffer from all sorts of unmentionable diseases, you know.’ ‘Unmentionable’, that mantra of mock-prudish middle-class politesse, had a special poignancy: she couldn’t have mentioned those diseases if she’d tried. Stories, however improbable, were all she had to hold onto. ‘I wonder where your father is,’ she said one day. With some awkwardness, I reminded her that he’d died four years earlier: ‘Oh no, I don’t think so. I think he’s off with some other woman.’ It was a way of bringing him back to life, and with him her familiar self – even if she could do so only by means of a fiction that parodied the pain of a loss that, rendered inaccessible, had become unspeakable.

This undoing of individual identity, in which disremembering becomes a kind of psychological dismemberment, has its social equivalent. Societies can suffer from a condition that resembles a communal dementia, brought on by the trauma of events over which their members had no control, and by the sanctions of enforced forgetfulness. That, at any rate, is the notion that drives the argument of Steven Mullaney’s new book. The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare begins in the prescribed New Historicist fashion, with a telling anecdote:

During the night of 10 April 1549, a procession of carts rumbled through the streets of London on a course that began at the Pardon Churchyard of St Paul’s and ended at a nondescript marsh outside of Moorgate, in the vicinity of Finsbury Field. Without ceremony, one cart after another emptied its contents into the marsh and then returned for another load, in a cycle repeated many times over – ‘more than one thousand cartloads’, according to John Stow – before the carters could be paid and sent home. Afterwards, the area was covered over with ‘soylage of the citie’ … [T]he carts were filled with human remains … [which] had been lodged in the great ossuary of the cathedral … located under the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin.

Mullaney asks us to remember a deliberate act of erasure through which – by order of the Protestant Duke of Somerset, the lord protector of King Edward VI, who was a minor – the occupants of the St Paul’s charnel house were consigned to symbolic oblivion. If charnels had once served as ‘a kind of waystation for the dead as they made their slow progress from this life to the next’, this unceremonious disinterment was intended to signal their terminal displacement: thus evacuated they became refuse indistinguishable from the ‘soylage of the city’. Like other sites of interment, the Pardon Churchyard had functioned as ‘a concrete and material form of social memory … a place where the past and the loved ones who embodied it were granted a lasting habitation in [London’s] affective landscape’. Somerset’s action was an example of what John Weever, the historian of funereal display, would lament as a general ‘rage against the dead’ – a particular kind of iconoclastic fervour that resulted in the mutilation of innumerable monuments and tombs in an effort to expel their inhabitants from communal remembrance. By rendering ‘entire cemeteries … mute, indecipherable and anonymous’, this desecration marked a violent reformation of the ‘felt relations with the past’ that had been central to late medieval culture.

Like the abolition of chantry chapels, where perpetual masses had been sung for the souls of the departed, this vandalism, Mullaney reminds us, was a material consequence of the Protestant denial of purgatory, with its suppression of the whole industry of remembrance and intercession that had for so long governed relationships between the living and the dead. As The Reformation of Emotions sketches this history, it seems to be about to revisit the territory charted by a number of recent studies that trace the imaginative consequences of a change that put the deceased beyond the influence of the living – the best known of them Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), with its extended account of the conflict between memory and forgetting that torments the protagonist of Shakespeare’s theologically vexed tragedy. But the focus of Mullaney’s interest is a little different. Indeed, while the pages of his book are haunted by those cartloads of defiled remains, they serve primarily as a way of sharpening the larger question to which the book several times returns: ‘What did it feel like to be an Elizabethan?’

At first sight this might seem like a simple reformulation of the much quoted opening of Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations (1989) – ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’ – but Mullaney is less concerned with how the dead might respond to such interrogation than with uncovering aspects of their inner lives that, as a result of both external and internal constraints, they might have found difficult or impossible to articulate at all. Within the compass of a single lifetime, 16th-century English people had been required to reform their official beliefs no fewer than five times; and the result was that for many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries faith itself seems to have become a shifting and uncertain thing, whose fractures and contradictions were best kept hidden – perhaps even from oneself. So if Shakespeare himself can sound like the closet Catholic some admirers believe him to have been, he is equally capable of sounding like a committed Calvinist or a thoroughgoing sceptic. This does not have to be explained as a matter of theatrical ventriloquy: it is a reflection of his profound immersion in his own cultural moment.

