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Alexander Lee, Pit Péporté and Harry Schnitker (eds.), Renaissance? Perceptions of Continuity and Discontinuity in Europe, c. 1300–c. 1550, (Brill, 2010)

Alexander Lee, Pit Péporté and Harry Schnitker (eds.). Renaissance? Perceptions of Continuity and Discontinuity in Europe, c. 1300–c. 1550. Brill: Leiden and Boston, 2010. ISBN: 978-90-04-18334-6. Xviii+370 pp. Hbk. €129.

Reviewed by Stella Fletcher

[1]  Appropriately, this collection of essays comes to us from the Athens of the North, all three of the editors having received their doctorates from the University of Edinburgh in 2008–9. For scholars at the outset of their careers they have taken on a surprisingly ambitious task, inviting seventeen authorities from across a reasonably wide disciplinary and geographical spectrum to reflect on the very nature of the Renaissance – as period, as movement, as rebirth and renewal – together with its relationship to the Antique, the medieval and the early modern. The sheer scale of their undertaking is also reflected in the volume’s tripartite structure, its successive sections being devoted to ‘The Renaissance and the classical tradition’, ‘The Renaissance and the arts’, and ‘A wider Renaissance?’, the last of which draws together diverse studies of European culture north of the Alps. Luke Houghton and Alexander Lee provide introductions to each of the three sections, but these prove to be as much independent essays as guides to what follows. Indeed, the arrangement of the essays within each section is not explained and remains impenetrable. Perhaps there is no reason why, for example, Robin Kirkpatrick’s essay on Love’s Labour’s Lost, Troilus and Cressida and Cymbeline appears before that of George Steiris on Machiavelli’s appreciation of Greek Antiquity. Similarly, the divisions between sections are not necessarily clear-cut.  Thus Maria Ruvoldt’s essay might fit as easily in the ‘classical tradition’ section as it does among ‘the arts’, for it explores the chronology of Michelangelo’s classically-inspired works, highlighting his apparent rejection of pagan culture and sudden return to it in the drawings of Ganymede, Tityus and Phaeton that he sent to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri in 1532–3. Likewise, Hanno Wijsman’s piece on Netherlandish art and that of Jeffrey Chipps Smith on the ‘invention’ of Dürer as a Renaissance artist might reasonably appear under the umbrella of ‘the Renaissance and the arts’ but here count as aspects of ‘A wider Renaissance?’ The editors can, however, take consolation from the fact that only a reviewer is likely to read the book from cover to cover, rather than in a more selective fashion.

[2]  Although the conference from which the collection derives was held in 2007, publication of the volume neatly coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of Erwin Panofsky’s Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960), which many of the contributors take as their point of departure. Elsewhere, the inspiration comes from the same author’s early study ‘Die Perspective als “Symbolische Form”’ (1927), the original essay on ‘Renaissance and Renascences’ (1944), and Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), as well as from his abiding interest in Dürer. Whether the contributions are assessed in terms of length, clarity or overall cohesion the result is somewhat uneven, though the best of the papers happen to be very impressive indeed. One might even regard this as a collection that builds up to Rob C. Wegman’s authoritative application of ideas about Renaissance and renascences to the subject of fifteenth-century music, and then falls away from the same. Taking his cue from Tinctoris, Wegman identifies discontinuity in musical composition between the 1430s and 1470s, and asks whether this is sufficient to justify application of the term ‘Renaissance’ to the history of music in that period. He concludes that when musicologists employ the ‘R’ word they are motivated by nothing more than tradition, though it is left to Hanno Wijsman to articulate what is surely an open secret: that publishers have insisted on employing the term ‘Renaissance’ in book titles against the better judgement of their authors. Wegman’s disciplinary distance from the history of art proves to be particularly useful when he turns to an examination of Panofsky’s anti-medievalism in general and his reaction against the work of Lynn Thorndike in particular. The emphasis on Wegman’s personal experiences and reflections might be more appropriate in the setting of a conference than in the published proceedings, but it nevertheless makes for the most compelling reading in the volume. Even among the briefer contributions there are some gems, such as the ‘notes’ on Renaissance scholarship in central Europe provided by Ingrid Ciulisová. This is precisely the sort of corrective required in the Anglophone scholarly tradition, which can be inclined to forget that interest in the Renaissance continued beyond the Iron Curtain, even if direct contacts between East and West were few and far between. Again, Panofsky is the key and attention is devoted to his influence and that of Julius von Schlosser on the Polish art historian Jan Biaƚostocki.  Among the contributors as a whole there is a healthy variety of familiar and less familiar names, but perhaps the greatest surprise is to find Andrew Pettegree in a volume on the Renaissance rather than the Reformation, an appearance which itself provides another variation on the theme of continuity and discontinuity, Renaissance and Reformation usually occupying separate scholarly spheres. His essay surveys the St Andrews-based research project on books published in French before 1601: it is, needless to say, a Panofsky-free zone.

[3]  If Lee, Péporté and Schnitker wish to undertake further editorial work, they might dare to be more interventionist. A case in point is provided when Wijsman crosses the Channel from Valois Burgundy to England. If the royal bibliophile Humphrey can be identified as duke of Gloucester, then why has his brother been left as ‘John of Lancaster’ (283) and not converted into ‘John, duke of Bedford’, as he is known to political, military and art historians alike? Indeed, names come off particularly badly in this volume, presumably because they are beyond the competence of computer programmes to correct. Thus Thomas Malory appears as ‘Mallory’ (250) and Bernabò Visconti as ‘Bernarbò’ (259) and were not even corrected when the index was compiled, but it is the not insignificant figure of Jacob Burckhardt who fares worst of all, his name appearing in various permutations throughout the book. However, these are relatively minor matters that do not necessarily detract from the fact that each contributor causes the reader to reflect anew on the fundamentals of what it is to study the Renaissance.

University of Warwick, November 2011

Carl Van de Velde (ed.), Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque – La mythologie classique aux temps de la Renaissance et du Baroque dans les Pays-Bas (Peeters, 2009)

Carl Van de Velde (ed.). Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque – La mythologie classique aux temps de la Renaissance et du Baroque dans les Pays-Bas. Travaux de l’Institut Interuniversitaire pour l’Étude de la Renaissance et de l’Humanisme, 14. Leuven – Paris – Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2009. ISBN: 978-90-429-2052-1, 394 pp., b/w ill., € 65.

Reviewed by Demmy Verbeke

[1]  The essays collected in this book form the proceedings of an international conference which took place in Antwerp from 19 to 21 May 2005. Its international character is reflected in the languages used: the book contains nine contributions written in English, six written in French, and an introduction switching between Dutch, French and English. It is important to realize at the outset that the conference was organised by the Institut Interuniversitaire pour l’Étude de la Renaissance et de l’Humanisme (Brussels) in collaboration with the Museum Plantin-Moretus (Antwerp) and the Rubenianum (Antwerp), i.e. the specialist documentation centre and library focusing on the study of Flemish art, in particular that of its golden age from Pieter Bruegel to Peter Paul Rubens. As a result, no fewer than six out of fourteen contributions (not counting the introduction and the conclusions) are most relevant for art historians; and five of these are partly or wholly devoted to Rubens.

[2]  The collection opens with what seems to be the literal transcription of the opening speech pronounced at the conference by the editor of these proceedings. Besides a brief discussion of the theme and the organizational background of the meeting, this introduction treats a number of mythological engravings and the Latin inscriptions accompanying them. In the first real article, Eric-Jan Sluijter offers an analysis of various portrayals of Andromeda by Netherlandish painters of the seventeenth century, and rightfully stresses the ‘truly diverging approaches [and] the fascinating variations in usage, functions and attitudes’ towards the heritage of classical antiquity. The next couple of essays focus on literary topics: Rudolf De Smet discusses mythological figures as argumentative elements in the correspondence of Erasmus and Claudio Gigante treats mythological figures in Italian Renaissance poetry. Karolien De Clippel then zooms in on Rubens’s Bacchus and contrasts it with his Andromeda, arguing that the diverse manners of execution (and especially the brushwork) were connected with the mythological themes and their interpretations. Marie Geraerts follows with a discussion of attitudes towards nudity at the Spanish court on the basis of Rubens’s Judgment of Paris for Philip IV. The richest and perhaps the only truly transdisciplinary contribution to the volume is Bert Schepers’s article about poetic commentaries on pictures by Rubens. Another highlight is Nicolette Brout’s piece about the dialogue De prisca religione diisque gentium of the Antwerp Jesuit André Schott, which illustrates the critical distance maintained by some Renaissance and Early Modern intellectuals versus antiquity in general and classical mythology in particular. Related to this is Karl Enenkel’s discussion of Georgius Pictorius’s Theologia Mythologica and Julien de Havrech’s De cognominibus deorum gentilium, two theoretical treatises devoted to the description and the interpretation of the myths of classical antiquity (of which, in fact, only one has a clear link with the Netherlands). This is followed by a discussion by Thomas Berns of the use of mythological material, and especially the reference to a Golden Age or the Age of Saturn, in the work of Hugo Grotius. In the next essay, Monique Mund-Dopchie observes the longevity of the ancient representation of the world and its periphery as well as the almost accidental use of mythological references in cosmographical works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An example of the attempt to reconcile the Iudaeo-Christian tradition with Graeco-Roman mythology is found in Jeanine De Landtsheer’s analysis of an obscure reference by Justus Lipsius to the eccentric work of Goropius Becanus. Elizabeth McGrath traces the sources of mythological themes in the work of Netherlandish artists to their reading and discusses their book collections. Jan Bloemendal addresses the interesting fact that the visual arts might abound with figures from classical mythology during the period under discussion, but few of them seem to appear on the theatrical stage, and offers an account of the relevant dispute between Daniel Heinsius and Jean Louis Guez, seigneur de Balzac. Fiona Healy, finally, discusses allegorical adaptations of the judgment of Paris. The volume closes with a rather polemical conclusion written by Wouter Bracke, who rightfully points out that a lot of research remains to be done concerning the use of classical mythology in Netherlandish culture during the age of Renaissance and Baroque. He also takes philologists, and especially neo-latinists, to task for being too superficial in their study of mythological material in poetry.

[3]  The volume would have benefited from a stricter editorial hand. There are a number of regrettable but perhaps forgivable issues, such as the inconsistent treatment of Latin, Italian or Dutch sources (sometimes quoted in the original language, sometimes not; sometimes translated, sometimes not) and the apparently random sequence of the essays. More important and more detrimental for the use of this book for further research is the absence of an index. In addition, the presence of the article by Claudio Gigante is puzzling: no matter how interesting this contribution may be (and it is), its link with the Low Countries is too tenuous to be included in a book about classical mythology in the Netherlands.

[4]  Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque offers a number of illuminating case-studies, and suggests many more stimulating lines for further inquiry. It thus lifts a tip of the veil upon a vast and rich field of research. Unfortunately, the decision not to include an introduction or conclusion which would attempt to bring the contributions together in an over-arching synthesis, as well as the comparatively limited attention to – or even complete absence of – certain genres or art forms equally marked by the presence of themes from Graeco-Roman mythology (such as Neo-Latin poetry or music), preclude that this book could be considered as a well-balanced overview of classical mythology in the Netherlands during the period under discussion. However, the relative novelty of this kind of research focusing specifically on the Low Countries, and the quality of most of the contributions, still ensure that it is a valuable document of what undoubtedly must have been an inspired and inspiring conference.

 K. U. Leuven, November 2011



[1]  We, the editors, are excited to welcome you to Issue 3 of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance. This is the first open, non-themed issue to appear since our launch in 2009. A great range of topics is covered in 4 articles and a review article: from the literature of Hungary to that of England; from dramatic spectral appearances to clothed bodies of the queen, and from complete and full texts to their problematic abridgements.

[2]  The opening article to Issue 3, by Mike Pincombe, breaks important new ground for English-language scholars of the Northern Renaissance, by offering an investigation of the Hungarian poetry of Bálint Balassi (1554-1594). Pincombe presents a close-reading of Balassi’s ‘Széllyel tündökleni’, a translation from the Neo-Latin poem ‘Ad Manilium Rhallum’ by Michael Marullus, and pays special attention to the development of the ‘coda’. This coda, a semi-independent concluding stanza (or line(s)) often containing a playful authorial signature, situational sketch, or metapoetic comment, comes to embody for Pincombe the way in which literary tradition develops, both at leisurely pace but also in sudden movements. Drawing on the terminology of evolutionary theory, Pincombe maps the coda’s slow development, but also its experimental adoption by Balassi, which in turn comes to stand for the moment in which this important Hungarian poet ‘suddenly appears in the history of pan-European Renaissance literature’.

[3]  Catherine Stevens’s contribution, meanwhile, takes its point of departure from the spectral dagger that appears before Macbeth as he contemplates Duncan’s murder. As Stevens shows, the ontological status of this weapon is more problematic than critics have allowed, and this problematic status denotes a slippage between material ‘reality’ and the perception of that reality through the mechanism of vision. Stevens traces the implications of this slippage through readings of the ghosts in Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar which she sets in the context of post-Reformation debates concerning the nature of apparitions and vision. Drawing upon Derrida’s notion of the ‘visor effect’, Stevens ultimately finds that Shakespeare’s spectres manifest discontinuities and maladjustments already present within the relation between the gazing subject and the object. In doing so, she argues, they expose the reflexive interdependence of this relation, and invite us to look more closely at not only the liminal spaces beyond death, but the uncertain relation between the inner and the outer worlds of the living.

[4]  Querying the pernicious effects of the anachronistic assumption that an interest in dress is a feminine trait, Jane Stevenson traces the extent to which textiles and fashion are imbricated in the life of the English Renaissance court, occupying a significant role in the production of social distinctions. In assembling a diverse body of evidence documenting the expenditure of aristocrats, and the spiralling costs associated with an escalating struggle to outstrip the aspirational consumption of the lower orders, Stevenson highlights the vital importance of clothes as material signs of class identity, before industrial production obscured these spectacular markers of economic disparity.

[5]  Michael Ullyot offers a study of a single yet ambiguous concept in English Renaissance life-writing: abridgement. The main four texts investigated all relate the brief (abridged) life of Prince Henry (d. 1612), responded to by various biographers struggling to write morally exemplary narratives from a prematurely concluded life. Ullyot further probes the very nature of abridged text (akin to, for instance, commonplacing or extracting), by considering a wide range of uses of the word (in poetry, drama, sermons, panegyric, or elegies), as well as a series of abridged or shortened texts. The act of abridgement necessarily asks questions of the exact relationship between original text and shortened form, which can be expressed as synecdoche, but also as metonymy. In other words, the abridged text can either be viewed as retaining, or distilling, the essential qualities of its larger parent text, but also, more problematically, as a selective and distorting representation of a larger and complete whole. As Ullyot demonstrates, the failed promise of the life of young Prince Henry is itself an unwritten text, and so the abridged text and abridged life are inextricably combined.

[6]  Dermot Cavanagh’s review article poses important questions about scholarly perceptions of the temporal and cultural location of Shakespeare’s work, and the construction of the Renaissance canon. Addressing two recent collections that invite us to think across conventional chronological boundaries, both entitled Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, the one edited by Curtis Perry and John Watkins, the other by Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray, Cavanagh asks how far the desire to identify distinctive points of origin might eclipse the past’s ambiguous coalescence with the present.

[7]  In this respect, Cavanagh’s article complements other contributions to this issue in reflecting the Journal’s concern to interrogate existing periodizations of the Renaissance in the North and to establish continuities with earlier and later epochs. This is a concern that will be further investigated in two forthcoming issues. Issue Four (Autumn 2012) will explore the slippery notion of the ‘will’ and its various semantic permutations in the context of such issues as subjectivity, power, logic, desire, freedom, volition, wit, wisdom, theology and metaphysics. Furthermore, we also have a second unthemed Issue 6 planned, for which we are already accepting submissions. Please do have a look at our call for papers for that issue here.

Elizabeth Elliott, Patrick Hart, Sebastiaan Verweij

Evolutionary Experiment in the Lyric Poetry of Bálint Balassi

Evolutionary Experiment in the Lyric Poetry of Bálint Balassi

Mike Pincombe

[1]  In an interesting and useful paper ‘On Literary Evolution’, Franco Moretti argues that the development of genres and other literary forms proceeds at two speeds: very slow and very fast.[1] He cites the work of evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge to the effect that ‘Change is more often a rapid transition between stable states than a continuous transformation at slow and steady rates’ (Moretti 1997: 268). I want to apply this observation to sixteenth-century Hungarian lyric poetry, particularly to the development of the ‘lyric coda’, that is, the closing stanza of the ének, or ‘song’. I shall cover a range of poets, but my focus will be on the lyric verse of the great poet of the Hungarian literary Renaissance: Bálint Balassi (1554–1594).[2] Once again, a range of poems will be examined, but I shall concentrate on a single example: ‘Széllyel tündökleni’. This is, for the most part, a translation of a neo-Latin poem called ‘Ad Manilium Rhallum’, by the Greek-Italian poet, Michael Marullus (c. 1548–1500). But Balassi adds a coda to his translation, and this coda is the centre of my discussion. Balassi writes: ‘Marullus the poet wrote this in Latin, and see, I, for my part, have translated it into Hungarian, beside my good horse, whilst I was on the grass, when I lived merrily with my brave men, taking leave of my sorrows’ (37). This coda is as close as Balassi comes to a statement of his own ‘arrival’ as a lyric poet within the pan-European Renaissance; and at the end of this essay, I shall argue that it is this impression of ‘emergence’ – the sense of something suddenly appearing that was not there before – that is the mark of the onset of one of the periods of rapid transition noted by Gould and Eldredge. In fact, it is the mark of the ‘Renaissance’. But the main part of the essay will be devoted to the somewhat slower processes by which the Hungarian lyric coda developed a particular generic variant – the colophon – in the mid-sixteenth century; and how the colophon developed further during the next half-century; and how the experiments of Bálint Balassi, in particular, illustrate the usefulness of a loosely ‘evolutionary’ analysis of these generic changes.

I. Generic Adaptation: Soldiers in a Spring Landscape
[2]  Let us start with a familiar concept from evolutionary biology: adaptation. This concept works on the basis that not all specimens of the same species are identical: some have features which make them ‘fit’ their environment better than others – hence the ‘survival of the fittest’ (aptus is the Latin word for ‘fitting’). The possession of these features depends on the genetic heritage of the lucky individuals, who, because they survive, pass on their genes to the next generation — and so on. Thus the species is gradually ‘adapted’ to the environment, not consciously or deliberately, but as the result of the success stories of countless individual specimens.

[3]  Such a model may be applied quite usefully to literary genres, so long as we do not try to introduce the concept of intentional alteration. This is not how adaptation works in nature, so we should not seek an evolutionary explanation where, really, we are still thinking in terms of the classical concept of the inventor. Yes, individual lyric poets – to stay with the genre in question — did make alterations to the received forms in which they wrote: they experimented. But it is only when a large number of poets all make the same experiment, and are satisfied with its outcome, that generic adaptation occurs. This is not to say that a particular new feature may not be traced back to an original inventor, only that, from an evolutionary perspective, such a derivation is not important.

[4]  Moreover, we also need to consider that the new feature is not only a response to a change in the old environment, but, also, that it can quite quickly induce a new change in the environment itself, which then causes further changes — and so on. This is because literature is not immune from the dynamic processes of fashion and novelty. A highly successful novel can change the market for which it was produced if it comes at the right time. The best-seller that spawns a host of imitations can be seen as the ‘creation’ of a new genre, or, more soberly, as producing an  ‘adaptation’ of an old one. This is perhaps particularly remarkable in periods of rapid transition, where the appeal of innovation can be manipulated by certain players in the cultural system.

[5]  But we do not normally think of any of these things when we talk about ‘adaptation’ in literary studies. Here the emphasis is usually on the techniques of transferring material from one medium to another (‘from page to stage’, ‘the film of the novel’, and so on). Or it can focus on the way individual writers ‘adapt’ material to their purposes, that is, how they make it ‘fit’ their own needs or desires. This is not adaptation in the evolutionary sense, however, since it deals with only a single event; but it may well produce the invention that leads on to an alteration in the genre at large which parallels evolutionary adaptation more closely.