If we want to imagine what that immersion might have felt like, Mullaney suggests, we need to look at the stories Shakespeare and others told; but not so much for what the tellers set out to say as for what the stories reveal about the processes involved in their making: ‘It was through the telling – the affective, experiential process itself – that inner lives of people were formed and reformed.’ This was especially true of the stories rehearsed in the interactive space of Elizabethan theatre – a place of continual reformation that was ‘expressly designed to resonate with an audience newly uncertain of its individual and collective identities … [to] sound out the gaps that had been opened in the … social body as a consequence of the English Reformation’. Through these stories, Mullaney argues, we can trace the outlines of post-Reformation ‘structures of feeling’ – structures that were shaped in critical ways by the trauma of displacement exemplified in the nocturnal purgation of St Paul’s charnel house.

For Mullaney, however, displacement is not necessarily a destructive process – or not solely that. He has always been interested in the potential of the marginal spaces that displacement creates. His widely admired first book, The Place of the Stage: Licence, Play and Power in Renaissance England (1988), explored the formative influence of the pressures that drove London’s professional acting companies beyond the city boundaries into the Liberties, where they could remain immune to the hostile manoeuvres of the authorities. In this ‘transitional zone’ they found ‘a culturally maintained domain of ideological ambivalence and contradiction … [a place] where forms of moral incontinence and pollution were granted licence to exist beyond the bounds of a community’. This displacement, intended to limit the influence of the theatre’s corrupting practices, proved instead to be the foundation of its extraordinary success; for – by virtue of their association with an outcast community – public playhouses enjoyed the inherent permissiveness of an in-between world, the ‘ambiguity and ideological mobility’ of whose liminal conditions they rapidly learned to exploit. In a passage whose resonance is enlarged by the new book, The Place of the Stage pointed out that, like other denizens of the Liberties, players found themselves ‘in close proximity’ not just to alehouses, brothels and the haunts of the criminal underworld, but ‘to graveyards for the nameless dead’; they belonged to ‘a place that was, properly speaking, no place at all, but betwixt and between proper places and the proprieties that adhered to them’. It was this liminality, The Reformation of Emotions insists, that enabled Elizabethan amphitheatres ‘to make productive use of conflict as well as consensus, contradiction as well as resolution’ in a space ‘where players, playwrights and their audiences could explore the social imaginary they shared, in all its faultlines and gaps and dissociations’.

In the chapter that follows his lengthy introduction, Mullaney sets out to show how the physical displacement of Elizabethan playhouses combined with the material conditions of performance to produce drama that, in its relations with a peculiarly heterogeneous audience, exploited the ‘disjunction between levels and kinds of knowledge’ to create strikingly ironic effects. He begins with a brilliant re-examination of one of the most elaborately layered examples of dramatic irony in the Elizabethan canon, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which not only contains two inset theatrical performances, but whose whole action is framed by the presence of an onstage audience. Mullaney is, I think, the first to remark on the seeming wastefulness of this metadramatic schema, which, because the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge never leave the stage, inevitably relegated ‘two accomplished actors to largely non-speaking roles’. But, of course, the dizzying sense of regressus ad infinitum that Kyd produced was more than enough to justify the extravagance. When Andrea and Revenge sit down ‘to see the mystery/And serve for chorus in this tragedy’, their function is not confined to the five exchanges that punctuate and comment on the unfolding plot: their silent observation of the entire tragedy establishes an unsettling space between the familiar realities of characters and audience, ‘always doubling our point of view … casting [an] ironic shadow on our most heartfelt and sincere responses’. Moreover, the fact that Revenge, at least, has foreknowledge of the tragic outcome reduces Hieronimo – the self-proclaimed ‘author and actor’ of the climactic play-within-the-play that produces his own revenge – to a sadly deluded puppet whose rhetorical displays of grief, guilt and vindictive passion are simply ‘beside the point’; and this is an irony that, complicated by the play’s receding levels of ‘reality’, uncannily threatens to engulf the theatre audience itself, as Kyd’s ‘impossible cosmology’ animates the theological contradictions of their own world. The unsettling disjunction between the Spanish Catholic setting of the main action and the pagan afterlife that frames it matches the self-destructive torment of a protagonist who, Mullaney suggests, ‘resembles nothing so much as a conflicted Calvinist’; and Hieronimo’s condition will have mirrored that of the Elizabethan spectator who, confronted by the gaze of Revenge, was forced to recognise that ‘she too [was] one of the abject preterite, the doubly predestined soul of His architectonic point of view’.