[6]  In this first section, I shall be using the concept of adaptation in a non-evolutionary sense; but my analysis of the changes made by Balassi to Marullus will still serve to introduce the less familiar concept of exaptation which will be the focus of the second section — and this is a model which is drawn much more precisely from evolutionary biology, as we shall see. Let us start quite simply by lining up the two poems so that the main difference can be seen at a glance (for an alternative translation of Marullus, cf. Kidwell (1989: 91–92), for the Latin text, see 269–70):

Marullus: ‘To Manilius Rhallus’ Balassi: ‘Széllyel tündökleni’
1. Do you not see the roofs coloured by the various hues of the spring flowers, nor the door-posts tied back with violets? Green youth stands in the midst of the garlanded girls. 1. Do you not see this earth glittering everywhere with splendid flowers? The meadows are scented with sweet-smelling roses and with many-coloured violas; groves, hills, valleys everywhere sound with many kinds of bird-song.
2. Boys sing in celebration the first day of May, and so do old men long retired; everyone is dancing for joy, people of every age are smiling happily. 2. Garlanded with fresh roses, women and maidens dance with the youths; sweet-voiced children sing merrily, everyone feasts merrily; heaven, earth, and waters all, do you see, enjoy themselves in such a way as if they were regenerated.
3. Cupid himself, his hair thrown back on his shoulder, shines in his golden-yellow mantle; he is quick both with his quiver full of arrows and with his bow.4. One moment, as he flies about here and there, he joins the youths in the ring-dances they have been wishing for, whilst, with his well-known arts, he prepares food for the first fire;5. and the next moment, in the middle of the troop of girls, he dresses the blond head of this one and of that, and his face adds glad glory to their eyes. 3. Moreover, Cupid also arranges his blond hair higher up on his forehead; like an angel, he flies here and there on soft little wings, he shows his merry mood, giving the hand of each one to his fair fiancée in the dance of love.
6. Good Rhallus, let go of your wild lamentations; already you have given enough thought to the fall of our fatherland; now amusement calls, and, cares set aside, sweet pleasure. 4. Therefore, do not grieve, my good brave companion, be void of all cares; much care has been sufficiently endured — in vain; let it be already far from us; now let us drink, feast, make merry, dance, let us take leave of our sorrows!
7. Why do we waste the brief period of life allotted to us, lamenting every day like wretches? Formerly, we, too, were happy, though our fortune was bad enough; and we also drank the height of joy. 5. Perhaps we should rather not worry our young lives away with things that are past; nor can we know when and in what hour we shall be summoned? What should we care? If God is our good lord, he can make all well.
8. Hyllus, my boy, bring out the three-year-old wine; let both sadness and sorrows retire far away: this entire day will surely have shone for me and my genius. 6. Worrying sorrow, woe-making love, be far from us; let golden cups filled with good wines pass between us; for God has brought us this day for our pleasure.
7. Marullus the poet wrote this in Latin, and see, I, for my part, have translated it into Hungarian, beside my good horse, whilst I was on the grass, when I lived merrily with my brave men, taking leave of my sorrows.

Two of the alterations are visually obvious: one is the addition of the coda; and the other is Balassi’s relative lack of interest in the detail of Cupid (three stanzas reduced to one). But a closer reading reveals two other highly significant changes: (1) Balassi shifts the setting of the scene from the town to the country; and (2) he turns Marullus’s exiles into soldiers. Why does he do this? Why does he ‘adapt’ Marullus in this particular way? We shall have to leave Cupid out of consideration, but the coda and the ‘relocation’ of the poem require our close attention.

[7]  Balassi’s adaptation of Marullus is complex, and we shall take as our guide the great Hungarian scholar, Rabán Gerézdi:

This astonishing and magnificent conclusion develops the colophon of the Hungarian poetics of song into the coda of an artist; it asserts at a single stroke all the many ways in which Balassi has deviated from his model. Amongst his brave men, by the side of his horse, lying in the grassy pasture, with the poet in his hand, as he lies there idly — what could be more different from Marullus’s holiday celebrations amongst the houses and gardens than the holiday-time of nature in its entirety, and the revelry of his ‘brave men’. (Gerézdi 1964)

This is very much the standard topos of critical commentary on this poem. As Tünde Tóth dryly observes: ‘There is a fairly strong consensus of opinion about this poem in the critical literature’ (Tóth 1998). But the warmth with which Gerézdi writes of this coda is still very remarkable, and we shall return to this point later.

[8]  Leaving Gerézdi’s comments on coda and colophon to the next section, we may note that he mainly contrasts the two poems on the basis of their chorographical location. There is a clear and evident opposition between the ‘grassy pasture’ of Balassi and the ‘houses and gardens’ of Marullus. Indeed, this is a traditional opposition: ‘the city and the country’, rus et urbs — and so on. Indeed, the opposition highlights the generic novelty of Marullus’s poem. May Day is the great festival of spring — the symbolic moment of transition from winter to summer that was (and is) so important in agrarian society. Hence its association with ‘nature in its entirety’, as Gerézdi says of Balassi’s poem; and we may feel that Balassi is tacitly ‘correcting’ Marullus by relocating his May Day poem in the country — where it properly belongs by virtue of its seasonal setting. In Marullus, the natural world is represented by flowers, but they are only ornamental, decorations on roofs and door-posts, whereas Balassi returns them to the wild, to their natural place in the order of woods and birds and meadows. Generically, Balassi ‘adapts’ the material he finds in Marullus to the pan-European tradition of the song of spring, or in Hungarian, the tavaszi-ének (or its more calendrically specific variant, the májusdal, or ‘May song’).

[9]  Here we may pause to observe that, in the so-called ‘Balassi codex’, which is the volume in which Balassi arranged a sequence of sixty-six of his poems around 1589, ‘Széllyel tündökleni’ is headed ‘Eiusdem generis’. It is ‘of the same kind’ as the poem which precedes it: ‘Áldott szép Pünkösdnek’. This is another spring-song, set during Whitsun rather than May Day, and one of its headings is ‘In laudem verni temporis’ (‘In praise of spring-time’). In other words, we might also translate the heading of ‘Széllyel tündökleni’ as ‘of the same genre’. Or rather: genres — for ‘Áldott szép Pünkösdnek’ is armed with two generic indicators, the other being ‘Borivóknak’ (‘For wine-drinkers’). The poem ends with a call for drink, as does Marullus’s lyric. ‘Széllyel tündökleni’ is thus eiusdem generis (or eorundem generum) as both his own ‘Áldott szép Pünkösdnek’ and ‘Ad Manilium Rhallum’. The other heading gestures towards the latorének, or ‘rogue-song’, the sort of composition made popular in the Carmina Burana; but we will concentrate on the vernal genre.

[10]  Returning to Gerézdi, we note that he does nor produce the same kind of opposition between the main figures of the two poems: we hear a good deal about Balassi’s soldiers, but not of Marullus’s exiles. This is because Balassi does not merely ‘correct’ Marullus here, by restoring the traditional rural setting of the spring song; he really does ‘adapt’ his material to his own individual poetics, rather than those of the genre of the tavaszi-ének. ‘Áldott szép Pünkösdnek’ offers a useful comparison here as well. The poem starts with a description of a spring landscape: sun, breeze, roses, nightingales, trees and bushes, violets, streams and springs — and horses:

4. For, after tiredness, you [viz. the spring] fatten up their limbs, refreshed, with dewy grass, building up their sinews with new strength for the chase. 5. And the fine brave soldiers, too, who live on the front, gallop here and there and everywhere on the sweet-smelling meadows; now they also rejoice, and pass away the time. 6. One takes care of his fine horse whilst it grazes, another cheerfully feasts with his friend, and another, meanwhile, has the smith clean his bloody weapon (34–35; for an alternative translation, cf. that of Keith Bosley and Peter Sherwood in Klaniczay (1985: 159–60).

In other words, here we have another ‘spring landscape with soldiers’, described in meticulous and remarkable detail.

[11]  Balassi’s first readers would have been surprised by the way in which he alters the content of the traditional spring-song by removing the familiar figures of the lover and his beloved and replacing them with soldiers and their friends (and horses). The alteration is by no means arbitrary. Balassi is writing a variant of the tavaszi-ének adapted specifically for men like himself: the soldiers of the front between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, who, in late April or early May, took advantage of an informal cessation of military activity on both sides to take their horses out onto the fields, where men and beasts alike could refresh themselves and prepare for further battle (Szentmártoni Szabó 2004: 46). Hence spring is praised not simply because it is beautiful, but because it breathes new life into the warriors and their horses. It is God’s gift to the fighting man, and hence the season itself is ‘blessed’.

[12]  his ‘militarization’ of the spring landscape is peculiar to Balassi. In fact, Lóránt Czigány goes as far as to say that ‘It is his account of nature seen through the eyes of a soldier that makes his poetry unique in Renaissance and Mannerist poetry’ (Czigány 1986: 50). Thus, whilst the transference of the setting of Marullus’s poem from the town the country may re-align it with the pan-European spring-song, the transformation of his exiles into soldiers is more of a personal experiment in combining elements of two traditional Hungarian lyric genres: the tavaszi-ének and the katonaének, or ‘soldier-song’. The katonaének has its own range of topics (prayer, farewell, and so on); and Balassi develops some of these in various lyrics (see Pincombe 2007). But the only poem he actually designates as a katonaének —‘Egy katonaének in laudem confiniorum’ (‘A soldier-song in praise of the marches’: poem 61) — is also set in exactly the same vernal landscape as ‘Áldott szép Pünkösdnek’ and ‘Széllyel tündökleni’. It begins: ‘Valiant warriors! What in the whole world could be fairer than the frontiers? There in springtime men like to hear the song of many fair birds; the field is fragrant and the fair dew falls from the sky to the delight of all’ (for an alternative translatation, see Bosley and Sherwood in Klaniczay (1985: 172–74)). Here we have an interesting generic question: Is Balassi ‘militarising’ the tavaszi-ének? or ‘vernalising’ the katonaének? Or do we have a single new hybrid genre: the Balassian tavaszi-katonaének?

[13]  In any case, this is a hybrid which did not pass on its genes to later generations: Balassi is unique in pursuing the theme of ‘soldiers in a spring landscape’. It failed to catch on, and this is because Balassi’s experiment was very personal. He was an aristocrat, but, for most of his life, without land, and thus obliged to make his way by means of military service where he could find it. The image of the soldier-poet may well have been psychologically important to Balassi, and, to return to ‘Széllyel tündökleni’, it is interesting to note that Balassi must have been aware that Marullus was a soldier-poet as well. We know that Balassi read Marullus in an anthology of neo-Latin writers published in Paris in 1582 as Poetae tres elegantissimi. Here he would have come across several lyrics in which Marullus deals with his own military experiences; so Balassi may also be ‘correcting’ Marullus’s poem by filling in the detail that he and Rhallus were not only exiles but also soldiers. But in any case, Balassi’s ‘adaptation’ of Marullus was an evolutionary dead-end.

[14]  However, ‘Széllyel tündökleni’ is still of great interest to the evolutionist — but in a slightly different context. Gerézdi writes: ‘This astonishing and magnificent conclusion develops the colophon of the Hungarian poetics of song into the coda of an artist’. It is in the poem’s relation to a series of changes relating to the coda that we may see the process of ‘exaptation’ most clearly at work.

II. Generic Exaptation: Colophon and Coda
[15]  The concept of exaptation was first given currency in a paper by Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth S. Vrba in the 1982 volume of the journal Paleobiology. They invented the word in order to fill a gap in the ‘taxonomy of evolutionary morphology’ (Gould and Vrba 1982: 4). But the title of their paper is generously inclusive: ‘Exaptation — a missing term in the science of form’ — and it is one of the terms Moretti applies to the history of literary forms (Moretti 1997: 273–78). Gould and Vrba are interested in the way characteristics which had evolved through natural selection through a process of ‘adaptation’ to their environment could be ‘co-opted’ and given a different function by a process of ‘exaptation’. They explain:

They [viz. these special features] are fit for their current role, hence aptus, but were not designed for it, and are therefore not ad aptus, or pushed towards fitness. They owe their fitness to features present for other reasons, and are therefore fit (aptus) by reason of (ex) their form, or ex aptus. (Gould and Vrba 1982: 6)

Fitness, function, form: these are the concepts that we must now apply to the Hungarian lyric coda.

[16]  What I have translated as ‘coda’ is in Gerézdi záradék, derived from the word zár, ‘to close’, which emphasises its function as a clause or other device which closes or concludes a document (such as a legal ‘codicil’). The important thing here is that it not just a ‘final stanza’, nor even a ‘closing stanza’, but a part of the text which stands in a relation of semi-independence from the main part: a coda in Latin is a ‘tail’. The ‘colophon’ — Gerézdi’s kolofon — is a special kind of coda. In sixteenth-century Hungary, both short and long poems were very frequently concluded with a final stanza (sometimes two) in which the poet states when and where he or she composed it.

[17]  These two words need to be understood in terms of what I have rendered by the phrase ‘poetics of song’, or, in Gerézdi’s Hungarian: énekköltés. The word ének is the usual non-technical Hungarian word for ‘song’; költ means ‘poem’, and költés is ‘poetics’. The word ének, however, includes not only ‘lyric poems’, in the modern sense of short compositions in verse, but all kinds of ‘Poetry for Singing’ (Nemeskürty 1982: 57). These included longer narrative compositions, such as the históriás ének (‘historical song’), which dealt with the exploits of Hungarian heroes past and present. This is what sir Philip Sidney encountered when he made his brief visit to Hungary in 1573, perhaps as a guest of Balassi’s father, János. He recalls how he sat at feasts amongst Hungarian nobles and heard ‘songs of their ancestors’ valour’ (Sidney 1973: 118; cf. Gömöri 1991). The colophon seems to have had its origins in these longer compositions.

[18]  The origins of the lyric coda in the form of a colophon may be traced to the oral delivery of the ének as song. How did the singer signal to his audience that his song was over? The coda generally fulfils this purpose by breaking the spell that the singer’s words have cast over the audience, by means of which they forget that he is there and listen raptly to his song — perhaps with eyes closed. He ends the song by reminding them of his presence, no longer the mere source of the voice that sings, but a real person physically present before his listeners. The specific function of the colophon, however, is to draw attention directly or indirectly to the singer-composer’s individual identity. In the terms of László Szilási’s ‘Brief History of the Colophon before 1650’, the colophon is ‘referential’: it refers the listener to the real person standing before them, lute in hand, expecting applause (Szilási 2008: 87).

[19]  The development of the colophon seems to have happened quite quickly. They start to appear in the mid-sixteenth century, and Lóránt Czigány notes that it was now that ‘the históriás ének gained wide popularity’, and that ‘The itinerant singers who performed them’, unlike earlier singer-composers in an oral tradition, ‘had almost always written down their compositions, which frequently survived in print’ (Czigány 1986: 40–41). These men wanted to be known for who they were, and this is why they ‘signed’ their compositions with a colophon. So, when the great poet of the históriás ének, Sebestyén Tinódi (?1510-1556), published his Krónika (‘Chronicle’) in 1554, ‘the colophons already shine in their full (referential) glory’ (Szilási 2008: 87). Nor were these colophons restricted to heroic poetry, for even a humorous drinking-song could be so dignified. An amusing example of this function is the coda of Tinódi’s own ‘Sokféle Részögökről’ (‘Many kinds of drunkards’): ‘The one who composed this, Sebestyén by name, did so in thirst, in Nyírbátor, fifteen hundred and forty-eight; if the stewards do not provide wine, then they are cursed!’ (also translated by Snodgrass in Klaniczay (1983: 108-11)).

[20]  As the century progressed, the colophon started to appear at the end of poems which, though still énekek, and thus ‘songs’, were probably designed to be read rather than sung and heard. In other words, the original function of the colophon was lost, but its form survived in poem after poem after poem. Clearly, the colophon was very much ‘fit for purpose’; but the function it fulfilled was very different. A process of exaptation has taken place.

[21]  Szilási does not comment on Balassi’s colophons in his ‘Brief History’, but his remarks on Balassi’s experiments with the záróstrófa, or ‘closing stanza’, are still very relevant to our present topic. Szilási argues that Balassi’s great innovation was to move away from the traditional ‘referentiality’ of the colophon, by means of which the poet established his historical identity and the extra-literary facts of the poem’s composition, and towards a more sophisticated ‘fictionality’, in which the relationship between the closing stanza and the rest of the poem, and particular the ‘I’ — or én — of each part — is rich and complex.

[22]  Originally, the ‘I’ was referential in order that the singer’s name might be known and thus advertised. But other details were no less essential in this respect: the where and when — Tinódi’s Nyírbátor and 1548. They provide a kind of authentication of the poet’s claim to authorship. Then, later, these circumstantial details came to be just as important in their own right, especially when the need for self-advertisement was no longer so pressing. In the terms of Francis Cairns’s invaluable study of Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry (1972), there was a shift in the order of ‘primary elements’ — those which are pretty much essential to the ‘form’ of the genre — and ‘secondary topics’, which are more optional (Cairns 1972: 6).

[23]  This shift soon gave rise to a host of variations. So, for example, Péter Ilosvai’s famous Toldi Miklós históriája [The story of Miklós Toldi] simply gives the year — ‘fifteen-hundred and seventy-four’ — without the place (II. 252); whereas the anonymous author of the Rusztán császár históriája [The story of the emperor Rustanus] (c. 1570) simply tells us that he wrote the poem ‘in a village by the river Dráva’ (II. 184). But the omission of the year is very rare; and usually some indication of both time and place is given, as, for example, in a poem that Balassi must have know quite well: the Calvinist preacher Péter Bornemisza’s ‘Isten városárol, az mennyországról való ének’ [A song about the city of God, in the country of heaven]. The poem ends: ‘It was in fifteen-hundred and sixty-seven that Péter Bornemisza wrote this in the castle of Zólyom’ (I. 765). Balassi’s father, János, was the captain of Zólyom, and Bornemisza acted as his son’s tutor during the mid-1560s.

[24]  These colophons follow a basic model, then, but they are supplied with other details in line with a well-established set of topics which never seem to have acquired primary status. Examples of the topoi of the colophon might include the prayer or other reflection of a pious or moral character which is frequently incorporated into the colophon, as in Gáspár Veres of Szeged’s széphistória (‘pleasant story’): Titus és Gisippus históriája (‘The story of Titus and Gysippus’): ‘I wrote down this little story in verse in Dés, by the side of the river Szamos, in the year fifteen-hundred and seventy-four. May God direct our actions!’ (II. 580). Common, too, is the hint that the poet’s identity is revealed in an acrostic at the start of the poem, as in Gergely Szegedi’s ‘Micsodás az fesvény ember’ (‘The marvellously avaricious man’): ‘Somebody wrote this song in Debrecen; he put his name at the head of the stanzas; in fifty-five it pleased him to write about avarice’ (I. 703).

[25]  Most significantly, the acrostic topos points to an important long-term development in the form of the colophon, as poets started to write them to be read as well as — or instead of — to be heard. Acrostics can only work with texts which are written down and where the letters which spell out the name can actually be seen. And in the case of short poems written or printed on a sheet of paper, the original function of the coda as a mark of conclusion must have been redundant. But poets continued to use the traditional year-and-place colophon well into the seventeenth century — as a purely optional and largely ornamental topos of the poem as a whole.

[26]  The process of exaptation was well under way when Balassi started writing in the 1570s, then, and his own colophons are very much in this new ‘tradition’. Seven of the sixty-six poems of the main sequence of the Balassi codex have colophons. Poem 27 (‘Az én szerelmesen’) concludes: ‘At the end of fifteen-hundred and seventy-eight, when my beloved was in doubt about me, I put this all together thus; you will find her name at the head of the verses’ (70). Here is the topos which guides the reader to a name concealed in an acrostic — but it is the beloved’s name and not, as is more usual, the poet’s. The poem is, in fact, headed: ‘On the name of Anna’; and the woman in question is Anna Losonczi, the wife of the captain of Eger, where Balassi was in military service. There is another topos here, too: ‘recapitulation’. The colophon restates the main theme of the poem in much the same way as the main title: ‘In which he writes of how his beloved was angry and suspicious without reason’. But we also notice that there is no place mentioned in this stanza.

[27]  Balassi’s later colophons are more complete — and more complex — than his earlier attempts. In most of them, he elaborates on the mention of time by not only stating the year of composition, but also the time of year, sometimes the very day, by means of reference to the Christian calendar of feasts and fasts. Poem 59 (‘Szerelem istene’) contains an acrostic ‘on the name of Zsófi’; and it ends thus: ‘When the glowing beetle comes in the month of St John, in the middle of summer, then, offering up my soul as a sacrifice to a sweet maid, I wrote this in verse, in fifteen-hundred and eighty-nine’ (145). Here the poem is dated to June 1589, then, but note the new topos: ‘circumlocution’. The ‘glowing beetle’ (fényes bogár) of this poem is the szentjánosbogár, or ‘glow-worm’, literally ‘St John’s beetle’. The title of poem 62 (‘Vitézek karjokkal’) tells us it is about ‘a maid called Margareta’. It ends: ‘The day after St Lawrence’s Day, in fifteen-hundred and eighty-nine, whilst living like a hermit at the foot of snowy mountains, I wrote in verse of her who is like an ermine, and whose name means the beautiful pearl in the language of wisdom and learning’ (153). Here we have a simile drawn from natural history: the word for ‘ermine’ is hölgy, which also means ‘lady’. The allusion to the pearl might also be included as an example of this topos, but it may also constitute a further topos: ‘etymology’. The name ‘Margareta’ does indeed derive from the Latin margarita or Greek margaritēs, both meaning ‘pearl’.

[28]  Let us return to the coda of ‘Széllyel tündökleni’: ‘Marullus the poet wrote this in Latin, and see, I, for my part, have translated it into Hungarian, beside my good horse, whilst I was on the grass, when I lived merrily with my brave men, taking leave of my sorrows’. And to Gerézdi’s comment on it: ‘This astonishing and magnificent conclusion develops the colophon of the Hungarian poetics of song into the coda of an artist’. Balassi’s coda (or záróstrófa) is not a colophon of the old kind, for it does not give the year of composition, nor name the town or river or wherever it was composed. This, of course, has not stopped Balassi scholars from trying to locate the ‘scene’ of the poem in historical time and space. ‘Perhaps he wrote it in May 1584’ (Szentmártoni Szabo 2004: 46). If so, then he may have written it near Végles, where he was stationed at the time (Kőszeghy 2004: 33). But the scene is more likely to be fictional rather than referential: an idyll, or ‘little image’ (Greek: eidullion, ‘little picture’).

[29]  Balassi is experimenting here as elsewhere with his closing stanza. We have the three primary elements of the old referential colophon: person, time, place — but all ‘anonymised’. He could have written (say): ‘Bálint Balassi composed this, in the spring of fifteen hundred and eighty-four, at Végles, with his horse at his side, and his men all around him’. But he methodically suppresses all the names, leaving us with the structure of the colophon perfectly intact, but emptied of its usual referential content and filled instead with an extremely compelling fiction. In fact, it may be that is precisely because he does not name names that the coda is so ‘astonishing and magnificent’. The anonymity allows the reader to ‘identify’ much more easily with the subject of the poem. Here is István Nemeskürty:

We could hardly invent anything more beautiful even today. The former warrior of the border castle, in springtime, lets his horse loose on the fresh grass — let him enjoy the tastes of spring after the dry hay-bales of winter! His brave men gallop here and there, whilst he, leaning his back against the trunk of a tree, reads Marullus, and, his fancy caught, turns it into Hungarian there and then. (Nemeskürty 1978: 97)

Nemeskürty was entranced by the coda, just like Gerézdi. And there is something fresh and arresting — almost exciting — about the idyll he either reports, or, more likely invents. In the final section of this essay, I shall try to relate this phenomenon to an ‘evolutionary’ description of the Hungarian Renaissance.

III. Balassi and the ‘moment’ of the Hungarian Renaissance
[30]  One reason why Gerézdi and Nemeskürty are so impressed by the coda of ‘Széllyel tündökleni’ is, I suspect, the fact that they are Hungarian scholars writing at a time — 1964 and 1978 — when Hungary was not a politically independent country. National sovereignty was, of course, seriously compromised by Hungary’s position vis à vis the Soviet Union (confirmed in a complicated way by the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956). It is easy to see how quietly nationalist sentiments might lie behind the warmth of their appreciation, not so much of the beauty of Balassi’s landscape painting in the coda, as of his proud assertion of his ‘Hungarianness’. He writes: ‘Marullus the poet wrote this in Latin (deákul), and see, I, for my part (ím, én penig), have translated it into Hungarian (magyarul)’.

[31]  On the pan-European level, however, what is important is that Balassi is setting up his own national vernacular as a language which can be used as a vehicle not only of literary imitatio but also aemulatio for works written in the koinē of pan-European culture: Latin or neo-Latin. This situates him at a particular ‘moment’ in the history of the Renaissance which is very similar to situations in other national contexts. So, for example, a year or two earlier, in a letter published in 1580, the English scholar, Gabriel Harvey, complains of experiments in the new ‘quantitative’ metres which ignore native English accent and try to impose the neo-classical prosody of short and long syllables (Harvey 1912: 631). Balassi is not so impatient, but he is motivated by the same sense of the aesthetic independence of national-vernacular poetry and poetics.

[32]  This point is worth emphasising in the light of the standard account of the Hungarian Renaissance, at least, for English-language students, elaborated over several decades by the Hungarian scholar, Tibor Klaniczay. For Klaniczay, the Hungarian Renaissance begins in the mid- and late fifteenth century, and is then interrupted by the catastrophe of the battle of Mohács in 1526, when the Ottoman army defeated the Habsburgs and occupied most of Hungary. Then, round about 1570, the political situation relaxed somewhat, and there was what Klaniczay calls ‘the renaissance of the Hungarian Renaissance’ (Klaniczay 1992: 174–75). So there is, as it were, one ‘Renaissance’ — with a capital R — but two ‘renaissances’ — with a small r. Balassi belongs to the second renaissance, and to what Klaniczay designates as the ‘heyday of the aristocratic-courtly renaissance’ from 1570 to 1600 (Klaniczay 1973: 164).

[33]  For Klaniczay, what allows us to think of these two shorter renaissances as constituting one long Renaissance is their shared emphasis on the exemplarity of Italian culture. What is different about the two periods, or sub-periods, is that Hungarian writers and readers in the late fifteenth century were interested in neo-Latin literature, and those in the late sixteenth century were concerned with vernacular literature; and Klaniczay is able to marshal an impressive list of Hungarian noblemen whose libraries contained works by writers such as Bembo, Ariosto, Dante, and Tasso (Klaniczay 1973: 204). But Balassi, it seems to me, was not particularly attracted to Italian literature, and Italian is only one of the many languages from which Balassi translated. His literary culture was, in fact, extraordinarily cosmopolitan: ‘in addition to his native Hungarian he was proficient in eight languages: Latin, Italian, German, Polish, Turkish, Slovak, Croatian and Rumanian’ (Nemeskürty 1983: 64). Latin — more precisely: neo-Latin — was perhaps his favourite. He translated Buchanan and Beza, and also translated neo-Latin prose. For example, in the early 1590s he made a Hungarian version of Edmund Campion’s Decem rationes (1581), which was published posthumously in 1607.

[34]  More needs to be said here with regards to Italian literature, however, since Balassi is regularly claimed as a Petrarchist. Yet he may actually have never read Petrarch. György Szőnyi, who has written an illuminating comparison between the Petrarchism of Balassi and that of Sir Philip Sidney, notes Balassi’s direct debt to Marullus’s poems, and to works by one or two other poets — but not to Petrarch’s Canzoniere (Szőnyi 1990: 64). It is more a question of Balassi’s response to a certain pan-European phenomenon. Then as now, this style was associated with the name of Petrarch, but it was already more of a ‘style’ than a ‘brand’. Likewise, Imre Szabics has demonstrated an extraordinary similarity between Balassi’s lyrics and the poetry of the troubadours, but he concludes that there is no direct link between Balassi and these twelfth-century poets, only an ‘ontological and typological affinity’, mediated by other writers and traditions, notably, as it happens, pan-European Petrarchism (Szabics 1996).[3]

[35]  Balassi translated a play from the Italian, too, but he calls it a Szép magyar komédia, or (in the diction of his Elizabethan contemporaries) ‘A Pleasant Hungarian Comedy’. Nor does he acknowledge his debt to the Amarilli of Cristoforo Castalletti, who is himself hardly a ‘classic’ of cinquecento literature. Amarilli was published in 1587, two years before Balassi wrote his play, and he seems simply to have liked it, or even merely seen its ‘usefulness’ as a plot which could fit his own tangled amatory situation. It is not a hommage, then, to Castaletti or to the Italians. Rather it may reflect the other side of the cultural dynamic of the pan-European Renaissance: imitatio produces aemulatio — the desire to be ‘like’ the model gives way to a desire to be ‘as good as’ or even ‘better than’ the model. Balassi explains in the prologue that the Italians, French, and Germans all write love-comedies: ‘So I too desired to enrich the Hungarian language with this Comedy, so that all may realize that what can exist in other languages can also exist in Hungarian’ (Balassi 1985: 185). The national-vernacular motivation is strong here, too.

[36]  Balassi’s assertion of his own status as a Hungarian poet, then, squaring up to the neo-Latin poet Marullus, occurs at a specific ‘moment’ in the history of the Hungarian Renaissance, but also in the pan-European Renaissance. It is when poets emphasise the equal status of their own vernaculars and the neo-Latin koinē. But in the case of the coda to ‘Széllyel tündökleni’, it might be argued that this moment is more intense, since, in all of his many translations, this is the only occasion on which Balassi mentions the name of his source. It is as if he is consciously positioning himself for ‘entry’ into the pan-European literary arena. The coda stages his own ‘emergence’, then, onto the literary scene of late sixteenth-century Europe — and this leads to my concluding observation on the use of an evolutionary model for the historical analysis of generic development.


[37]  We started with Moretti’s application to literary history of Gould and Eldredge’s idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’: long periods where nothing much happens, then short bursts of rapid change (cf. Moretti 1997: 268). But there is also a ‘moment’ where the rapid change starts to happen — a moment of acceleration. Such moments are not hard to detect, because contemporaries comment positively on the innovation or negatively on newfangledness. In some ways, the moment of acceleration is actually easier to identify than the periods of slow or rapid change, for what metric are we to use to calculate the relative rate at which this change occurs? But we may still point to the remarkable extent of experimentation in the lyric genres in the second half of the sixteenth century in Hungary as evidence of the sort of compressed novelty that marks one of these moments of acceleration. And this is surely what we mean by ‘renaissance’ when we do not use the term to describe the ‘rebirth’ of some earlier literary culture, but, rather, as the ‘birth’ of something new that was not there before. To return to the English Renaissance, C. S. Lewis, famously reluctant to use the word Renaissance in his influential study of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954), writes thus of the moment, in the late 1570s, where ‘Golden’ takes over from ‘Drab’: ‘Then, in the last quarter of the century, the unpredictable happens. With startling suddenness we ascend’ (Lewis 1954: 1). Unpredictable, startling, sudden: this is a description of a moment of ‘rapid transition’ as it is felt not only by men and women in Elizabethan England, but also by the modern critic.

[38]  Gerézdi and Nemeskürty respond as they do to the coda of Balassi’s ‘Széllyel tündökleni’ not simply because they are Hungarian, then, but because they recognise what it there for all to see: the moment where Balassi suddenly ‘appears’ in the history of pan-European Renaissance literature, in an idyllic scene of his own devising which presents an image of himself as the Hungarian soldier-poet. This image emerges from the swirl of experimentation with codas and colophons, and remains a sort of icon, serenely resistant to the turbulent flood of change.

Newcastle University


[1] My thanks to Anita Werkner for sending me invaluable research materials from Budapest and for checking my translations from Hungarian.[back to text]

[2] All quotations from Balassi refer by page to (Balassi1986); all quotations from other Hungarian poets refer by volume and page to (Varjas 1979). All translations from Hungarian and Latin are my own. References will also be provided to alternative translations when these are available.[back to text]

[3] Szabics’s essay has a useful French summary, from which I quote here.[back to text]


Balassi, Bálint. 1985. ‘A Pleasing Hungarian Comedy: Prologue’, trans. by G. F. Cushing, in Klaniczay (1985), 184–86

                  . 1986. Gyarmati Balassi Bálint Énekei [The songs of Bálint Balassi of Gyarmat], ed. by Péter Kőszeghy and Géza Szabó (Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó)

Cairns, Francis. 1972. Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Czigány, Lóránt. 1986. The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Present (Oxford: Clarendon)

Gerézdi, Rabán. 1964. ‘Balassi Bálint’, in A magyar irodalom története a kezdetektől 1600-ig [The history of Hungarian literature from its origins to 1600], ed. by Tibor Klaniczay (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó), via Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár (MEK) [accessed April 2011]

Gömöri, George. 1991. ‘Sir Philip Sidney’s Hungarian and Polish Connections’, Oxford Slavonic Papers 2: 23–33

Gould, Stephen Jay and Elizabeth S. Vrba. 1982. ‘Exaptation — a missing term in the science of form’, Paleobiology 8: 4–15

Harvey, Gabriel. 1912. ‘A Gallant Familiar Letter’ (1580), in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. by J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press), 623–32

Kidwell, Carol. 1989. Marullus: Soldier Poet of the Renaissance (London: Duckworth)

Klaniczay, Tibor. 1973. A múlt nagy korszakai [The great periods of the past] (Budapest: Szépirodalmi könyvkiadó)

              , (ed.). 1983. A History of Hungarian Literature, trans. by István Farkas and others (Budapest: Corvina)

              , (ed.). 1985. Old Hungarian Reader: 11th18th Centuries, trans. by Keith Bosley and others (Budapest: Corvina)

              , 1992. ‘Hungary’, in The Renaissance in National Context, ed. by Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 164-79

Kőszeghy, Péter. 2004. ‘Balassi Bálint élete’ [The life of Bálint Balassi], in Balassi Bálint és kora (Budapest: Balassi Kiadó), 7–42

Lewis, C. S. 1954. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Clarendon)

Moretti, Franco. 1997. ‘On Literary Evolution’, in Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (1983; 2nd ed. London: Verso), 262–78

Nemeskürty, István. 1978. Balassi Bálint (Budapest: Gondolat)

              . 1983. ‘Renaissance Literature’, in Klaniczay 1983: 37–78

Pincombe, Mike. 2007. ‘Life and Death on the Habsburg-Ottoman Border: Bálint Balassi’s “In Laudem Confiniorum” and Other Soldier Poems’, in Travellers and Borders in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Tom Betteridge (Aldershot: Ashgate), 73–86

Sidney, Philip. 1973. An Apology for Poetry, ed. by Geoffrey Shepherd (1965; Manchester: Manchester UP)

Szabics, Imre. 1996. ‘A trubadúrlíra és Balasssi Bálint szerelmi költészete’ [Troubador lyric and Bálin Balassi’s love-poetry], Irodalomtörténeti Közlemények 99: 543–81, (MEK) [accessed April 2011]

Szentmártoni Szabó, Géza. 2004. ‘Balassi Bálint poézisáról’ [On the poetics of Bálint Balassi], in Balassi Bálint és kora [Bálint Balassi and his time], (Budapest: Balassi Kiadó), 43–64

Szilási, László. 2008. A sas és az apró madarak: Balassi Bálint költoi nyelvének utóélete a XVII. század első harmadában [The eagle and the little birds: The afterlife of Bálint Balassi’s poetic language in the first third of the seventeenth century] (Budapest: Balassi Kiadó)

Szőnyi, György Endre. 1990. ‘Self-Representation in Petrarchism: Varieties in England (Sidney) and Hungary (Balassi)’, New Comparison 9: 60–72

Tóth, Tünde. 1998. Balassi Bálint és a neolatin szerelmi költészet [Bálint Balassi and neo-Latin love-poetry], PhD thesis (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia and Eötvös Lóránd Tudományos Egyetem), published on-line via Gépeskönyv On-Line Critical Editions [accessed April 2011]

Varjas, Béla (ed.). 1979. Balassi Bálint és a 16. század költői [Bálin Balassi and the poets of the sixteenth cventury], 2 vols (Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó)

Uncanny Re/flections: Seeing Spectres in Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar

Uncanny Re/flections: Seeing Spectres in Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar

Catherine Stevens

Is this a dagger, which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind

(Shakespeare, Macbeth  2.1.34–9)

[1]  When Macbeth reaches towards the invisible dagger hovering before him, he clutches not only at a vision of his murder weapon, but at one of the problems underpinning the spectre’s entry into the visual realm. How is one to understand sensory information that is riven with contradiction? Forced to reconcile the visible appearance of the floating knife with his understanding of plausible daggerly behaviour, Macbeth rapidly persuades himself, ‘There’s no such thing, / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes’ (1998: 2.1.48–50). In this he is correct, insofar as the dagger does not appear to exist in the material plane outside of his perception. This does not resolve the problem, however, of what it is he sees.  Lady Macbeth protests that it is an ‘air-drawn dagger’ that ‘would well become / A woman’s story at a winter’s fire’ – a popular reading of the matter, although a prejudiced one given her fear that Macbeth’s visions may sabotage her own ambitions (1998: 3.4.62–5). Typically, the play’s critics have concurred with her, presuming that the dagger is an illusion that Macbeth must overcome. For instance, Nicholas Brooke comments in his introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition that ‘even Macbeth knows it is not there,’ while in Shakespeare and Cognition, Arthur Kinney describes the dagger as a ‘self-acknowledged […] hallucination’ (Brook 1998: 4; Kinney 2006: 78). Macbeth’s response is considerably more clouded than such readings suggest though: his speculation that it might be a ‘false creation / Proceeding from the heat–oppressèd brain,’ is only one of several questions in which he endeavours to reconcile the evidence of his eyes with the conflicting evidence of his other senses (Shakespeare 1998: 2.1.39–40). Despite his best efforts, the vision persists — he subsequently complains, ‘I see thee still; / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before’ (1998: 2.1.46–8). It is only at this point that he attempts to regain control over his vision and asserts, somewhat unconvincingly, ‘There’s no such thing’ (1998: 2.1.48). It seems more accurate, therefore, to suggest that Macbeth’s only means to restore his courage is to persuade himself that there is no such thing, than to argue that he is wholeheartedly certain of it.

[2]  The complexity and indeterminacy of Macbeth’s vision only becomes apparent when we begin to consider how early modern understandings of sensory perception inform and intersect with interpretations of the supernatural. While the bloody dagger lacks a tangible form, its perceived presence denotes a slippage between material ‘reality’ and the perception of that reality through the mechanism of vision: a problem that is particularly evident within early modern debates concerning the nature of apparitions. The dagger scene in Macbeth exemplifies a wider trend within the theatre — seized upon by Shakespeare, in particular — to exploit tensions and instabilities within theological, philosophical, and popular constructions of the ghost and associated visual phenomena. In Reformation England, the figure of the ghost had become a focal point for tensions between Protestant and Catholic accounts of the afterlife. In the medieval period, the interpretation of ghosts as spirits of the dead had been theologically plausible, with the concept of purgatory providing a staging point from which the dead might return. Such interpretations were effectively ruled invalid when the Church of England dispensed with purgatory in the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign; broadly speaking, the ghost had no logical home within the terms of the Protestant afterlife. In practice, however, both popular beliefs and theological perspectives remained diverse, and the figure of the ghost became less stable as it grew in significance.[1] As Stuart Clark points out, this meant that the ghost’s ‘identification as visual phenomena’ became increasingly insecure (2003: 149). If the ability to identify the true nature of ghosts was crucial in determining questions of theological allegiance and therefore spiritual salvation, the interpretation of ghost sightings was all the more hazardous for it.

[3]  As the multitude of ghosts within Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre suggests, the problem of how to read the figure of the ghost was offering outstanding dramatic fodder.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar, for in these plays Shakespeare’s treatment of the apparition problematises the nature of vision in such a way as to subvert radically the subject’s ability to comprehend the world accurately through the mechanism of the gaze. Each of the ghosts in these works refuses any clarification of the terms under which it appears, unsettling distinctions between reality and illusion, or the inner world of the subject and the objects that he perceives. The ghost becomes genuinely spectral, emerging within, between, and beyond the structures of visual perception and knowledge: and it invites us to look more closely, not just at the dead, but at the living, and the uncertain relation between the inner and outer worlds that they inhabit.

The Problem with Seeing Things
[4]  The wider discursive context into which Shakespeare’s ghosts enter is one in which theologians and demonologists alike were addressing the figure of the ghost through ‘a common epistemology of the visual sense and its deceptions’ (Clark 2003: 147). This was by no means a new approach, although conceptions of vision were continuing to evolve; philosophers ranging from Aristotle and Plato to Saint Thomas Aquinas had prioritised the sight as a crucial sense in shaping knowledge, while implicitly problematizing the variable means by which specific visions are generated. Aquinas’s work was particularly significant, for he had suggested that visual perception might sometimes occur in response to stimulation of the imagination instead of an ‘external sensible object’ (Aquinas 1951: 227). He thereby evoked the possibility of slippage between the registering of images with an external origin and those that were produced purely imaginatively, as well as providing a rationale for the corruption of visual perception even where the physical sense was intact. For early modern scholars, such difficulties were crucial in the debate over how to read the figure of the ghost. The Protestant theologian Ludwig Lavater exemplifies this in his seminal tract Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght, in which he seizes upon pre-established problems in the relationship between vision and perception as a means to dissuade the reader from any form of belief in ghosts.[2] Drawing upon notions stemming back to Aristotle and even earlier, Lavater suggests that the susceptible include those who ‘are timorous,’ ‘drinke wine immoderately,’ are ‘Madde,’ ‘melancholic,’ or ‘weake of sight,’ and those, in particular, whose ‘feare and weaknesse of the syghte and of other sens[e]s méete togyther’. In every instance, he suggests, ‘the outward eyes […] can easily darken and dazell the inwarde sight of the mynde’ (Lavater 1572: 17, 13, 9, 16, 19, 141). It is not only the inner state that renders vision deceptive, however. For Lavater, there is also the ever-present possibility that fraudulent characters (typically priests and monks) may disguise themselves as apparitions to indoctrinate or defraud the gullible. At the other end of the spectrum, apparitions may be of a genuinely spiritual nature, whether good or evil. They may be divine visions, summoned by God to ‘stir men up from idlenesse and bring them to true repentaunce,’ ‘good Angels’ or spirits sent from God to help, or demonic spirits attempting to endanger the soul (Lavater 1572: 17, 159, 163).[3] (Such ideas have a firm place within the popular imagination.  Shakespeare draws upon precisely this when he has Hamlet worry that the devil may have taken on the shape of the ghost ‘Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits’ (2006: 2.5.536–37).)

[5]  Nevertheless, Lavater still suggests that ghosts are not always illusions, even where they cannot be accorded a spiritual source. The fact that an object is not haptically or epistemologically present in the material world — that its existence cannot be verified by touch or by existing categories of knowledge — does not automatically prohibit it from another, equally legitimate form of existence. Drawing on an assortment of classical, folk, and Christian narratives, Lavater provides numerous accounts in which supernatural phenomena appear to ‘men of good corage, and such as have bin perfectly in their wits’ (1572: 88). This often occurs before a violent event: for example, when ‘great stirrings or noises’ and ‘stra[n]ge things’ occur before upheavals within a nation. Visual phenomena include ‘swords, speares, and suche like’ that are sighted ‘in the aire’ and ‘Gunnes, launces and halberdes, with other kindes of weapons and artillerie’ that ‘move of their owne accord as they lye in the armories’ (1572: 77, 81). Considered in the context of such beliefs, Macbeth’s dagger clearly occupies a place that extends, at least potentially, beyond the sphere of pure hallucination. Since it is not only Macbeth who sees and hears supernatural phenomena — other characters also witness ‘Lamentings heard i’th’ air, strange screams of death,’ cannibalistic horses, and the turning of daytime to ‘darkness […] When living light should kiss it’ — Macbeth’s vision cannot be attributed to imagination alone (Shakespeare 1998: 2.3.57, 2.4.9–10). Instead, it exposes the problem of vision as a sense that disallows separation between interior and exterior ‘realities’ and draws us into the uncanny, the strange ‘commingling of the familiar and the unfamiliar’ that disrupts our sense of what is possible or ‘proper’ (Royle 2003: 1). What Macbeth sees cannot be trusted or verified, but nor can it be explained or dismissed. Seeing is not believing, but when faced with a spectre, neither is it meaningless nor even necessarily misleading.