*

Mullaney enlarges his exploration of ironic form by examining two of Shakespeare’s experiments with the drama of vengeance that Kyd had pioneered: Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice. Given that England did not itself possess a revenge culture, the staging of revenge drama, with its self-consciously alien settings in Spain and Italy, must always have involved a degree of (potentially ironic) distancing; and the advantage of this disconnect between social structures and dramaturgical form was that it ‘allowed Elizabethan theatre to talk about something else’: by supplying the necessary indirection, it allowed the stage to confront the pressing social issues produced by the trauma of reform and its violent suppression of the past. So in Titus Andronicus, Lavinia, who ‘should be dead but is not dead yet’, mirrors the displaced condition of the pre-Reformation deceased: ‘like a ghost she is a boundary crosser and an uncanny presence, but her transgression is generic rather than metaphysical.’ Contemplating the much discussed tension in Titus Andronicus between ornamental Ovidian rhetoric and the extremes of physical suffering to which it responds, Mullaney shows that playgoers are not only forced to set what they see against what they hear, but compelled to experience ‘the narcissistic … patriarchal sympathy’ of Marcus through the eyes and ears of the mutilated, speechless Lavinia, so that their sympathy for her becomes ‘entirely and ironically different’ from what her uncle or even her father is made to express.

It was Shakespeare’s sophisticated playing with genre that made him a master of the kind of emotional disjunction that Mullaney’s second chapter calls ‘Affective Irony’. But this was not an effect created simply by the developing skills of the playwright and his actors; rather, the book is at pains to argue, it depended on the ‘professionalisation’ of the audience themselves, on the honing of the ‘auditory and spectatorial literacies’ necessary for them to come to terms with a play like The Merchant of Venice, in which a revenge drama is superimposed on a romantic comedy. The generic disruptions repeatedly confuse the expectations of the audience, and do so in a fashion that is meant to confound the possibility of a uniform emotional reaction, including one that might instil enlightened lessons about anti-Semitism and Christian hypocrisy; instead it aims to set up a dialectical relationship with the audience through which the play can make productive use of the ‘faultlines and gaps and dissociations’ in their social imaginary. For Mullaney, the Elizabethan audience were not passive consumers but active participants in the creation of a play, so that a printed text could never be anything more than an inadequate metonym for the play they experienced. To treat a play as a literary artefact is not merely to forget the missing dimension of performance and spectacle, but to ignore the active agency of onlookers in a playing space that habitually reached beyond the stage to embrace the whole auditorium in a process that transformed the playscript into ‘a form of embodied social thought’.

The theatre, then, functioned as a space in which players and audience together ‘could probe and feel and even touch some of the crucial integuments and sinews of the social body that had become disarticulated in the upheavals of … early modern England’. In what is perhaps the strongest section of his book, ‘The Wreckage of History: Memory and Forgetting in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy’, Mullaney returns to the consequences of those ‘pogroms against the past’, like the emptying of the St Paul’s ossuary. The ‘structural amnesia’ it entailed was, he suggests, a kind of damnatio memoriae, a Protestant excommunication of the dead; and it is only in the context of such fearful rites of exclusion that we can understand Shakespeare’s decision to begin his exploration of English history with a sequence of plays devoted to one of its most inglorious and destructive periods. ‘The Wreckage of History’ is framed by two powerfully dramatic moments: on the one hand, the Duke of Gloucester’s powerful denunciation of Henry VI’s marriage to a French princess, with its rhetoric of historical effacement; on the other, the scene of Richard III’s nightmares at Bosworth, in which the past erupts to confound its own erasure. For Mullaney it is Talbot, the betrayed martial hero of Henry VI Part I, who stands for what is systematically forgotten in the remainder of the cycle: his, after all, is among the most prominent of those names whom Gloucester imagines blotted ‘from books of memory’ by a union that serves only to deface the ‘monuments of conquered France,/Undoing all as all had never been’. Talbot is presented not so much as an individual but as a ‘collective self’, the embodiment of ‘something like an imagined community’; in his absence, we are left with the ineffectual Henry who, flanked by a father-who-has-killed-his-son and a son-who-has-killed-his-father, ‘becomes the centre panel of a triptych representing the death of genealogy … the loss of history and the trauma of reform’. In Richard III, it is true, the disremembered dead return in the form of ghosts – the spirits of Richard’s murdered victims – but only for their haunting to be declared a manifestation of the villain’s suppressed conscience with its ‘thousand several tongues’. What Mullaney sees emerging in this episode is a new conception of individuality, in which the old sense of an individuum as a creature indivisible from collective identity is replaced by a self that is defined by singularity and autonomy: the kind of self, in other words, so often associated with Hamlet, the play to which Mullaney’s book finally returns.