[6]  Macbeth therefore enacts one of Lavater’s central concerns, that vision is hazardous in its ability to impart certainty.[4] In this opinion, Lavater is inadvertently endorsed by the French Catholic  writer Pierre Le Loyer, whose text A Treatise of Specters functions as a rebuttal of Lavater’s work.[5] In an attempt to provide a basis for legitimizing the ghost, Le Loyer addresses much more extensively the problems of vision as a means of measuring the nature and veracity of visual phenomena. He endeavours to taxonomize the nature of visual perceptions, producing a series of categorizations designed to guide spiritual understanding of such matters. It is a fraught endeavour and his categorizations are riven with inconsistencies and ambiguities. To begin with, Le Loyer outlines five forms of vision. He first identifies three types of vision within Saint Augustine’s teachings: physical vision, ‘which is done by the eyes of the body’; ‘Imagination,’ which occurs through ‘some divine and heavenly inspiration’; and ‘Intellectuall’ vision, which ‘is done onely in the understanding’. In addition, he adds two categories of his own — dream visions that occur during sleep or in a state ‘betweene sleeping and waking’ and spiritual visions produced through a direct encounter with God (as in the case of Moses) (Le Loyer 1605: Sig. [B2v]). Le Loyer then adds the category of ‘the Fantasie, which is […] an Imagination and impression of the Soule, of such formes and shapes as are knowne’ or that are ‘imagined’ or constructed based on information from others (1605: Sig. [B2v]). Later, he further complicates his taxonomy in order to address the potential falsity of vision, asserting that there are in fact ‘two sortes of Imagination, namely, one Intellectuall, and without corporall substance: The other sensible and corporall’ (1605: B3[r]). The latter raises the possibility of illusion, but also the supernatural. Relying upon sensory information rather than reason, this type of vision is either ‘false’ and arises from ‘the imaginative power corrupted’ or ‘the senses hurt and altred: or else it is true; and then it is that which we call a Specter’ (1605: Sig. B4[r]).[6]

[7]  Le Loyer’s framework functions as a means of navigating through the problems of aligning sensory information with received understandings to facilitate accurate classification of an apparition. The distinctions appear crucial in understanding and distinguishing between phenomenal experiences, thereby offering a kind of pseudo-scientific basis for Le Loyer’s wider argument against Lavater’s dismissal of ghosts. Physical sight is important here, but he spends substantially more time considering the mental construction of vision as the more complex and problematic mechanism. In Le Loyer’s view, whether a vision is generated through memory, imagination, or through a process of reception of information and subsequent intellectual construction, has no immediate bearing on the vision’s validity: it is more a methodological distinction than a register of veracity. Such distinctions are tenuous at best, though, and Le Loyer’s taxonomy collapses even in the process of its construction as he struggles to shore up the boundaries between the different categories. The complexity of the relationship between physical, intellectual, psychic, and spiritual forms of comprehension counteracts clear distinctions between the perceptions that they produce. In Le Loyer’s shifting schema of vision, Macbeth’s ‘dagger of the mind’ might equally belong to the categories of the Imagination or the Intellectual, and perhaps even to that of the dream state. It might be intellectually constructed and incorporeal, a corporeal vision arising from corrupted senses, or a corporeal vision that is a genuine manifestation of the supernatural. The complexity of the perceptual framework only magnifies the problem of measuring the nature or accuracy of a specific vision. As Clark observes, Le Loyer identifies ‘so many problems with what is supposed to be “the most excellent, lively, and active” sense’ that he ultimately renders it the least reliant of them all (2003: 153).

Re/flection and the spectre
[8]  Le Loyer’s strained attempts to distinguish between psychological, material, and spiritual elements in the production of vision may seem to hold little epistemological value. However, in exposing the lack of direct correlation between the material existence of an object and the perception of an object, his work suggests a crucial reciprocity in the relation between the two. The more Le Loyer accounts for the different catalysts for a vision, the more it seems that a perceived object is at least partly a product of the subject’s gaze. Like the dagger in Macbeth, Le Loyer’s schema is suggestive of the principle of flection at work within the visual process. The term ‘flection’ evolved across the seventeenth century to indicate, amongst other things, ‘a turning of the eye in any direction’ an ‘alteration, change, modification,’ and ‘bending’ or ‘curvature,’ (OED ‘flection,’ def. 1.d, 2, 1.a). The first two of these definitions are now obsolete, but if re-assimilated into the action of gazing, suggest that the bending of the eye towards the object of vision might also imply the potential for some kind of transformation therein. It disturbs the assumption that the act of looking provides the gazer with a true and accurate image of an exterior object and opens up the possibility that the flexures involved in directing the gaze and receiving an image in return may also generate warp. Worse still, they may expose discontinuities and maladjustment already present within the relation between the gazing subject and the object, thereby threatening, by extension, the relation between the subject and the wider external world.

[9]  This is why Macbeth’s vision of the dagger is often interpreted as a symptom of a greater disorder, whether by Lady Macbeth, who considers both the dagger and the subsequent sighting of Banquo’s ghost to be ‘the very painting of your fear,’ or by critics such as Kenneth Muir, who describes the vision as ‘clearly an hallucination’ (Shakespeare 1998: 3.4.61; Muir, 1981: 233). By invoking a psychological cause for what Macbeth sees, such readings suggest that vision may tell us more about the inner state of the subject than about the external world. More than that though, this reciprocity is indicative of a process of active reflection. Clark indicates that mirroring was strongly associated with the spectre in Renaissance Europe, to the point that the French scholar Jean Pena had ‘suggested that all apparitions and spectres could be attributed to the natural effects of mirrors’ (Clark 2003: 148). This claim, however, is curiously inscribed with the reverse reflection to that which it propounds: if mirroring calls the spectre into view, it is perhaps not always through deception within the light or the physical environment, but through another kind of ‘natural’ reflection, that of the gazing subject himself.

[10]  Here, we may think of the ‘visor effect’ that Derrida describes in Specters of Marx.  Derrida’s work in this text is, of course, concerned primarily with the hauntings of Marx and his legacy: but Derrida’s reading of Old Hamlet’s ghost as an instance of the spectral disturbance of historical, political, and indeed human boundaries has important implications for the spectre that is literalized through the form of the ghost. In particular, his conceptualization of the visor effect highlights the return of the gaze by the spectre and the disjuncture that characterises this event. In reference to Old Hamlet’s ghost, Derrida observes an effect in which ‘we do not see who looks at us.’ Rather, a ‘spectral someone other looks at us, we feel ourselves being looked at by it, outside of any synchrony, even before and beyond any look on our part, according to an absolute anteriority […] and asymmetry, according to an absolutely unmasterable disproportion’ (Derrida 2006: 6–7). The gaze is reversed but disrupted so that it prohibits a direct correlation between perception and knowledge. This is precisely the effect that the spectral dagger generates in Macbeth. To the extent that Macbeth looks at and perceives the dagger, the dagger anticipates him, exposing something (we are not sure what) about his inner state and his functioning within the world he is attempting to comprehend. If this seems an unusual observation to make about an inanimate object, it is because this is the one thing the dagger is not. Invisible to the watching audience, the dagger cannot be fixed as illusion or object but instead becomes the product and locus of a radical problematization of the nature of perception. In The Early Modern Corpse and Shakespeares Theatre, Zimmerman suggests that the dagger evokes ‘an eerie agency that is not included in the signified of its corporeal referent’ (the other dagger that Macbeth physically draws): ‘Macbeth reaches a breach between his two modes of seeing,’ (the evidence of his eyes and of his other senses), but in endeavouring to argue that ‘There’s no such thing’ he ‘locates the crux of his dilemma. There is no such thing as the imagined dagger, but it exists none the less in some frame of vision’ (Zimmerman 2007: 177). Its entry into his visual field is real and therefore problematizes the distinction between what is perceived and what is. The indeterminacy of the object shows that visual perception functions as a register of the perceiver as much as of the external world, but refuses a clear correlation between the two so that neither functions simply as a reflection of the other’s state.

[11]  In this respect, the dagger episode is a duplicate of the banquet scene in which Macbeth is the only one able to see Banquo’s ghost. The ghost’s appearance functions at once as the cause, reification, and reflection of his worsening psychological state. That Macbeth sees the ghost is indisputable: what it means that he sees the ghost is impossible to determine. Stephen Greenblatt claims that there are ‘two starkly conflicting possibilities: either the apparition is something real in the universe of the play — the spirit of the murdered Banquo […] or it is the hallucinatory production of Macbeth’s inward terror’ (2001: 190–91). However, the crux of the problem is that the play does not allow any polarisation of possibilities at all. Instead, it problematizes the nature of perception to the extent that almost any configuration of the relation between the watcher and the spectre is possible and therefore none can be settled upon.

[12]  One of the problems that Macbeth faces, of course, is that in both incidents he is alone in his perception of the spectre. This is a problem that faces Hamlet also; however, in Hamlet, the audience is presented with an additional complication as the ghost’s visibility to onlookers shifts. It has attracted much critical comment that Old Hamlet’s ghost, initially witnessed by Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio as well as Hamlet, is visible to Hamlet alone when it enters Gertrude’s closet. In response to Hamlet’s question as to whether she sees nothing, Gertrude replies: ‘Nothing at all, yet all that is I see’ (2006: 3.4.129). Greenblatt, who construes the ghost as one of Hamlet’s ‘memory traces,’ comments that ‘Gertrude sees and hears nothing or, rather, more devastatingly, she sees and hears what exists’ (2001: 225). Yet her failure to see the ghost cannot firmly signal anything of the sort, given the popular Elizabethan belief that ghosts are not always visible to everyone in their presence.[7] Scott Huelin argues more persuasively that the ghost may be the product of ‘Hamlet’s brain and yet […] not a hallucination, a manifest psychotic break.’ He points out that ‘one of the key experiences within meditative piety is […] the memorial phantasm, the image that appears before the mind’s eye unbidden yet prompted by sensory or intellectual stimuli’ (2005: 39). Huelin’s point usefully gestures towards a reciprocity between the image and the gazing subject. We can see this effect compounded by the stage direction that requires the ghost to appear onstage so that, whilst Gertrude cannot see the ghost, the audience can. With the ghost visibly present before our own eyes and audibly issuing Hamlet with instructions, we might as well question Gertrude’s powers of perception as those of Hamlet. The nature of the returned image is as dependent upon the position and inner state of the gazer as it is upon the object of perception.

[13]  Episodes such as this demonstrate that the relation of the spectre to the visual plane is a crucial element in its spectrality. This is not to suggest that a spectre is only a spectre if it is visible, but rather that the visible spectre’s function is not extraneous to its visibility: that is to say, its visibility is not coincidental to, or isolable from, that which renders it spectral. Of course, this is true generally because spectrality is not something that claims an independent or material existence in the first instance but instead takes up a position within and between the structures of human knowledge and therefore perception. But it is also to do with a more specific relation between the gazing subject and the apparition. The process of flection means that the gaze is often transformative — that the image returned in response to the gaze is not a register of the material ‘reality’ of the object but rather of the object in relation to the subject’s perception. It follows that the emergence of spectrality within the image is indicative of a specific kind of relation between what governs and generates perception (the inner ‘being’) and the apparition or object. In particular, it suggests that where the apparition enters the uncanny, where it becomes truly spectral, is in the process of reflection.

[14]  The spectre renders visible that which cannot or should not ordinarily be seen. This is not just the case in terms of the way in which it breaches our understanding of the material world of objects but, more specifically, in its capacity to expose visibly that which has no place within the visual realm and in so doing to render it uncanny. Freud expresses surprise (although not disagreement) at Schelling’s description of the uncanny as that which ‘ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’ (Freud 1955: 225). In terms of the spectre, though, this conception is particularly apposite: the word itself is contingent upon the notion of drawing forth and illuminating that which is not ordinarily subject to visibility. The OED’s definitions for the spectre include ‘an unreal object of thought; a phantasm of the brain,’ ‘an object or source of dread or terror, imagined as an apparition,’ and ‘an image or phantom produced by reflection or other natural cause,’ (OED ‘spectre,’ def. 1, 3). All three definitions are closely related. In having no identifiable locus within the physical realm — no objective, material presence — the spectre must be in some way a product of thought or imagination. Yet, if it is seen, the spectre is real, insofar as it is a genuine object of perception. In its incorporeality, it testifies to the existence of something that is disturbingly both perceptible and incomprehensible: it functions as a mirror for the gazing subject, returning the gaze of its audience in an act of re-flection.

[15]  Derrida’s outline of the spectre’s visibility is particularly helpful here:

the specter, as its name indicates, is the frequency of a certain visibility. But the visibility of the invisible. And visibility, by its essence, is not seen, which is why it remains epekeina tes ousias, beyond the phenomenon or beyond being. The specter is also, among other things, what one imagines, what one thinks one sees and which one projects — on an imaginary screen where there is nothing to see. Not even the screen sometimes, and a screen always has, at bottom, in the bottom or background that it is, a structure of disappearing apparition. But now one can no longer get any shut–eye, being so intent to watch out for the return […] The perspective has to be reversed, once again: ghost or revenant, sensuous-non-sensuous, visible-invisible, the specter first of all sees us. (2006: 125)

Derrida’s deployment of the term ‘frequency’ draws the usually auditory conception of the nature or pitch of a sensory experience into the visual arena, so that it invokes not only recurrence but also the idea that the visibility of the spectre occurs at a particular ‘wavelength’. It suggests that the spectre becomes visible at the point that specular conditions propel it into the requisite frequency, rather than functioning as a marker of some kind of ontological movement of the spectre entering into ‘being.’ At the same time, the spectre is that which occurs where vision exceeds being, arising in the absence of any known phenomena. It thereby destroys any fixed correlation between phenomenal existence and visual perception. It exposes the fact that what is seen (the object) and what is (the gazing subject) are neither unrelated nor systematically linked, but function within an interdependent and shifting relation with one another that troubles the very basis of comprehension. The act of looking does not return information about the outer world alone, but also an ungraspable reflection of the inner subject who gazes. The sense of the ‘disappearing apparition,’ the spectre that must always return and for which one must always watch, is that which paradoxically eludes the gaze and yet also returns it.

[16]  Thus, the relation between the subject and the spectre invokes and simultaneously disrupts the principles of reflection.  Of the definitions listed in the OED, the following are particularly significant here:

2.a. Chiefly Anat. and Med. The action of bending, turning, or folding back, recurvation; a state of being bent or folded back…

c. The action of turning back from a point; return, retrogression…

3.a. The action of a mirror or other smooth or polished surface in reflecting an image; the fact or phenomenon of an image being produced in this way…

b. An image produced by or seen in a reflective surface, esp. a person’s image in a mirror…

c. fig. and in extended use. A depiction or reproduction…an embodiment.

(OED, ‘reflection’)

In all of these conceptualizations, reflection is predicated upon the opposition of two terms, assuming an originary source and a secondary reflection. In the first two definitions, there is a non-specific return of an object that, in order to be ‘folded back’ or turned, relies upon the assumption of an originary movement that was in some sense straight or linear. In the following two, an independent object is duplicated as an image via the reflective surface of the mirror in a process that is specific to the act of perception: the eye of the subject gazing into the mirror is turned back towards itself, producing the simultaneous reversal of the gaze as well as a visual duplication of the original. This process is implicit also in the last definition, which, in referring to a secondary ‘reproduction’ or re-presentation, assumes the prior existence of an original. Taking these various manifestations together, reflection implies a recurrence or reversal, or a potential restoration of the seemingly originary state of flection. This process offers an enticing and duplicitous promise of truth, providing entry into a seemingly contained system of signification that promises to yield a one-to-one correlation between what is and what is reflected.

[17]  In functioning thus, the mirror appears to be a perfectly positioned, flat surface in which the source is reflected without distortion. However, this ideal is itself illusory, for the reflection is dependent upon the gaze, the positioning of the gazing subject in relation to the mirror, the variable process of perception, and the integrity of the mirror itself. The image returned is infinitely variable in accordance with these factors. Hence, the reflection may be duplicitous in two senses, in its production of a double and in its potential to dupe. This is evident in both Macbeth and Hamlet where the principal characters each encounter ghosts that seem to reflect their disordered states and to deceive them as to the reality of the worlds that they inhabit. It is most explicit, though, in Julius Caesar. When Cassius asks Brutus whether he can see his own face, Brutus responds in the negative: ‘No, Cassius; / For the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other things’ (2008: 1.2.52–53). Brutus appears to differentiate between self and reflection, suggesting that they are not synonymous. However, Cassius insists that Brutus merely needs to choose the proper mirror:

   since you know you cannot see your self
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to your self
That of yourself which you yet know not of.

(Shakespeare 2008: 1.2.67–70)

Colbert Kearney suggests that, in positioning himself as Brutus’s mirror, Cassius — who is ‘envious of Caesar’ — reflects a potentially matching envy in Brutus (1974: 145).We might add to this that Cassius has already inadvertently exposed the hidden danger of the mirror through his lament that Brutus has hitherto had ‘no such mirrors as will turn / Your hidden worthiness into your eye, / That you might see your shadow’ (Shakespeare 2008: 1.2.56–8).

[18]  By the late sixteenth century, the term ‘shadow’ had a whole host of significations, including ‘the dark figure’ produced on a surface when a body intercepts the light; something that is ‘fleeting or ephemeral’; something that has ‘an unreal appearance; a delusive semblance or image’; ‘a spectral form’ or ‘phantom,’ and ‘one that constantly accompanies or follows another like a shadow’ (OED ‘shadow,’ def. 4.a, 4.c, 6.a, 7, 8). It is worth noting that the first of these definitions includes the additional qualifier that the shadowy image of the ‘intercepting body’ may be ‘approximately exact or more or less distorted’: this quality is precisely what manifests itself within the instability of Cassius’s choice of word. Whilst Cassius insists that his accurate mirroring will expose Brutus’s ‘hidden worthiness’ to himself, his choice of language suggests a host of other qualities it may simultaneously reveal, foreshadowing the darkness and treachery that see Brutus betray and murder Caesar. This last signification of shadowing or following a person has particular resonance here, for Brutus can no more escape his role as Caesar’s follower after the murder than he could before. After the death, he is still forced to present himself to Antony as ‘I, that did love Caesar’; he must grant Caesar proper burial rites because ‘It shall advantage more than do us wrong’; he finds it necessary to follow Caesar’s ghost to Philippi (Shakespeare 2008: 3.1.181; 3.1.242). His political position, his understanding of his own behaviour, and his course of action remain dependent upon Caesar even in death.

[19]  The mirror, in this instance, exposes more than what the gazing subject wishes to see: but crucially, what it exposes is dependent upon the positioning of the gazing subject, for if Brutus’s ‘mirror’ exposes such darkness, its reflection fails to be received thus by Brutus himself. When Brutus subsequently encounters Caesar’s ghost, he might initially blame the vision upon ‘the weakness of mine eyes’, but the spectre clearly identifies itself as a more accurate reflection than that produced by Cassius (2008: 3.126):

Brutus.                                   Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That mak’st my blood cold, and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

Ghost.      Thy evil spirit, Brutus

(2008: 4.2.328–32)

Kearney identifies the last line of this passage as the ghost ‘identifying itself as Brutus’ evil spirit’. That is to say, it functions as a mirror in which Brutus recognises ‘the Caesar in himself’ (Kearney 1974: 150). For Kearney, this complicates the ‘hallucination’ to provide an ‘insight into Brutus’s own character’ as he ‘confront[s] the Caesar, the autocrat, in his own psyche.’ Brutus now becomes ‘doomed by such self-destructive knowledge’ and proceeds rapidly towards securing his own death (1974: 150). Thus, the spectre functions as both product and reflection of Brutus’s tarnished soul. I would argue, however, that this psychological effect is not separable or distinct from the implication that the ghost is also ‘Thy evil spirit’ because it is the spirit that has been rendered a ghost at Brutus’s hands. It is not only an outward, embodied projection of an inner state, but equally an outer phenomenon — visible, after all, to the audience as well as to Brutus — that troubles the distinction between the two. By turning the process of re/flection into one of mediation, it refuses the originary structures that would see Brutus’s inner being functioning as the source of both flection and reflection. Instead, it inscribes the image of each within the other, so that the ghostly image is as much generative of Brutus’s inner self as it is reflective of it. If ‘the specter first of all sees us,’ it does not do so in the sense that it somehow captures an originary or pre-existing interior state of existence, but rather turns the act of perception into a fleeting glimpse of the shifting relation between inner and outer constructions (Derrida 2006: 125).

[20]  It is important to acknowledge here that, although Shakespeare follows his historical source closely, his adaptation of his predecessor plays an essential part in heightening the uncanniness of the interaction between the two figures. Catherine Belsey notes that ‘the eeriness’ of Caesar’s ghost cannot simply be traced back to North’s English translation of Plutarch, from which Shakespeare draws. She points out that ‘in North’s version, as the lamp burns dim, a horrible figure is seen’ that terrifies Brutus, but once he realises it will not harm him, he moves to interrogate the ghost. As a result, ‘the fear and the question are divided’. However, Shakespeare instead draws the two ‘together, so that the fear is brought into being by the unknown’ — by Caesar’s inability to identify the apparition so that it ‘challenges the limits of mortal knowledge’ (Belsey 2010: 7). I would add that this effect is amplified as Shakespeare draws the ghost into a context that is specific to Elizabethan epistemology (and its limits). In North’s translation of ‘The Life of Brutus,’ Brutus asks the ghost whether he is ‘a god, or a man, and what cause brought him thither.’ The ghost then replies: ‘I am thy evill spirit, Brutus: and thou shalt see me by the citie of PHILIPPES’ (1579: 1072). The ghost appears when Brutus is awake, and disappears after he responds to its promise to appear in Philippi with the comment that he will see it there. The differences between Shakespeare’s and Plutarch’s versions are small, but significant. Shakespeare’s adaptation utilizes the language of Elizabethan demonology and theology so that Brutus expresses the typically Protestant polarization of spirits, modified according to its classical context: if it is ‘any thing,’ the ghost is either entirely good (‘some god, some angel’) or entirely evil (‘some devil’) — and yet we cannot be sure that it is ‘any thing’ at all. It therefore corrodes the ontological frameworks upon which Brutus draws as he attempts to comprehend the ghost’s presence. Despite his fear, Brutus is anxious to get more out of the ghost. After its announcement that he will see it at Philippi, he presses it further, asking ‘Well; then I shall see there again?’ Receiving an affirmative reply — ‘Ay, at Philippi — he then repeats the response described by Plutarch, ‘Why, I will see thee at Philippi then’ (Shakespeare 2008: 4.2.334–36). Shakespeare’s version of the scene thereby functions as a necessary narrative precursor to the meeting at Philippi, but the relation between the two figures becomes the crux of the encounter.

[21]  This reimagining of the ghost’s appearance enables the perfusion of the boundaries between ghost and man and gives Brutus’s ‘evil spirit’ a markedly unsettling effect.Caesar’s ghost renders visible that which Cassius’s mirror does not. It reflects something within that he cannot and does not wish to see. And if he cannot grasp what it is that stands before him, nor can he willingly dismiss it: ‘Now I have taken heart thou vanishest,’ he complains, ‘Ill Spirit, I would hold more talk with thee’ (Shakespeare 2008: 4.2.337–38). Brutus seeks to render the ghost static and conjure it away — to banish its spectral threat — by affixing its position and extracting information from it. Unsuccessful, he cannot leave the matter alone. Functioning precisely within Derrida’s outline of the relation between spectator and apparition, Brutus is literally unable to ‘get any shut-eye’ because he is ‘intent to watch out for the return’ (Derrida 2006: 125). Late though it is, he rushes out to wake Lucius, Varro, and Claudius to check as to whether they saw anything, as though obtaining a secondary account of the ghost might enable him to obtain the ghost’s return by proxy. Failing to achieve this, he resorts to calling for Cassius to agree to set out immediately for Philippi. But even at Philippi, his final moments remain haunted by the ghost’s reflection. Faced with imminent capture and contemplating suicide, Brutus reveals that ‘The ghost of Caesar hath appeared to me / Two several times by night’ so that ‘I know my hour is come’ (Shakespeare 2008: 5.5.17–20). The desire for a noble death is therefore permeated by the preceding justification in which the ghost’s presence functions as the principal determinant of death. Similarly, his subsequent claim that ‘My heart doth joy that yet in all my life / I found no man but he was true to me’ registers that the ghost’s existence is attributable to his own failure to provide precisely that loyalty to Caesar (2008: 5.5.34–5). With this in mind, his final words — ‘Caesar, now be still. / I killed not thee with half so good a will’ — speaks not only of his apparent embrace of his own death but also of the perpetuation of Caesar’s presence within his final act (2008: 5.5.51–2).Brutus may consciously believe that he is obtaining ‘glory by this losing day’ but that which Caesar’s ghost reflects — Brutus’s moral weakness, his disregard for human life, his inner darkness — is literalized through his physical self-destruction (2008: 5.5.36).

[22]  Here, reflection enters into psychoanalytic paradigms of the double’s place within the uncanny. The uncanny double replicates a familiar originary form in a way that denies the containment and unity of that form and thereby destabilizes its seeming independence. This destabilization begins within the revelation that what lies on one side of the imagined divide must be somehow be present within the other. In its most extreme forms, the double not only duplicates but even usurps the source, thereby dismantling the former hierarchy between the two (an event particularly popular within later forms of Gothic literature). For Freud, the double relation ‘is marked by the fact that the subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self’ (1955: 234). The persistent reflection of Caesar’s presence within Brutus’s inner life invokes this type of relation, aided in part by the absence of clarity as to the ontological status of Caesar’s ghost. Put simply, we cannot quite tell where or if a boundary exists between the inner world of Brutus and the apparition of Caesar; although nor can we conclude that they are identical or continuous. Something that should remain hidden has become visible within Caesar’s ghost and Brutus alike, but it is something that we cannot grasp, for at every turn it disappears as readily as the ghost itself.

Visibility and the returned gaze
[23]  It seems clear that Shakespeare’s ghosts haunt the individuals who most closely perceive them — that their haunting is contingent upon a certain engagement with the gazing subject. To be more precise, the ghost’s visibility and indeed its existence appears proportionate to the extent to which it anticipates, inhabits, and disrupts its audience’s understanding. A distinction (however unsettled) may be made between different levels of spectral visibility that are correlative to the degree to which the visor effect is at work. As Derrida’s focus upon Hamlet suggests, this is particularly clear within the contrasting experiences of Old Hamlet’s onlookers. In Hamlet,Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio all see Old Hamlet’s ghost and are transfixed by its appearance. They cannot dismiss it even after its departure and, although Horatio justifies his desire to advise Hamlet of the ghost’s appearance by claiming that it is ‘fitting our duty,’ his real motivation is to find a means to extract information from the ghost, and affix its meaning. If the ghost will not speak to them, he is certain that it will ‘speak to him,’ Hamlet (2006: 1.1.170–72). Yet Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio do not go mad or become obsessed by the ghost because, although the ghost sees them — it sees them fail to grasp or conceptualize its appearance, their inability to align their visual perception with their understanding of past and present — it does not see them in the same way that it sees Hamlet. It does not reflect back to them an interior disunity in the same way that it reflects this to Hamlet because Hamlet is the one whose inner state, familial relationships, and inheritance are inextricable from Old Hamlet’s death and who therefore enters a state of radical maladjustment in response to its return. Whilst the three original viewers are sufficiently disturbed by the ghost to anticipate its return and pursue an encounter through Hamlet that would ascribe it a meaning, it is for Hamlet that the ghost’s spectrality escalates into a full-scale corrosion of his ability to comprehend the structures of the world that he inhabits.

[24]  For Hamlet, though, there is a reward to be found in the presence of the spectre that runs counter to its threat. In response to Horatio’s report of the ghost, Hamlet proceeds to question him by running through a catalogue of the ghost’s physical attributes:

Ham.                                      Armed, say you?
Hor., Marc., Barn.               Armed, my lord.
Ham.                                      From top to toe?
Hor., Marc., Barn.               My lord, from head to foot.
Ham.                                      Then saw you not his face.
Hor.                                        O yes my lord, he wore his beaver up.
Ham.                                      What looked he – frowningly?
Hor.                                         A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.
Ham.                                       Pale, or red?
Hor.                                         Nay very pale.
Ham.                                       And fixed his eyes upon you?
Hor.                                         Most constantly.
Ham.                                       I would I had been there.

(Shakespeare 2006: 1.2.225–33)

Derrida comments that in the process of running through this list, it appears as though Hamlet ‘had been hoping that, beneath an armor that hides and protects from head to foot, the ghost would have shown neither his face, nor his look, nor therefore his identity’ (Derrida 2006: 8). However, I would argue that Hamlet’s desire to have been there to see the ghost himself, (reinforced by his declaration that he must lie in wait to see it himself), suggests otherwise. What Hamlet really seeks is for the ghost to fix its eyes upon him, even if ‘the helmet effect’ or ‘visor effect’ cannot be suspended. Hamlet rushes to see that which might expose to him the form of the father he has not yet finished mourning — however elusive it may be —and finds a clear but impenetrable connection between the independent existence of this spiritual entity and his melancholic attachment to his dead father.

[25]  When he finally meets the ghost, Hamlet immediately addresses the spectre to demand the meaning of its ‘questionable shape’ (Shakespeare 2006: 1.4.43). In so doing, what he finds is not his father, but a reflection that far exceeds the constraints of origin and secondary term. In this vision that reifies hidden truths, Hamlet sees the affirmation of his own dis-order — an affirmation that liberates him by endorsing his inability to accept his father’s death and simultaneously binds him to a quest that can only secure his demise. Immediately before hearing news of the ghost, he tells Horatio ‘methinks I see my father’ and, when questioned as to where, responds ‘In my mind’s eye’ (2006: 1.2.183–84). In his mind’s eye — he sees the figure in the imaginative field of vision that knits memory with visual perception, a form of vision that is most subject to distortion, deception or illusion. Yet somehow, prior to any event of physical sight, he accurately perceives the continued presence of the figure that is walking the night.

[26]  Spectrality in this sense extends far beyond the mere disturbance of the dead by the figure of the ghost: indeed, the spectre need not involve a ‘real’ ghost at all. If we turn once more to Macbeth, we can observe that its protagonist experiences a similarly disruptive encounter with the haunted reflection within the dumb show. William Engel suggests in Death and Drama in Renaissance England that dumb shows carry an association with ‘magical knowledge’ and the ‘occult arts,’ with the spectacle onstage holding ‘a mirror up to nature’ that helps to provide clarification in order to combat the deficiencies of sight. Thus, dumb shows ‘are like miniature mirrors within the larger mirror of the play,’ that also extend past ‘the contours of the main spectacle’ (Engel 2002: 42). In Macbeth, this effect extends to mirroring of the gaze along with its defects, exposing the disjuncture between what the audience sees and what it comprehends by turning spectacle into the spectral. In response to Macbeth’s question, ‘shall Banquo’s issue ever / Reign in this kingdom?’, the Weird Sisters respond with a silent procession of eight Scottish kings, tailed by the figure of the dead Banquo (Shakespeare 1998: 4.1.117–18). Although Macbeth finds the entire show unsettling because of the threat it signals to his ambitions, it is Banquo’s form at the end of the procession that seems to expose to him something formerly hidden from view: ‘Horrible sight — now I see ’tis true, / For the blood-baltered Banquo smiles upon me, / And points at them for his’ (1998: 4.1.137–39). Although this figure is not, apparently, Banquo’s ghost — it is ‘like the spirit of Banquo’ but not the spirit itself — this only amplifies its displacement of Banquo’s identity and the corresponding corruption of Macbeth’s perception (1998: 4.1.127). The ghost of a ghost, this figure’s inseparability from the mortal Banquo (whether living or dead), only further serves to heighten the disjunctures that render authoritative perception of the material world impossible. Like the ghost at the banquet table, it returns Macbeth’s gaze, reflecting back not only the horror of his past actions, but the future as well, a future that has already come back to haunt him. Macbeth’s subsequent response, ‘Let this pernicious hour / Stand aye accursèd in the calender,’ only serves as a stark reminder of just how little of his world now adheres to the ‘calender’ as the uncanniness of events exposes the interdependency of external world and the disorder of his inner being (1998: 4.1.148–49).

[27]  When we examine the relation between viewer and spectre in this light, it becomes evident that the inner disruption generated under the returned gaze of the spectre is as much a formative aspect of spectrality as the visual apparition itself. Indeed, it is a key reason as to why there is always a distinction between the spectre of an object and one of the human form in terms of the effects they generate. If we turn again to Macbeth’s vision of the dagger, we might recall that it returns Macbeth’s gaze in the sense that it holds up a mirror to his inability to impose order upon inner or outer states or the alignment between the two. The floating dagger illuminates Macbeth’s impending murder of Duncan and metaphorizes the unnaturalness of his actions but also exposes the fact that time is failing to function in accordance with a linear ordering of events — for if the murder is yet to occur, even the image of the blood-soaked dagger has no place in the present. Despite his terror, though, Macbeth is much quicker to gather his wits and attempt to dismiss his vision of the dagger — which cannot literally cast a gaze — than he is when faced with his later vision of Banquo’s ghost. Where he is able to struggle through to the assertion that ‘There’s no such thing’ when faced with the dagger, he does not even begin to question the existence of Banquo’s ghost until after he has successfully persuaded it to depart and even then makes no firm pronouncements as to the veracity (or otherwise) of its existence (1998: 3.136). Whilst the audience may find the ghost more persuasive because it visibly sits onstage, we should remember that Macbeth has no such advantage: in both scenes, he alone is faced with the vision.

[28]  This does not really appear to reflect a greater credibility in the ghost’s appearance, for example, in terms of being able to position it within a recognizable theological or mythological framework. Macbeth shows no sign of perceiving Banquo to have returned from a space such as the Catholic purgatory or classical underworld. Were it present, such a context might render the ghost less disturbing by ascribing it a logical, if not a comfortable presence. Instead, his complaint that ‘The times has been, / That when the brains were out the man would die, / And there an end; but now they rise again’ suggests quite the reverse.  ‘Blood hath been shed […] murders have been performed’ both before and since legal intervention by ‘human statute,’ yet it is only now that men are failing to stay buried (1998: 3.4.76–81). Historically, as well as in the immediate context of the banquet hall, Macbeth perceives himself to be alone in his relation with the ambulatory dead. Banquo’s ghost has a place within physical or spiritual ‘reality’ that is neither more or less credible (or verifiable) than the vision of the dagger.

[29]  What renders Banquo’s apparition more startling than the dagger, then, is that, as the returned dead, the ghost has a substantially more intrusive effect upon Macbeth’s psyche. It is not necessarily disruptive that a ghost is in the room: Banquo’s revenant troubles no-one at the banquet table other than Macbeth, just as Old Hamlet’s ghost does not directly trouble the unsuspecting Gertrude. By definition, one has to perceive a spectre for it to be rendered spectral, to perceive and thereby enter into the ruptures and unease that its presence generates and reflects. More problematically though, it is the dead — and therefore death — that Macbeth perceives. It is visible and yet not quite there; beyond his comprehension and yet clearly comprehending him. In failing to remain buried, static, and contained, the figure of Banquo refuses to allow Macbeth to insulate himself from death and move on with the business of living. Macbeth’s response to his vision demonstrates that what enables death not only to make itself felt but to resonate, to invade the very interior of the watching subject, is the way in which the entry of the ghost into the visual field establishes an unwelcome reflection of its observers. This problem registers itself within Macbeth’s curious phrasing: ‘they rise again’ to ‘push us from our stools’ (1998: 3.4.81–3, my emphasis). The ‘us’ here is not indicative of the majestic plural because the entire complaint is framed in the plural even though it is Banquo’s solitary ghost that plagues him, murdered only once and occupying only one stool. Macbeth’s phrasing not only reverses the roles of victim and murderer to redraw them as the dead usurper and the living victim but also positions them within a kind of reciprocal relation that exceeds the bounds of their individual positions. Unable to cope with the ramifications of Banquo’s return, Macbeth clutches at the one shred of reassurance that he can find, by extending the individual threat of the ghost to a universal one. Fear loves company, or at least so he hopes. It is, of course, to no avail, since his companions are oblivious to the spectre in the room. It is Macbeth alone who is unable to perceive Banquo to be at rest and it is Macbeth alone whose inner world begins to crumble beneath the force of the ghost’s stare. When the apparition takes up a place within Macbeth’s line of visual perception and then returns his gaze, it exposes to him his inability to isolate and preserve his interior self from the chaos of the exterior world because it attests to the instability of his self’s positioning, in time, in space, even in the line of political inheritance.

[30]  Like the ghosts in Hamlet and Julius Caesar, then, the spectres in Macbeth manifest the profound complexity and instability in the complex relation between reality and perception. At a point in the early modern period when cultural and theological imperatives increasingly work to circumscribe and control the figure of the ghost, Shakespeare’s exploitation of the problems of visual perception magnifies the elusiveness and inconsistencies associated with the ghost’s appearance. Macbeth’s response to the dagger hinges upon his understanding that vision is key in comprehending the external world; yet it is precisely this that renders the spectre so disruptive. It threatens the subject’s ability to acquire accurate information through the physical senses, information that is crucial to issues, not only of life, but also of death and the afterlife. More dangerously still, it threatens to expose the fact that the external world is not fixed at all, but emerges through a shifting and reflexive relation with the gazing subject. This kind of haunting suggests that the unstable structures that enable visual perception paradoxically constitute both the apparatus through which the individual comprehends and orders his world and the illusions upon which that order relies. For Macbeth, Brutus, and Hamlet, this spectrality haunts their very beings, their ability to know how to read the world around them, their place within it, and their futures. The extremity of their reactions is starkly justified, for in each instance, the intractable ghost exposes to the gazing subject the seeds of his own destruction.

University of Edinburgh


[1] For more on the range of contemporary beliefs and theological perspectives as to the nature of such sightings, see Peter Marshall’s Beliefs and the Dead, esp. 129-41 and 246-47.[back to text]

[2] Lavater’s text was originally published in Zürich in 1568 and then in English translation in 1572, becoming one of the most influential works on ghostlore in the early modern period.[back to text]

[3] A similar account occurs in André Du Laurens’ A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight (translated into English in 1599), which claims that melancholics may be influenced by the ‘medling of evill angells, which cause them oftentimes to foretell and forge very strange things in their imaginations’ (1599: 100).  Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy also supports the connection between melancholy and the devil (1621: Sig. E3[r]).[back to text]

[4] Marshall provides a useful discussion on the absence of a clear division between natural, supernatural, and illusory causes of ghost-sightings.  See Beliefs and the Dead, 250-52.  [back to text]

[5] Le Loyer’s French text was first published in Angers in 1586 and later published in English in 1605. [back to text]

[6] Le Loyer’s definition of the spectre here is ‘a substance without a body, presenting it self sensibly unto men’ — in other words, a spiritual entity that lacks corporeality (B4[r-v]).  The term therefore encompasses, but is not limited to, the returned dead.[back to text]

[7] A.C. Bradley supports this point in Shakespearean Tragedy, observing that early modern ghostlore suggests that a ghost is ‘able for any sufficient reason to confine its manifestation to a single person in a company’ (1991: 136).  Reginald Scot refers to this supposed quality of ghosts in The Discoverie of Witchcraft, in which he mocks the fact that ghosts ‘never appeare to the whole multitude, seldome to a few, and most commonlie to one alone’ (1584: 535).[back to text]


Aquinas, Thomas, Saint. 1951. ‘Consciousness.’ Philosophical Texts, trans. by Thomas Gilby. (London: Oxford University Press), pp. 215–251.

Belsey, Catherine. 2010. ‘Shakespeare’s Sad Tale for Winter: Hamlet and the Tradition of Fireside Ghost Stories,’ Shakespeare Quarterly, 61.1: 1–27.

Bradley, A. C. 1991. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 1904. (London: Penguin)

Burton, Robert. 1621. The Anatomy of Melancholy. (Oxford)

Clark, Stuart. 2003. ‘The Reformation of the Eyes: Apparitions and Optics in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe,’ The Journal of Religious History, 27.2: 143–160.

Derrida, Jacques. 2006. Specters of Marx, trans. by Peggy Kamuf. Routledge Classics ed. (New York: Routledge)

Du Laurens, André. 1599. A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholicke Diseases; of Rheumes, and of Old Age, trans. by Richard Surflet. (London)

Engel, William E. 2002. Death and Drama in Renaissance England: Shades of Memory. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Freud, Sigmund. 1955. ‘The Uncanny.’ The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 18861939, ed. and trans. by James Strachey, 24 vols (London: Hogarth), XVII, pp. 219–252.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 2001. Hamlet in Purgatory. (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Huelin, Scott. 2005. ‘Reading, Writing, and Memory in Hamlet,’ Religion & Literature, 37.1: 25–44.

Kearney, Colbert. 1974. ‘The Nature of an Insurrection: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,’ Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 63.250: 141–152.

Kinney, Arthur. 2006. Shakespeare and Cognition: Aristotles Legacy and Shakespearean Drama. (New York: Routledge)

Lavater, Ludwig. 1569. Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght, trans. by Robert Harrison. (London)

Le Loyer, Pierre. 1605. A Treatise of Specters or Straunge Sights, Visions and Apparitions Appearing Sensibly Unto Men, trans. by Zachary Jones. (London)

Marshall, Peter. 2002. Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Muir, Kenneth. 1981. ‘Folklore and Shakespeare,’ Folklore, 92.2: 231–40.

Simpson, John, ed. Oxford English Dictionary. <http://www.oed.com>. [accessed 31 Oct 2010]

Plutarch. 1579. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, trans. by Thomas North. (London)

Royle, Nicholas. 2003. The Uncanny. (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Scot, Reginald. 1584. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. (London)

Shakespeare, William. 2006. Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. 1604 ed. (London: Arden)

_____. 2008. Julius Caesar, ed. by Arthur Humphreys. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

_____. 1998. Macbeth, ed. by Nicholas Brooke. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

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Texts and Textiles: Self-Presentation among the Elite in Renaissance England

Texts and Textiles: Self-Presentation among the Elite in Renaissance England

Jane Stevenson

[1]  In popular histories of the Tudors and Stuarts, it is often said, or implied, of Anne of Denmark that she was a vain and stupid woman, responsible for much of the moral rot at the heart of the Jacobean court, a judgment which is based to a great extent on her interest in dress. Who’s Who in Stuart Britain, for example, describes her primly as ‘high-spirited, frivolous and empty-headed, … she had expensive tastes in clothes and jewels and loved elaborate masques, which added a good deal to the costs of the court and diminished its reputation’ (Hill 1988: 6). The idea that thinking about clothes and jewellery is wrong is implicit in such judgments, as is, furthermore, the assumption that thinking about clothes is feminine. Women have been castigated for undue interest in their appearance since the days of Clement of Alexandria. As far as the Queen herself goes, Leeds Barroll has argued that there is more to Anne of Denmark than previous writers have thought, and perhaps for that very reason, does not comment on her wardrobe (2001). Leanda de Lisle similarly adduces evidence for her charm and adroitness, and observes that she was perceived as ‘courtly’ in a way that her graceless consort was not (2005). But there is a great deal more to the wearing of expensive clothes than female vanity and folly, and there are questions worth asking about textiles and the Jacobean élite.