Richard III ends with a formal oration from the victorious Richmond through which the tetralogy appears, at first sight, to recover ‘its historical grounding’ with the announcement of the ‘genealogical triumph’ of the Tudor dynasty; but, as Mullaney points out, the religious framework that Richmond invokes, with its claim to sacramental endorsement, is an unmistakably Catholic one; and, for the properly reformed, the ‘sacrament’ that seals this usurper’s claim to reunite ‘the white rose and the red’ was a piece of heretical mummery. No wonder then that the syntax of Richmond’s most conspicuous address to the theatre audience – ‘What traitor hears me, and says not “Amen”?’ – remains so dangerously ambiguous. ‘Amen’ is as likely as the most refractory silence to be the sign of a traitor; but against which political order of things any treachery might be levied is left for the audience to conjecture.

Of course the sacrament of communion is itself a rite of remembering (‘Do this in remembrance of me’), and in the light of what Mullaney’s analysis shows us about historical remembering and forgetting, it can hardly be a coincidence that Hamlet, Shakespeare’s great tragedy of remembrance, should end with a revenge that is a grotesque parody of the sacrament itself: ‘Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane,/Drink off this potion.’ It feels inevitable, after all that has intervened, that The Reformation of Emotions should circle back to the play which, by pitching a ghost’s plea to be remembered against the dreadful anonymity of graveyard skulls, gives the theatre’s response to enforced oblivion its most eloquent expression. But in so far as Mullaney’s structure seems to be leading towards a close encounter with the Prince of Denmark, many readers are likely to find his final chapter, ‘What’s Hamlet to Habermas?’, something of a disappointment. Originally published as a standalone essay in a collection called Making Space Public In Early Modern Europe: Performance, Geography, Privacy (2013), it uses Hamlet merely as a jumping-off point for a discussion of how the early modern stage acted as an instrument of publication. In the process it expands the book’s earlier suggestions about theatre’s role in the production of social knowledge, mounting a challenge to Habermas’s claim that early modern drama was a purely representational mode – a mirror serving to flatter the nobility and bolster the hegemony of the princely state. Mullaney insists instead that ‘it created a critical social space in which … members of the audience, as full participants in the production of the play’, could begin to envisage ‘alternative forms of civil society, to reimagine community’ and thereby turn ‘embodied social thought into historical actuality’.

The argument is persuasively managed, but in its new context the essay seems an overextended refinement of ideas that previous chapters have established perfectly well, while the promised return to Hamlet is relegated to an energetic but frustratingly brief epilogue. Here Mullaney contemplates the prince’s own most deeply contemplative moment in the graveyard, in a kind of doubling that wittily matches the doubling on the stage itself. As he holds the bare skull that has been invested with Yorick’s identity, Mullaney’s Hamlet ‘occupies Yorick’s place and takes on his role in the scene … [Mocking] the skull’s own grinning, [he performs] what it can no longer do.’ Overcoming his revulsion at the material reality of the dead, at the stench of mortality itself, Hamlet contrives to incorporate ‘the living memory of Yorick, into his own body and feelings’; and through that feat, surrounded though he is by the dismembered signs of nullification and oblivion, he manages ‘a brief, enacted and successful act of mourning, an otherwise missing objective correlative to [his] unresolved grief over his father’s death’. This, then, becomes a moment that shows us how performance could be an instrument of ‘re-membering’ – ‘a way of thinking through things, one that didn’t flinch at the dislocations, or chop-fallen jowls of the past or present’ – and how, in the process, theatre enabled the gradual metamorphosis of the communal individuum remembered in the pre-Reformation cult of the dead into something resembling the modern individual, a creature compounded of its own particular memories.