[2]  Textiles and fashion were central to court life, and even, in themselves, a means of communication. They attracted what seems to us a completely disproportionate amount of available resources, infinitely more than the paintings and other more permanent artefacts which are now more familiar to us. It is therefore safe to conclude that they were important, and something which needs to be understood in order to understand late Elizabeth and Jacobean court culture. At the very least, the clothes of the élite are a phenomenon such as tulip-mania, which needs to be accounted for:  John Chamberlain, for example, describing the preparations for Queen Anne’s funeral, comments, ‘the whole charge spoken of is beyond proportion … which proceeds not of plentie, for they are driven to shifts for monie’ (McClure 1939: II. 232).

[3]  The fact that the spiralling costs, and importance, of luxury fabric at the English court begins under Henry VIII, not Elizabeth, is an indication that it is not a development which can straightforwardly be assigned to the sensibility of fashion-loving queens. Henry’s clothes, as we can see from portraits, were enormously more luxurious and complex than those of his father, and indeed, than those of his wives. The fact that it was of political importance to him that his court not be outshone by that of his brother monarch François I can be seen from the hugely expensive and pointless, but far from insignificant, posturings of the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’, where ‘many carried their mills, forests and meadows on their backs’ (Knecht 1982: 80).  From the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ onwards, if not before, the gorgeousness of the English court was perceived by contemporaries as an important part of the maintenance of international credibility, especially before ambassadors and other foreign visitors.

[4]  Luxury was the price of entry into the Henrician court. The practicalities of this are displayed most transparently in the ‘Lisle Letters’. Anne Bassett, Lady Lisle’s daughter, was given the position of Maid of Honour to Jane Seymour, but her mother and stepfather were at that time governing Calais, so ‘My Lord Lisle’s man’, John Hussee, was forced to send a series of letters explaining what was needed: the requirements are thus set out explicitly. On 17 September, 1537, ‘the queen’s pleasure [is] that Mrs. Anne shall wear out her French apparel, so that your ladyship shall thereby be no loser. Howbeit, she must needs have a bonnet of velvet and a frontlet of the same.’ But by 2 October, Jane Seymour had changed her mind: ‘Mrs. Anne shall wear no more her French apparel’, she must have ‘a bonnet or ii, with frontlets and an edge of pearl and a gown of black satin, and another of velvet, and this must be done before the Queen’s grace’s churching’ (cited in Ashelford 1996: 21). Furthermore, Hussee had to break it to Lady Lisle that she had economised unduly on her daughter’s linen: the quality was too coarse for her degree, so she would have to have everything new. The economical Lady Lisle must have been tearing her hair as one demand after another came from London, but if Anne was to take her place in the queen’s entourage, her parents had to pay up.

[5]  Mary Tudor’s portraits suggest that her own clothes, in keeping with the style favoured by her Spanish husband Philip II (and perhaps with her Spanish mother’s taste, of which almost nothing is known), were discreet and sombre. But the information that before she came to the throne, Elizabeth chose to cut an austere figure among the painted butterflies of the court suggests that Mary too saw the need to maintain the luxurious style of her father in the court as a whole (Perry 1990: 72). Certainly, when Elizabeth became queen, she seemed determined to prove that in this as in other respects, she was her father’s daughter. The effect was an escalation of luxury as the reign went on. In 1595, Breuning von Buchenbach, an ambassador from Duke Frederick of Würtemberg, commented that ‘at no other court have I ever seen so much splendour and such fine clothes’ (von Klarwill 1928: 376). These fine clothes, as the Lisle letters so clearly demonstrate, were not a personal act of self-expression, they were the price of appearance in public life. As necessities, therefore, they were not always paid for out of surplus or income. Ben Jonson in Every Man out of his Humour (1599) says of a would-be courtier, ‘twere good you turned four or five hundred acres of your best land into two or three trunks of apparel’ (1.2.40–2; Jonson 1600, sig. Ciiv). He neither jested nor exaggerated. When Arthur Throckmorton of Coughton Court, Warks, went to court in 1583, he sold part of his land and borrowed his brother’s legacy (on which he paid interest for many years) in order to acquire suitable clothes. He bought cloth of tinsel (interwoven with gold or silver thread), for a cypress silk suit, with silk ribbon for a matching cloak, and paid £6 1s. for eighteen gold buttons to decorate it. He also had a suit of tawny velvet decorated with tawny satin and taffeta, matching silk stockings, a beaver hat, two dozen points, ruffs and bands. His retainers had liveries of purple cloth with crimson and yellow velvet guards (Ashelford 1996: 37). And that is probably the minimum — two suits, one hat — with which a man could appear at court. When Bridget Manners, daughter of the Countess of Rutland, went to court in 1589 as a Maid of Honour, £200 was budgeted for her clothes.

[6]  The same pressure towards expenditure on clothes obtained throughout society, despite sumptuary legislation:

For though the laws against yt are express,
Each Lady like a Queen herself doth dress,
A merchaunts wife like to be a barroness (Sir John Harrington, Epigrames, 364, cited in Ashelford 1996: 207; see also Hayward 2009).

Thomas Middleton, in Father Hubburd’s Tale (1604) describes the landlord of a London inn transforming himself into a ‘French puppet’ with new clothes that ‘amounted to above two years rent’ (Ashelford 1996: 57). When Simon Forman the astrologer married in 1599, he spent £50 on a new gown, breeches, cloak and cap for himself, and new clothes for his wife, then they sat for their portraits (Ashelford 1996: 31). It is probable that a high proportion of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits commemorate new clothes — one might be forgiven for thinking that painters such as Marcus Gheeraerts and William Larkin were making portraits of new clothes: it is very noticeable in a portrait such as Larkin’s picture of the Countess of Oxford (1614/18), just how much better painted the dress is than even the hands and face, let alone the background (Strong 1993). Edward Norgate’s Miniatura, or the Art of Limning (1650) makes it clear that, for miniature paintings at least, the sitter’s garments were brought to the studio and left there for him to work on: ‘when you are alone, you may take your owne time to finish them with as much neatnes and perfection as you please, or can’ (Hardie 1919: 26–7).

[7]  The three Jacobean garments which survive physically and are also represented in paint make it clear that these records of clothes are photographically accurate: they are a portrait, probably of Jane Lambarde (c. 1620–30), with the crimson velvet mantle she is shown wearing, which both belong to the Draper’s Company (see below and Arnold 1980a); Margaret Laton’s portrait and her embroidered jacket, c. 1610–15, both now in the Victoria and Albert costume collection; and Sir Richard Cotton’s portrait with his slashed satin suit (Arnold 1973).

[8]  The sums of money which have been quoted need to be set in context to be understood. The poetaster and musician Thomas Whythorne, though he was an educated man and quite well connected, would have thought himself extremely fortunate if he had managed to land a widow with £20 a year. Clothes in general were far more expensive in relation to other elements of the household budget than they are now, since every inch was necessarily processed, spun, woven, and stitched by hand, and the actual cost of luxury garments was extraordinarily high. Consider, for instance, stockings: when knitted silk stockings first came in in the 1560s, they cost perhaps £8 a pair, and still were around £3 a pair by 1582 (Thirsk 1973: 54). Anne of Denmark’s clerk of the wardrobe had wages of £6, 5s for the year, with a fee of 12d a day (thus adding another couple of pounds to his disposable income), but his livery cost her £30, 9s, 8d (PRO E101/437/8, no foliation). A domestic dispute of 1616 escalated into a Star Chamber case when Lucy Bressye locked away her servant George James’s livery coat (PRO STAC 8,59/4). The Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes complained in 1583 that shirts covered in ‘needlework of silk, and curiouslie stitched with open seame and many other knackes beseydes’ cost ‘some ten shillings, some twentie, some fortie, some five pound…some ten pounds a peece’ (cited in Ashelford 1996: 31). Stubbes, again, speaks of gowns of silk, velvet, grograine, taffatie, scarlet and fine cloth ‘of xxx or xl shillings a yarde’ — this is probably Puritan exaggeration, but Prince Charles was certainly paying sixteen shillings a yard for satin in 1620, and velvets were as much as twenty-four shillings (Orgel and Strong 1973: I. 305). S. William Beck similarly quotes an account of Lord William Howard’s in which he paid 24s a yard for purple velvet (he died in 1640) (Beck 1886: 362). Valerie Cumming notes that each of the princess’s dresses took 20¾ yards of the basic material (Cumming 1978: 325), so enough fabric for a velvet dress might cost £20 or more.

[9]  The standard of luxury among great aristocrats rose inexorably in the course of the century. Mary Sidney’s father spent a ‘mere’ £57 on her trousseau for her marriage to the Earl of Pembroke in 1577 (HMC De L’Isle and Dudley 1925–66: I. 249, 269–70). For a comparable society wedding six years later, that of Mary Kytson to Lord Darcy in 1583, her parents spent £203 5s on ‘divers parcells of silk’ from the mercer Sir William Stone, which then presumably had to be made up with appropriate trimmings. Still later, when Mary Sidney’s niece Lady Mary Wroth married, she received a handsome wedding present from her father’s captains at Flushing (Vlissingen), £200 to buy a chain of pearl or other ornament, as she pleased. Her letter of acknowledgement thanked them all: she had bought ‘very faire gloves’ with the money: that is, she chose a luxury textile item rather than a permanent jewel (HMC De L’Isle and Dudley 1925–66: III, 140).

[10]  Royal budgets were on a different scale from those of ordinary mortals. Queen Elizabeth, in the last four years of her reign spent £9,535 a year on clothes. This expenditure — particularly in the latter part of her life when she was no longer young and marriageable — has, like that of Anne of Denmark, roused the censoriousness of subsequent historians, but as in the time of her father, it was evidently perceived by contemporaries as a political necessity. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Fortescue, told the House of Commons in February 1593: ‘as for her apparel, it is royal and princely, beseeming her calling, but not sumptuous nor excessive’, a statement which appears to have been acceptable to the House (D’Ewes 1682: 473, cited in Arnold 1988: xvii). A not-excessive wardrobe for a queen translated, according to the inventory made in 1599, into some 1,326 items, which included garments that had belonged to her half-siblings Edward VI and Mary Tudor, more than forty years old (Ashelford 1996: 37). Thus even Elizabeth wore second-hand clothes; and as Janet Arnold has shown in detail, her clothes were re-modelled on several occasions: one length of expensive velvet or brocade would appear in more than one guise in successive seasons (Arnold 1988: 19–21, 38–9). Moreover, very careful track was kept of everything she wore, and the garments were treated as state treasures: one of the Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber kept a daybook, in which she recorded every item which left the Great Wardrobe on a particular day, all jewels worn by the Queen, or sewn on her costumes, and anything that fell off or got mislaid (Arnold 1980b). Arnold comments, ‘She certainly loved beautiful clothes… but the impression gained is that she regarded the rich silks and velvets, gold embroidery and spangles as state treasure; they were looked after most carefully. Some items dating from the 1560s were still there, unaltered, in 1600’ (Arnold 1988: 3). Arnold describes the system for keeping track of items as ‘virtually foolproof’ (1988: 172).

[11]  Under James VI, this royal expenditure escalated to an alarming extent. For one thing, Elizabeth had glittered as a solitary star, and very consciously so: she was vigilant in suppressing over-fineness in her ladies. When one of the Maids of Honour, Lady Mary Howard, wore ‘more finery that became [her] state’, the Queen’s rage was spectacular (the story is told in Harington 1779: II. 139–40). In the next generation there was, besides James, his wife, Anne of Denmark, and an ever-increasing brood of royal children. Against Elizabeth’s Great Wardrobe expenses of £9,535 in the last four years of her reign, we may set expenses of £36,377 annually for the first five years of James’s reign (a figure which does not include Queen Anne’s bills, though it does include clothes for Henry and Charles). Towards the end of her life, Anne of Denmark had a wardrobe grant of £8,000 a year; additional, presumably, to what she chose to spend out of her general income, which was considerable (McClure 1939: II. 219). John Chamberlain, summing up Anne’s finances after her death for Sir Dudley Carleton, gives the following figures for Anne’s annual income: £60,000 for her household, servants and stable, 24,000 which was her jointure and allowed for her own person, £13,000 ‘out of the sugars’ (presumably a monopoly), and the £8,000 wardrobe grant: if this is accurate, £105,000 per annum passed through her hands (McClure 1939: II. 224). Her wardrobe grant might be perceived as excessive, given that she was Queen Consort rather than Queen regnant, but when set against the figure for James, it clearly absolves her of primary responsibility for the ‘extravagance’ of the Jacobean court. The fact that it was the male members of the royal family whose spending on clothes was grotesquely high suggests that the fashion was led by the king rather than the queen.

[12]  We do not have very much information about the economics of Queen Anne’s court. The Public Record Office holds only about thirty pages out of Anne of Denmark’s accounts, relating to the year 1614–15: because her household was dissolved on her death, her accounts, unlike those of the king’s household, were not automatically preserved (E101/437/8). The most interesting thing about this scrap of documentation is that it confirms the Queen’s financial independence: it gives a large part of her wages bill, and also details her income from fee-farms, which was nearly £16,000 for that year. Unfortunately, it does not include her wardrobe account for the period; though some textile-related bills turn up in the section on extraordinary expenditures, which does survive: she paid Richard Miller £135 for ‘stuffes’, a bill which stands out, for its size, in a general context of such miscellaneous expenditures as £10 to firework makers, £10 to her players for a play performed on December 17, 1615, and £30 to an Italian poet.

[13]  Again, the sums quoted for the Great Wardrobe need setting in the context of other expenditure: the annual cost of the Royal Navy in the same period, for example, was estimated as about £56,000 (McClure 1939: II. 172). In 1608, the bill for clothing the thirteen-year-old heir presumptive, Prince Henry, was a more than princely £4,574 14s.

[14]  Looking at where the money actually went, it is clear that the cost of these items was essentially in the fabric and trimmings. For ordinary garments, the tailor’s charge was normally about a quarter of the cost of the material (Ashelford 1996: 51); but when the value of the material rocketed, the amount the maker charged did not keep pace: a suit of Prince Henry’s, for example, cost £38, 0s, 7d for the material, while only £3, 10s went to Alexander Wilson for his highly skilled construction, and presumably, design (PRO LC/9/95, f. 36v–37r). He seems to have been the prince’s regular tailor. It is clear from these accounts that the principal material of each suit tended to cost between £20 and £40. There was no couture in the seventeenth century: no designers, such as the much later Worth or Dior, whose work commanded a premium. Developments in fashion came from, or were attributed to, the clients, and artisan skills in designing and making were taken for granted.

[15]  In the context of court dress, the term ‘fabric’ can normally be interpreted as silk. Silk, with its incomparable lustre and unique capacity for absorbing dye, was both the most desirable of textiles, and in a class of its own in terms of price (though linen, particularly when embroidered, was not cheap either): it was on silk, therefore, that the Jacobean aristocracy spent their fortunes, and in some cases, their patrimonies. Raw silk and woven silk fabric were imported into Europe from China from the early days of the Roman empire, and silk was produced in the Middle East from the sixth century onwards, which found eager buyers in medieval Europe (Muthesius 1997; on the demand for silk in the early medieval west, see Fleming 2007). By the sixteenth century, Florence and Genoa had shifted from being entrepôts for the importation of Byzantine and Islamic silks to being centres of production in their own right (Genoa was particularly famous for its silk velvets) (Cavaciocchi 1993). The silks which came into Tudor and Stuart England thus mostly came from, or via, Italy (see Ciatti 1994 for some good photographs of sixteenth-century Italian luxury textiles). One of the most notable suppliers was Sir Baptist Hicks, mercer, whose shop at the sign of the White Bear in Cheapside was frequented by the entire beau monde of his day. Hicks dealt directly with Italian suppliers, so could command a better supply of fine silks than any other mercer in London. He kept a representative permanently in Livorno as early as 1595, and one in Florence from 1602 (Ashelford 1996: 43, 82). When James I came to the throne, he chose Hicks as the main supplier to the Great Wardrobe. Between Michaelmas 1608 and August 1609, he paid Hicks £14,083 for ‘wares’. Hicks’s position with respect to the Jacobean court parallels that of Jacques Coeur at the court of Charles VII in the mid-fifteenth century: the King and Queen and their court became so hopelessly indebted to Coeur for silks that he was accused of poisoning the King’s mistress and sentenced to death; his wealth was confiscated by the Crown and all debts cancelled. A cautionary tale for mercers, though the result (because of the interruption of supplies) was the development of the silk trade in Lyons (Scott 1993: 182). Hicks was perhaps fortunate to die a natural death, a rich man.

[16]  The activities of Hicks and his competitors had substantial economic consequences, with Italy and France coming off best: by 1550, half the population of Lyons, the centre of the French silk trade, some 40,000 people, were supported by the silk trade alone. As far as the English economy was concerned, the court’s obsession with silk meant a haemorrhage of money out of the country. Even James had some rudimentary sense of the significance of this, since he made serious, though unsuccessful attempts to start an English silk industry. The silkworm raising enterprise was based at Greenwich, under the supervision of John and Frances Bennett, and Queen Anne wore a dress of English silk taffeta to celebrate James’s birthday in 1606, but the project failed to take off (Scott 1993: 203–207). This dependence on imported silk ensured that the aristocracy got poorer while the merchants got richer, weakening potential over-mighty subjects, but strengthening the City.

[17]  The context of this escalating royal expenditure is that the later part of the reign of Elizabeth and the reign of James saw the development of a kind of consumption spiral. The income of aristocrats actually fell by about 20% in real terms between 1559 and 1602, but at the same time, they were forced into spending more and more on ephemera, most notably textiles (Stone 1965: 130–1, 138–43, 156–62, 184–7, 197–8, 547–52, 562–4). An anecdote of William Camden’s suggests the sacrifice which might be involved: ‘A lusty gallant that had wasted much of his patrimony, seeing master Dutton a gentleman in a gowne not of the newest cut, told him that he had thought it had been his great grandfather’s gowne. “It is so” (said Master Dutton), “and I have also my great grandfather’s lands, and so have not you”’ (Camden 1614: 299).

[18]  Aristocratic lavishness in dress prompted emulation in lower orders of society: this was met both by a rash of sumptuary laws — seven Parliamentary statutes and ten proclamations of the Privy Council were issued between 1463 and 1600 defining what members of each class were permitted to wear (Hayward 2009) — and also by a determined attempt on the part of the aristocracy to preserve proper differentials by becoming ever more gorgeous themselves. Buckingham Justices of the Peace found it necessary to prohibit even husbandmen from wearing ‘Jagged nor Cutte’ garments (Berger 1993: 29). The preacher William Perkins complained that ‘wanton and excessive apparel…maketh a confusion of such degrees and callings as God hath ordained’ (quoted in Barish 1981: 92). As each fashion was imitated in turn, the process spiralled out of control. The development of relatively low-budget gorgeousness, for example by the enterprising weavers of Norwich, who developed fashionable textiles in the later sixteenth century — basically woollen stuffs with a little silk in the weft to give them a higher lustre, spirited imitations of the luxury silks of Italy and Lyons — forced the aristocracy into ever greater extravagance (Priestly 1990). The Earl of Rutland was spending £1,000 a year on clothes alone late in the reign of Elizabeth. The spiralling value and significance of élite textiles was not even confined to what people wore on their backs. Lying-in was a social event, and wealthy women vied in the magnificence of their beds of state. The countess of Salisbury confirmed the status of the Cecils (her husband had recently succeeded his father Robert) when she appeared in a lying-in bed with white satin embroidered hangings which had been decorated with silver and pearls at a cost of fourteen thousand pounds (McClure 1939: 415–6, a letter of 4 February 1613).

[19]  The immense importance of clothes as signs of gender and class identity is emphasised by Stephen Orgel (Orgel 1996: 27, 102). The absolute importance of identifying oneself as a member of the élite by sumptuous garments and embroidery is illustrated by two occasions on which members of the English élite had themselves painted in fancy dress as ‘Wild Irish’. In Sir Thomas Lee’s portrait as a kern, or Irish footsoldier, he is semi-nude with a shirt as his principal garment, and his legs and feet are bare, matching contemporary descriptions: ‘the men had long tunic-like shirts hanging below the knee. These were…kilted at the waist (“folded in wrinkles”, as Fynes Moryson puts it)’, which is precisely how Sir Thomas Lee is clad (Quinn 1966: 91). David Beers Quinn illustrates (plate 11) a barelegged kern apparently nude except for a brief shirt open low over the breast, but with full hanging sleeves; a woodcut from John Derricke, The Image of Ireland (1581), which seems to be what Lee intends to evoke. But Lee’s shirt is finest linen, embroidered all over with blackwork, to demonstrate his actual status. Turlough O’Neill could have maintained a whole army of kerns on what this one garment would have cost. Similarly, a Jacobean painting probably of a London woman called Jane Lambarde, dressed à l’Irlandaise, wrapped in a thick mantle and wearing her hair loose, demonstrates her actual status by the quality and costliness of the mantle’s materials: the actual object survives, and is made of ‘two lengths of rich crimson velvet, lined with two lengths of silk shag…immediately beside the shag border is a band of silver and gold bobbin lace, worked in a lozenge pattern with points at the edge…at the end of each point are bunches of four or five strings of silver and gold thread’ — we are a long way from the wandering woman (mná siubhail)’s hairy mantle (Arnold 1980a. On the Irish mantle, or fallaing, see Quinn 1966: 91, 96). Jane Lambarde was a wealthy citizeneness, daughter of Sir Thomas Lowe, Lord Mayor of London. Stephen Orgel comments on sumptuary legislation, ‘Not surprisingly, [it] works only in one direction; it does not prohibit the gentry from wearing frieze jerkins’ (Orgel 1996: 98). That is certainly true as far as the law goes; but the remorselessness of the social pressure preventing them from doing anything of the kind is very strongly suggested by these paintings. When Henry VIII’s sister Mary, the dowager Queen of France, married beneath her (she chose Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) their joint portrait as man and wife was accompanied by a verse in which their different rank is represented in terms of ‘cloth of frieze’ and ‘cloth of gold’.

[20]  The fashion for slashed garments is probably a direct reflection of this consumption spiral. High-fashion textiles such as brocades, taffetas and velvets were both beautiful and by modern standards, extremely durable in construction: normally, what had been a gown in one generation might be transformed into a pair of sleeves in the next, or part of a cushion, or a child’s dress of state: while textiles must be classed as ephemera in comparison with gold, silver or gemstones, they normally retained considerable exchange value through two or three changes of use, or even more. But slashing necessarily condemned the fabric to a short life, because however close the weave, sooner or later, the slashes frayed, and made it impossible for the fabric to be recycled. Hearn 1995: 200–201 illustrates an extreme example: a portrait of Diana Cecil, Countess of Oxford, c. 1614–18, attributed to William Larkin. She is wearing a sumptuously embroidered gown which is literally in ribbons: the extreme photographic realism of the painting makes it clear that the cloth is simply cut, and not bound in any way. The dress could have been worn perhaps twice or thrice. Some close-up photographs of sixteenth-century slashed and razed (half-slashed) satins may be found in Arnold 1988: 186–7, and they make it clear that fabrics thus treated could stand very little wear. A cautionary tale told by William Camden illustrates this precisely: John Drakes, a Norwich shoemaker, asked the local tailor to make him a gown precisely copying one which had been recently been ordered by a local notable, Sir Philip Calthrop. Sir Philip got wind of this when he dropped into the shop to be measured, and spotted a second parcel of cloth identical to the stuff he had chosen. When the tailor explained; ‘“Well”, said the knight, “in good time be it! I will,” said he, “have mine made as full of cuts as thy sheeres can make it.”’ When Drakes came to pick up his gown, he was furious to find it slashed from end to end: the tailor explained that Sir Philip’s was too. ‘“By my latchet”, quoth John Drakes, “I will never weare gentleman’s fashions again.”’. A very proper conclusion, in early modern terms; but in order to force it on a wealthy shoemaker, the knight has himself been forced into conspicuous consumption (it may be relevant to note that this anecdote is set in Norwich) (Camden 1614: 236).

[21]  So why was this happening? Textiles, to us, are of limited social significance, partly because the development of synthetic fabrics and industrial production means that all kinds of fakery are now possible. With a very small number of egregious exceptions, the differential between the clothes of the poor and those of the élite is within a relatively small order of magnitude: it is possible to buy a party dress (at least in an Oxfam shop) for £15, while a Bond Street price-tag is in the order of £1500, and with more workaday clothes, the differential is still smaller; a sweater, for instance, may cost £20 or £400. Cheap copies abound. The actual garments themselves are not vastly different in shape and cut; the distinction between spun polyester and cashmere is a relatively subtle one; and the eye of the potential customer for luxury goods has to be carefully educated — even a dedicated shopper such as Mrs Victoria Beckham may find herself inadvertently acquiring a fake handbag rather than a real one. In 1600, a costume in ‘cloth of silver’, cut velvet, tuff-taffeta, or any of the other insanely luxurious fabrics used for court and masque costumes, could not conceivably be imitated with down-market equivalents, not even by Norwich weavers, and cost its wearer several hundred pounds. The clothing of the poor was absolutely distinguishable from it, at first glance (Spufford 1984 illustrates and discusses the clothing of the masses).

[22]  The 1590s and the early sixteenth century were not good times: they were great decades for English literature, but extremely difficult for ordinary people (see Hindle 1998 for an analysis of social and economic insecurity in Elizabethan and Stuart England). The extraordinary obsession with textiles in this period suggests, perhaps, the precariousness of wealth, the need to look prosperous as a symbol of creditworthiness. One particular occasion which illustrates this starkly is the 1613 royal wedding; an occasion, inevitably, when ambassadors and other foreign visitors would flock to the English court.

[23]  For the 1613 marriage of the Princess Elizabeth to the Pfalzgraf Frederick, a Warrant to the Great Wardrobe was issued, which still survives. The total amount spent was £12,990: it is worth observing that while Elizabeth’s jewellery and her servants’ liveries together came to £3,914, the sums spent on textiles — clothes, hangings, etc. — amount to at least £8,000. Which is to say, less than a quarter, possibly much less, of this gigantic expenditure, was in any form which might be regarded as permanent investment in portable wealth, a fact which the future ‘Winter Queen’ may have come to regret. The courtiers vied with one another to match this magnificence: Lord Montague’s two daughters’ dresses cost £1,500, and Richard Sackville, the third Earl of Dorset, was dressed with such magnificence that according to the Master of Ceremonies, Sir John Finet, he ‘dazzled the eyes of all who saw’ (quoted in Hearn 1995: 199). If the portrait of him in Ranger’s House, Suffolk represents his wardrobe for the occasion, which it probably does, it is still possible to see why: the cost of his outfit is impossible to calculate, but must certainly have run into four figures (Hearn 1995: description 198–9, illustrated 199). Several of the items worn in this painting appear in an inventory of his clothes: ‘[a] Cloake of uncutt velvett blacke laced with seaven embroadered laces of gold and black silke…and lyned with shagg of black silver and gold; [a] doublett of Cloth of silver embroadered all over in slips of sattin black and gold’ (MacTaggart and MacTaggart 1980).

[24]  Impressing foreigners is very much part of the reason for this expenditure. Lisa Jardine points out that tapestry was considered far more important and valuable than paintings in the early modern period because it was portable, and could travel with its owner on state occasions for instant magnificence (Jardine 1996: 390–400); the same is true of clothes. The marriage was an international occasion; and other moments when truly spectacular expenditure on clothes takes place also often involve foreign eyes. For example, when Lord Roos went on an expedition to Spain, his spending on the clothes of his retainers was noted by John Chamberlain, reporting to Sir Dudley Carleton:

The Lord Roos is gon for Spaine very gallant, having sixe foot men whose apparelling stoode him in 50li a man, eight pages at 80li a peece, twelve gentlemen to each of whom he gave 100li to provide themselves, some twenty ordinarie servants who were likewise very well apointed, and twelve sumpter cloths that stoode him in better than 1500li.

— which is to say, without counting his own apparel, doubtless extremely magnificent, Lord Roos spent more than £4,000 on textiles to impress the Spaniards (McClure 1939: II. 26). It is interesting that this closely itemised piece of gossip was considered news worth reporting. Similarly, one of the most spectacular displays of dress in the entire Jacobean period is that of Buckingham and his embassy on the ‘Spanish Marriage’ mission.

[25]  Masque costumes illustrate some of these points about élite textiles in a rather acute form: again, we should probably remember that ambassadors and other important foreigners attended masques (Orgel and Strong 1973: I. 191, and n.b. Orgel 1991: 11). For example, Tethys’ Festival, by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, was performed to celebrate the creation of Prince Henry as Prince of Wales in 1610. The mercer’s bill was £668 0s 8d, the silkman’s £1,071 5s, and the embroiderer requested payment of an unsettled account of £55 for embroidering costumes with silver and sea-green silk and gold oes  [i.e. circles] (Reyher 1964: 507). The bill for gold and silver lace for the same masque was £1071 5s: no less than 780 yards was used on each of the fourteen costumes (Reyher 1964: 508). The cost of an individual costume therefore ran to at least £130, though this may not include shoes, stockings and other extras, let alone jewellery.

[26]  Prince Charles’ Wardrobe Accounts detail the cost of three costumes for the relatively modest Twelfth Night masque of 1620, News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (there were eleven male dancers altogether, but the prince paid for the clothes of two, Humphrey Palmer and James Bowy, presumably because they could not otherwise have afforded to take part). The bills for the tailor’s services came to £52 8s (which is £17 9s 4d for each costume). The bills for textiles, mostly satin, and silver lace came to £123 17s 7d (£41 19s 4d for Palmer and Bowy’s costumes, £49 4s 9d for the prince’s, which was slightly more sumptous). £11 6s went to the embroiderer, and headdresses were also bought: shoes and stockings are not mentioned in the account, though they were expensive items.

[27]  The masque costume for which we are best able to match intention, reality and cost is a woman’s outfit for Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’s Hymenaei.  We have a description from Jonson of what how he envisaged the costumes worn by the eight great ladies who played the ‘Powers’,  three paintings of  ladies thus attired, and a set of bills for one of the costumes. As Jonson describes it:

the upper part of white cloth of silver [was] wrought with Juno’s birds and fruits: a loose under garment, full gathered, of carnation striped with silver and parted with a golden zone; beneath that another flowing garment of watchet cloth of silver, laced with gold… their haire being carelessly…bound under the circle of a rare and rich Coronet, adorn’d with all variety and choise of jewels; from the top of which, flow’d a transparent veile, down to the ground; whose verse, returning up, was fastened to either side in most sprightly manner. Their shoos were azure, and gold, set with rubies and diamonds; so were all their garments; and every part abounding in ornament. (Orgel and Strong 1973: I. 111)

Three portraits survive of ladies probably costumed for this masque; one by John de Critz the elder illustrates a lady in the costume as described (Hearn 1995: description 190, illustrated 191). Because the masque was not a royal one (it celebrated the marriage of the Earl of Essex and Frances Howard) the bride and groom’s friends had to stand the expense, and we also have an account for the actual cost of an outfit, that of the Countess of Rutland (Sir Philip Sidney’s daughter), which survives at Belvoir Castle (Orgel and Strong 1973: I. 105):

Item, 20 December, delivered for my Lady to Mr Behall, the gentleman huisher, for the maske, by commandment, l li

Item, 5 Januarii to Mr Behall for further charges of the maske, xxx li

Item, 4 Martii, paid for cutworkes bought for my Lady, at the maske, per Mr Concombe, x li

Item, paied to Holmeade, silkeman, for maskinge ware, iiij li, viij s.

Item paied, the xviiijth of May, to the tyre woman for a cornet, vj li, a payer of embrodred silke hose, iiij li. a ruffe, xxxs, a paire of shoowes, xiijs, for my lady for the maske, xii li, iijs

The grand total would appear to be £118, 9s, though it is far from clear that this covers all that was needed, since the bill does not itemise the individual garments. Women’s costumes were more expensive than men’s not because they were more elaborately decorated, but because of the greater yardage of material required.

[28]  We can also get an idea of the cost of De Critz’ painting from some recorded bills: he charged Robert Cecil £4 apiece for portraits in 1607, while in 1606, he got less than £20 each for full-length, life-sized pictures, such as this masquer’s portrait, from the King (Poole 1912–13: 48). He was paid £53, 6s, 8d on 20 August, 1606 for painting three whole-length portraits of King James, Queen Anne, and the Prince of Wales for the Archduke of Austria. De Critz was at the top of his profession, Serjeant Painter to the King, and one of the most respected artists of the period (see further Jones and Stallybrass 2000).  Thus the cost of a permanent record by a top-class painter is an insignificant element in the total cost of Hymenaei to one of the participants: about the same as her stockings and shoes. We hold ‘Old Master’ paintings in great respect: it is hard for us to understand that a lifesize portrait of a lady in a masque costume might cost a fraction of the cost of the costume which is thus immortalised. But these vertiginous figures suggest how important these garments must have been as functional art-objects. If courtiers were prepared to spend ten times the cost of keeping a family for a year on one costume, then an exact, sensuous, and discriminating perception of luxury textiles was an inevitable consequence.

[29]  One aspect of élite textiles which increases in importance in this period is needlework, which evidently became something of an élite obsession. The rise in importance of embroidery may be partly to do with a virtually invisible material innovation; the modern needle, a high-precision instrument made of steel, with a pierced eye. The modern process for needlemaking, which is highly complex, was developed in Spain, possibly as the result of contact with the technologically-advanced Arab world: because the new needles were sharper and more perfectly regular, they did not damage delicate fabrics, and probably, embroiderers could sew faster. Janet Arnold illustrates a sixteenth-century needlemaker’s workshop in Nürnberg, from Jost Amman and Hans Sachs, Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden, Nürnberg, 1568 (Arnold 1988: 181). According to John Stowe, the first person to make them in England was a black Spaniard in the time of Mary Tudor (Beck 1886: 237: the very small number of black people in London in the first half of the sixteenth century seem mostly to have got there via Spain). He refused to teach his art to anyone, and the supply was only assured by the manufactory of Christopher Greening, founded in 1560 (Bunt 1961: 10).

[30]  Be that as it may, needlework became more and more noticeable as an aspect of élite costume in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century (on men’s clothes as well as women’s). There were upper limits to the cost of fabric, and the number of yards it was possible to wear and still remain mobile: needlework, particularly using precious materials (gold, silver, pearls), was perhaps the only way in which court clothes could be made yet more expensive. The needlework on Lady Wooten’s dress for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613 cost £50 a yard; presumably, therefore, about £1,000 for the whole dress (McClure 1939: I. 424–5). This marriage, of course, was an international occasion, but on a more ordinary level, the surviving set of annual accounts for the wardrobe of Charles I suggests that the specialist contribution of Edmund Harrison, the King’s Embroiderer, doubled the cost of a garment. For example, two apparently comparable sets, an ordinary suit with the doublet of ‘lemon cullor sattin’ and the hose of ‘sand Cullor Cloth’ and another suit with a doublet of ‘pinck Cullor Sattin’ and hose of ‘greene tabie’ (the same satin/cloth ratio) which was embroidered by Harrison  in cloud-work, with ‘the slashes of the body and sleeues wrought with purles, plates, twists and Cullord naples silke’ cost, respectively,  £14.17.9 and £50.1.0 (Strong 1980: 80).

[31]  Professional needlework communicated wealth and status; it could also be used to communicate meaning. The use of symbolic embroideries was fashionable from the 1580s, and continued into the Jacobean period: in 1600 the heiress Elizabeth Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, was painted in a dress embroidered with ivy, owls, snakes biting their tails, and rabbits: wisdom, eternity, fertility (Painting, attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, in a private collection, illustrated in Hearn 1995: 179–80, no. 122). Some time between 1611 and 1614, Anne of Denmark was also painted by Gheeraerts in a dress embroidered all over with flower-sprigs and peacock feathers: the peacock, of course, being Juno’s bird, and the design therefore chosen to emphasise her status as royal consort (now at Woburn Abbey, illustrated in Hearn 1995: 192–3, no. 130). Other bizarre, and presumably meaningful embroidered garments include Frances Clinton, Lady Chandos’s dress embroidered with butterflies and altars, and the dress of an unidentified lady in a portrait now at Cowdray Park which is embroidered all over with the four-square, ivy-twined pillar from Geoffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblems: its meaning, according to Whitney’s poem, was ‘I look to the Queen for support’ (both illustrated in Arnold 1988: 86–7).

[32]  In conclusion it is inappropriate to deduce that the Jacobean obsession with luxurious clothes can be laid at the door of Anne of Denmark, just because she was female. James wore six hundred thousand pounds’ worth of jewels at his daughter’s wedding: it is unlikely that this was in order to please his wife. The Stuart Royal Wardrobe Accounts tell a frightening tale of runaway expenditure, completely unconnected with the Queen. I offer the following tentative conclusions. Probably the central purpose of élite textiles was to mark and preserve status differentials within English society; but another, by no means negligible, was to preserve the reputation and status of the English in an international context by displays of calculated magnificence.

[33]  Neither of these are frivolous objectives: it was those notably masculine monarchs Henry VIII and François I who formed this dangerous association between courtly grandeur and international credibility. James’s immediate predecessor, Elizabeth, had used costume as a way of rendering herself fabulous, partly because of the difficulties inherent in ruling effectively as a woman. James and his family did the same; and it is all too easy to forget how strange this was in the context of the concept of kingship prevalent in the sixteenth century. The last adult male to occupy the English throne, Henry VIII, never fought a real battle, but like Henri II, he jousted publically, with considerable courage, and was badly injured at least once. James’s biological maleness was one of his principal assets, but temperamental difficulties, notably his fear of edged weapons and his poor physique, kept him from making a show of strength in traditionally masculine ways, such as making war (the traditional pastime of Stuart kings), or even the jousting which killed the French king Henri II — it is worth remembering that every single one of his Stuart predecessors on the Scottish throne died by violence. All contemporary observers agree about James’s poor physique. It has recently been suggested that James suffered a mild form of cerebral palsy, resulting from physical trauma during his delivery (Beasley 1995). His son and successor Charles was also a delicate child, slow to walk and weak in the legs: he was also very small, even as an adult.

[34]  James, and in turn, Charles, effectively took advantage of Elizabeth’s feminization of kingship: during her reign, she had deftly switched the focus of tournaments and other entertainments from the actual principals to herself as chief spectator. Similarly, at a court masque, James, watching from the centre of the hall, while others watched him watching, was the still centre round which all the action pivoted. Sumptuous magnificence in dress was a way of demonstrating his power and authority preferable to the battlefield or the tilt-yard, to which he was physically unsuited.

[35]  So why have historians blamed Anne of Denmark? For the last two centuries, some (though by no means all) very wealthy men have demonstrated status through their wives, whose business it has been to make highly ostentatious public appearances displaying elaborately costly clothing and jewellery. Mrs Merdle in Little Dorrit (1855-7) is a classic example in fiction: ‘This great and fortunate man had provided that extensive bosom which required so much room to be unfeeling enough in, with a nest of crimson and gold some fifteen years before. It was not a bosom to repose upon, but it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon. Mr Merdle wanted something to hang jewels upon, and he bought it for the purpose…Like all his other speculations, it was sound and successful. The jewels showed to the richest advantage. The bosom moving in Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracted general admiration. Society approving, Mr Merdle was satisfied’ (Book I, ch. 21).

[36]  This pattern, characteristic of the nineteenth century, firmly associates display with women. In Stuart England, by contrast, display was compulsory, but élite men performed the task of conspicuous consumption themselves, to an extent which historians have been somewhat reluctant to recognise. Our perception of the relative domains of the sexes in early modern England is skewed by anachronistic assumptions based on nineteenth-and twentieth-century social models. Thus the elaborateness of the dress worn by men and women alike in the first half of the seventeenth century may be a historical practice towards which our response is insufficiently nuanced. Textiles were highly relevant to life in the public domain in Stuart England, and there is no reason to perceive an interest in fine silks as ‘feminine’, or indeed, effeminate.

King’s College, University of Aberdeen


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The Life Abridged: Exemplarity, Biography, and the Problem of Metonymy

The Life Abridged: Exemplarity, Biography, and the Problem of Metonymy

Michael Ullyot

[1]  Long before John Aubrey, writers wrote brief lives of their contemporaries and secondhand acquaintances.[1] The four early memoirs of Henry, Prince of Wales (1594–1612) are characterized by brevity, either advertised or real. Their authors cite from among two reasons for this brevity: their failures of skills or lack of firsthand knowledge to encapsulate Henry’s experience; and that experience’s own failure to offer enough material for a long biography. Charles Cornwallis was one who demurred to write more than a brief Life for a brief life, some eighteen years long. His Discourse of the most Illustrious Prince Henry (1626, pr. 1641) was only 5,600 words long because anything longer would be ‘unproportionable to so short a life’ (Cornwallis 1641: 25; sig. E1r). Like Francis Bacon, whose 700-word elogium In Henricum Principem Walliae (?1613) remained in manuscript until the nineteenth century (Spedding et al. 1860), Cornwallis offers Henry a short collection of observations and reflections, even though ‘I wish it were in my power to raise such a monument unto his fame, as might eternise it unto all posterities’ (Cornwallis 1641: 29; sig. E3r).

[2]  There is another reason for Cornwallis’s brevity, though: his principled omission of material ‘received by tradition from others’ and preference for ‘verities knowne to my self’ (Cornwallis 1641: 17; sig. D1r). This may be his reaction to either of two far longer biographies of Prince Henry, whose authors were less restrained about his eternal monument: John Hawkins’s 19,000-word epistolary Life and Death of … Henry Prince of Wales (1613; pr. 1641); and William Haydon’s 11,000-word True Picture and Relation of Prince Henry (after 1625; pr. 1634).[2] Both combine firsthand observations with a range of secondhand reports, and occasionally repeat one another verbatim.

[3]  So we can imagine Cornwallis’s displeasure when in 1641 the printer Nathaniel Butter attributed Hawkins’s Life and Death to Cornwallis himself.[3] (Indeed we can only imagine it, because Cornwallis died in 1629.) It may have been an honest mistake; a copy of the epistle was among his papers, writes Butter, who ‘could not passe by it, as I did the rest’ (Hawkins 1641: sig. A2r). Or the attribution was irresistible to Butter because John Benson had printed Cornwallis’s actual Discourse the same year. As for Haydon’s life of Henry, composed (on the evidence of its prayer for the royal family) after Charles I’s accession (1625) and perhaps after the births of Princes Charles (1630) and James (1633), we can only speculate whether or not Cornwallis read it.

[4]  To compare each biographer’s verbosity with his familiarity and experience with his subject, only Haydon meets Cornwallis’s criterion of decorum. He was in Prince Henry’s service (as senior groom of the Bedchamber) longer than Cornwallis, who served for only two years (as treasurer). But both men certainly would have known Henry more intimately than Hawkins, his master of weapons and infantry formations; on the title page of his second edition of 1644, Butter insists, as he would, that Cornwallis was ‘a man very intimate with him in the whole course of his life, and at his death’ (Hawkins 1644: title page).

[5]  That death was the essential problem for any biographer aspiring to write a memorial for Prince Henry: his experience promised much, but his unexpected and evidently faultless death from typhoid fever in November 1612 was a conclusion that would hardly inspire anyone to imitate him. The writers of elegies and sermons could agree on few common causes of his death, save for the perfection he embodied that was unsuited to a corrupt world. George Chapman and Arthur Gorges offered elaborate meta-narratives of supernatural causes in their extended elegies, respectively An Epicede or Funerall Song and The Olympian Catastrophe. But the narrative problem that Henry’s death posed went beyond cause, to its foreclosure of the kinds of texts poets had always aspired to write. They often expressed their disappointment in textual terms, mirroring the terms used during his lifetime. ‘A booke had beene of thy illustrious deedes’, laments William Drummond of Hawthornden (Drummond 1613: sig. A2v). His admirers cast this book as a Homeric epic, an Iliad that would realize the future hopes both of the fledgling Stuart dynasty and of King James’s militant opponents, as I have written elsewhere (Ullyot 2008).

[6]  My argument in this paper centres on this narrative problem of Henry’s death, the problem of finding an inspiring moral in a story of failure. Not to overstate the problem, Henry’s elegists confront a subject who has manifestly failed to meet their expectations; by expressing their disappointment in textual terms, they recall one form their expectations took. I submit that narrative failure is essential to judging the meaning of Henry’s death because of the evidence I will present from his life — evidence that these epic aspirations owed directly to the program of expectations surrounding Henry from a young age.

[7]  I will show in this paper how Henry’s self-conscious reception and reflection of exemplary qualities were fuelled by writers describing him in textual terms — as a book, a table of contents, a summation, and an abridgement. These terms reflect Henry’s readings of exemplary narratives — of histories and other texts — and his aspiration to deserve them himself after his death. We see this aspiration in his biographers’ preoccupation with virtues, with the transferable encapsulations of his desired legacy. And we see in their word usage, particularly of the word ‘abridgement’, that Henry’s biographers conceive of his life as a text. The word reveals that each appreciates the distance between the memoir he offers and a more idealized, complete text.

[8]  That complete, aspirational text is always absent from present circumstances, always a distant memory or prospect. The present never quite fulfils or earns it, either because present writers cannot write it or present subjects cannot enact it. Consider the language of Henry’s biographers framing their work. Bacon laments that time did not allow Henry to develop his potential into this text. Cornwallis is too decorous to speculate on any ideal text, as it would include matters beyond his experience. But Haydon and Hawkins are less reticent. Examining their language will provoke questions at the core of this narrative problem, namely how to contain and transmit a particular example’s legacy through a textual medium.

[9]  Both Haydon and Hawkins have an ideal text in mind, using it in their prefaces to apologize for their biographies’ inadequacies. Haydon regrets the brevity of his account, despite its length, because he feels that his subject deserves amplification. He may lack Cornwallis’s sense of proportionality, but he is no less humble. Acknowledging the disjointed style of his biography of Henry, Haydon offers it as a collection of undigested material that ‘shall serue for an abridgement of his life, untill such time as some other shall write and set downe the same more amply’. Until then, the biography is limited by Haydon’s desire ‘to eschew prolixity’ lest the portrait swell to even more unmanageable proportions (Haydon 1634: 2, 30). Haydon’s use of the word ‘abridgement’ means, quite straightforwardly, that his biography of the prince is an abbreviated version of something longer, of what it might become. This brevity owes, then, to the writer’s failings, not to the subject’s lack; Haydon hopes that ‘the same’ subject (that is, Henry’s experience and qualities) will be amplified by a greater writer.

[10]  If Haydon hopes that someone, some day, will write Henry’s unabridged biography, Hawkins less concretely hopes that readers conscious of his inadequacies will meditate on this ideal text. He offers the same caveat as Haydon, but his apology is proverbial: ‘In magnis voluisse sat est’, or ‘In great enterprises the intention is sufficient’. George Herbert offers this conventional disclaimer from Sextus Propertius’ Elegies (2.10.5) in his Wits Recreations (1640: sig. E2v). ‘Rather then it should not be done at all’, Hawkins asks the reader to ‘only use the same as a Ladder to mount up your thoughts to a far more excellent meditation of his vertues’ (Hawkins 1641: 3, 4; sigs. A4r, A4v). For Hawkins, his abridgement is a foreshortening, a ‘bridge’ across the time between now and then, real and imaginary; it enables the kind of apprehension or understanding between the actual and the ideal that Hawkins suggests with this figure of the ladder. Hawkins looks not to a greater writer but more abstractly to a greater conception or imagining of Henry’s virtues, even if it exists largely or entirely in the minds of Henry’s admirers. Those virtues are the aspirational text toward which Hawkins’ inadequate description gestures, like Drummond’s expressly subjunctive ‘booke’ that ‘had been’ of Henry’s unabridged (lengthened) life.

[11]  Both Haydon and Hawkins bemoan not only their limited abilities, but the (equally conventional) inexpressibility of their subject’s virtues, and the need for readers to complete their ‘great enterprises’ — both rhetorical, by meditating on and imitating Henry’s virtues; and descriptive, by augmenting Henry’s story. Certainly there are those who knew Henry better than Haydon did, and could describe his virtues and qualities more fully than Haydon can; but the absence of their memoirs means that the unabridged life of Henry is only a lost aspiration, a prospect of the Henriad that might have been.

[12]  Cornwallis is a sobering corrective to these prospects, with his refusal to write more than he has experienced. The brevity of Henry’s life renders a greater biography impossible. But an equally forceful cause of these aspirations was the exemplary program that informed Henry’s life, fuelling expectations for his future. These expectations encouraged Henry’s posthumous admirers to describe his life in commensurate terms, even if the prince’s death made this task difficult.

[13]  The word combining both of these causes is ‘abridgement’, as Haydon describes his biography — only to say, in his case, that his material is insufficient to his subject. He uses the word to mean an encapsulation, a narrative containing the germ of a larger text, or the synecdoche of that text. This is the connotation of ‘abridgement’ that applies to narratives like biographies or histories, in early modern usage. Another connotation, however, applies to lived experience; it means an untimely conclusion, arriving before its expected or rightful moment. This is the meaning that Cornwallis refers to, the brief life that ends before its completion or maturity, leaving a paucity of material — rather than the meaning that Haydon and Hawkins aspire to, the elaboration of a complete and fulfilled subject. I will show that ‘abridgement’ applied both to texts and to experiences, and that Henry had the misfortune to collapse this distinction. His premature death turned him into the wrong kind of abridgement.

[14]  I will outline these valences of the word ‘abridgement’ and its cognates, as different writers apply these terms to Henry’s experience before and after his death. I begin with the positive, exemplary meaning of abridgement, as an epitome that claims to encapsulate the unadorned essence of a longer text. I consider how these abridgements were used for pedagogical ends, specifically for the purpose of ‘profiting’ their readers. I turn then to the poets and other writers who encouraged Henry to read textual examples as guides both to his own experience and to his textual legacy. Finally, I contrast the abridgements Henry pursued with those he earned, namely the negative meaning of ‘abridgement’ as a prematurely concluded text. This provokes my conclusion that a rhetorical example’s meaning shifts with different circumstances, and is an unreliable guide for imitations.


[15]  The rhetoric of exemplarity can be either positive or negative — urging its objects/audiences either to imitate or to avoid its subjects/examples. Timothy Hampton’s seminal work (1990; 1998) on early modern exemplarity has established two foci in the scholarship on this rhetoric: on aspirational, positive exemplarity rather than cautionary, negative exemplarity; and on the literary and biographical formulations of this rhetoric in theatrical or fictional genres like epics, tragedies, essays, prose fiction, scripture, and biblical exegesis (more recent studies include Gelley 1995; Lyons 1989; Rigolot 1998, 2004). I focus instead on occasional texts like dedications, panegyrics, elegies, and sermons — texts that apply aspirational examples to particular and immediate readers, or that turn recently dead readers into cautionary examples. My aims are not (only) to redress a scholarly imbalance, nor to shift attention to the under-appreciated works of William Alexander, Francis Davison, and William Drummond — but rather to historicize exemplarity, as its rhetorical quality demands.

[16]  The difficult truth about positive exemplarity, insufficiently historicized by theorists of this rhetoric, is that it must always be a story of failure, of objects failing to imitate their exemplary subjects. Despite their emphasis on rhetoric, past studies of exemplarity place too little emphasis on the realm of lived experience, where exemplarity’s objects are supposed to imitate its subjects. That means they must leave out certain details, particularly those that complicate or preclude imitations.

[17]  Examples must adapt to the circumstances of their reception if they are to succeed. The fact that they rarely do adapt has much to do with their frequent failure. Exemplarity relies on an ahistorical view of the past, a belief that it can be narrated and cited into digestible and emotive parcels of moral persuasion — to imitate or to avoid a quality or action. Moreover, positive exemplarity relies on ahistorical distortions of past subjects (to make them applicable or transferrable to their present objects), but its present reception is always historical. This disjunction means that any resemblance between a present object and a past, positive example is aspirational and liable to change.

[18]  Exemplary abridgements, making selective excisions from their source-narratives, lack the certainty that their exclusions are complementary rather than contradictory. They suffer from the problem of metonymy, the sense that these parts do an injustice to excluded, contrary parts. Metonymy is necessary to exemplary rhetoric, as Hampton has argued. Rhetoricians make an example both resonant and compelling by creating the ‘multitude of discrete metonymically related segments or moments’ that constitute every exemplary biography (Hampton 1990: 26).

[19]  Our consolation can rest, then, only on the negative purpose of an example: to discourage imitation, by identifying qualities of the example that suggest enough distance to be repudiated, but enough familiarity to be worth repudiating. The infamy of a Nero, a Justinian, a Richard of Gloucester, or any other cautionary example acknowledges that certain aspects (moral qualities) of the past could be manifest in the present; but none relies so heavily on the high standard of replicating entire moral characters, as positive exemplars do. That is why there is a concomitant shift from positive to cautionary models, from imitation to avoidance, when we historicize this rhetoric: because caution is the only universal. It is the only moral position that takes inspiration from failure, that turns metonymy into an epitome.

[20]  I rely throughout this argument on Chloe Wheatley’s analyses of early modern ‘epitome culture’ (Wheatley 2011: esp. 9–38; 2005). Wheatley focuses particularly on historical epitomes in narrative poems, but her account of the cultural functions of epitomes is foundational. Her claim that they began as rhetorical exercises in compression or restraint, for example, has informed my conclusion that abridgements are metonymic, not synecdochic — that they are inadequate selections, not perfected encapsulations.


[21]  To contend with the volume and variety of texts disseminated by the printing press, humanist readers adopted increasingly pragmatic attitudes. Texts that served for self-improvement and public benefit were more influential than those that were strange and unfamiliar, and those condensed into a readable size were more influential still. Thoughtfully prepared epitomes and abridgements were the search engines of humanist culture (Blair 2010: 1–10).

[22]  Their necessity is evinced by their ubiquity. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries there were printed abridgements or epitomes of laws, of Roman history, of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and most famously of the chronicles (begun by John Stow). Abridgements of texts were explicitly designed to save readers the tedium of reading them in full. Thomas Langley, for instance, uses a string of adjectives to distinguish the unpleasant labour of reading the original to the benefits one can gain from his 1551 abridgement of Polydore Vergil:

Althoughe the booke translated might have bene for the diversitiee of matter profitable: and for the authours high lernyng laudable, and finally to a good translatoure commendable, yet in so muche, as for the greatnes, it should have bene to the berers grevouse, and for length to the reders tediouse (cit. Wheatley 2011: 14, my emphasis).

A ‘profitable’ reading with less difficulty than the original recurs as the cited purpose of many abridgements in this period. Consider the King James translation of the preface to the apocryphal 2 Maccabees, which condenses Jason of Cyrene’s story of the Jewish struggle for religious freedom into what the Vulgate calls ‘uno volumine breviare’. The translators describe the purpose of ‘this painefull labour of abridging’, ‘that all, into whose hands it comes might haue profit’ (1611, 2:26, 2:25; sigs. 5B2r–5B2v). Thomas Mason’s Christs Victorie ouer Sathans Tyrannie (1615), ‘abstracted’ from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, offers a similar example. Its author acknowledges that Foxe’s book is ‘one of the most profitablest Bookes that is for Gods Children, except the Bible’. Mason has reduced it, so that those who find reading Foxe too onerous ‘shall reape as much profit by reading this abridgement, as by reading of the Booke at large’ (1615, sig. A3r). Mason was following in the footsteps of Foxe’s abridgers beginning with Timothie Bright’s An Abridgement of the Booke Acts and Monvmentes of the Chvrche (1589), giving readers ‘an assay, an appetite, to know further, whereof thou maist here take (as it were) the taste’ (Bright 1589: sig.¶2v; for other abridgements of Foxe in this period see Kastan 2002). There is a pleasant and recurring fiction among more scrupulous abridgers, like Mason, that readers will progress from ease to difficulty. Even in Foxe’s compilation, whose fourth edition (1583) grew to 3,800,000 words, individual narratives like the travails of Lady Elizabeth during the reign of her sister Mary avoid ‘importunate length’ by using ‘brevity and moderation’ for ‘the profit of the reader’, among other ends (King 2009: xxi, 265–66).

[23]  In this way abridgements were similar to miscellanies, or compilations of exemplary material from a wide range of different sources. In The Schollers Medley (1614), his discourse on historiography, the raconteur and gentleman-scholar Richard Braithwaite described miscellanies as ‘the abridgement of all relations, and in themselues sufficient to produce incredible effects: they require especiall reading, ripe iudgement, and an apt disposition’ (Braithwaite 1614). Miscellanies and abridgements were both responses to the humanist textual exercises of translatio, paraphrasis, metaphrasis, imitatio, and declamatio, designed ‘to supplement reading and encourage eloquence’ (Wheatley 2005: 861).

[24]  Their editors had a long tradition of offering their services to economize reading and to prevent misinterpretations. The Roman rhetorician Valerius Maximus compiled his Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium (Memorable Deeds and Sayings) in ca. 29 ad ‘in order that those who wish to embrace the examples may be spared the toil of lengthy research’ (Valerius 1998: 12). ‘Exempla were a key mode of moral education for the Romans, for whom history provided a catalogue of actions and sayings worthy of praise or blame’, notes his translator, adding that Valerius ‘provided such a catalogue with the morals inescapably highlighted by the arrangement and by his own introductions and conclusions to the individual exempla’ (13).

[25]  As abridgements served rhetorical purposes in the Roman Principate, so they served humanist readers undertaking what Braithwaite called ‘especiall reading’. Braithwaite’s emphasis on ‘incredible effects’ reinforces the effects of abridgements on readers of suitable judgement and disposition. Early modern writers on pedagogy emphasize the importance of reading abridged accounts of famous exemplars to learn how to behave. But they also underscore the importance of interpreting these texts correctly, reading them with an attitude of detachment from circumstantial differences yet alertness to their moral qualities. This was especially crucial when prescribing texts for impressionable students and future rulers, as Erasmus knew when he advised tutors to illustrate sententiae with their exemplars (in The Education of a Christian Prince):

The deeds of famous men fire the minds of noble youths, but the opinions with which they become imbued is a matter of far greater importance, for from these sources the whole scheme of life is developed (Erasmus 1997: 145).

While ‘famous men’ are instrumental to a nobleman’s education, he must not read them without guidance, interpreting them as he pleases. His teachers must ‘package’ ancient books, ‘processing them and transforming them from jagged, unmanageable, sometimes dangerous texts into uniform, easily retrievable, reproducible bits of utterance and information’ (Grafton 1999: 199).

[26]  Condensed versions of long texts frustrated humanist educators for much the same reason they do today. Roger Ascham dismissed them as ‘a silie poore kinde of studie’, suited only to ‘those that be learned already’ in a subject – that is, as an aid not to learning, but to memory (Ascham 1570: sig. O2r; cit. Wheatley 2005: 861). He thus called them ‘a way of studie, belonging, rather to matter, than to wordes: to memorie than to utterance’. Abridgements were not supposed to replace reading ‘the Booke at large’, but to judge from these prefaces, that is exactly what they did. The satirist Henry Fitzgeffrey tells us something about who read these texts when he urges the clerks to ‘Roule up the Records of Antiquity, / To frame Abridgements for youth’s Liberty’ (Fitzgeffrey 1617: sig. B4v).

[27]  Part of Ascham’s objection to abridgements was that they replaced the original texts, and thus the reader put too much trust in them. A pedagogical tool for remembering more nuanced, if more amplified, histories replaced them with simplified formulae. A genealogy of rulers replaced a thousand years of political history, and the particular lessons in statecraft each might impart. Similarly, a hero’s purposeful life might downplay his doubts and misfortunes along the way.

[28]  Thus in a culture of necessary abridgements, prompted by an excess of available material to read, it was essential that those making abridgements thought carefully about their motives. Their decisions about what to include, what to emphasize, and (concomitantly) what to exclude from a record or a narrative would have direct consequences —  would directly affect the reader to perceive and to believe certain things in a story, at the expense of more nuanced or even contrary things. This is the problem of metonymy, which I address in my conclusion: the problem that the chosen parts of an abridged story will often do an injustice to other parts whose selection would convey a different (perhaps opposing) lesson for the reader. It is perilous to read a history that is packaged for your convenience by an intervening rhetorician or educator, unless you are certain to weigh different viewpoints in other histories.


[29]  Prince Henry read abridged books, and received dedications of them. With apologies to Ascham, however, his preference for this form was likely due as much to his impatience with reading as to his desire to be similarly epitomized. In 1603 William Willymat dedicated his Princes Looking Glasse to Henry, a Latin and English verse-translation of King James’ Basilicon Doron that excerpts its ‘fittest and principallest precepts and instructions’ (Willymat 1603: sig. A3r). Henry also received the dedication of An Abridgement or Survey of Poperie (1606) by Matthew Sutcliffe, dean of Exeter — a book whose title underscores that ‘abridgement’ and ‘survey’ were synonymous, but whose contents are less suggestive about the form.

[30]  ‘Abridgement’ was one word that writers used during Henry’s lifetime to refer to his exemplars, to the models of virtue and heroism he imitated. But Henry also aspired to earn a similarly selective biography as his posthumous legacy — to become, as George Marcelline described him in 1610, ‘The Index, Abstract, or Compendium of the very greatest Princes whatsoeuer’ (Marcelline 1610: sig. A2r).

[31]  This desire was not for fame as an end unto itself, but to do service to his subjects and prospective readers. Haydon translates the motto Henry chose from Silius Italicus’ Punica: ‘fax mentis honestae / gloria’, as ‘Renowne is a furtherer of an honest mind’ (Haydon 1634: 11). (In his Discoveries, Ben Jonson claimed to have given the prince this motto.) Cornwallis repeatedly cites Henry’s desire to serve as an example ‘imitable to all other Princes’, because princes’ examples ‘are of more force then any Law of letters’:

This became to this Prince so great a motive, as hee thought not fit to lose any houres of the life that upon this earth were appointed unto him, but so to bestow them, as they might not onely become profitable to himselfe, but imitable and exemplary to others (Cornwallis 1641: 8, 15; sigs. B4v, C4r).

No doubt his father’s conventional warning in Basilicon Doron that kings and princes stand ‘upon a publike stage, in the sight of all the people’, contributed to this (James VI and I 1994: 4). Henry sought to spend his time profitably, a word that (as I have shown) recurs as the motive for many abridged texts offering their services to readers.

[32]  Cornwallis also writes that Henry wished to be exemplary to others. This refers to the prince’s moral rectitude and proper living, in stark contrast to his father’s more licentious court. But his legacy takes a more negative meaning after his early death, to remind others of their own mortality. In one of his chaplains’ final sermons for the prince, preached immediately before his fatal illness, Robert Wilkinson refers to the Prince of Wales’s other motto: ‘what meaneth that Ich dien, the word or Imprease of the English Prince, but I serue, A Prince, and yet serues’. Referring to the prince’s pluma triplex device, Wilkinson urges Henry to take pride in his public role, not in his pursuit of fame: ‘yea & he shakes vp his feathers, & flourisheth when he speaks it, as if it were his glory as yet to serue’ (Wilkinson 1614: 78; sig. L2v).

[33]  Henry’s ambitions for a future legacy took the specific shape of his textual forebears. Their examples narrowly and specifically evoke their positive legacies, but only by restricting themselves to very selective representations. In 1606 Robert Fletcher offered the prince The Nine English Worthies, a domestic rendition of the Nine Worthies consisting of brief biographies of Henry himself, alongside the eight English kings of the same name. Fletcher writes that he expects ‘a transparent passage of their vertues into you, and a reflexion from you’, as Henry has

(herein) meanes, examples, and leasure to heare, learne, beholde, and obserue the singular goodnesse of God, in that, which hereafter shall be your owne greatnesse and happinesse (1606: sigs. A2v–A3r).

These kings are mirrors to Henry, which ‘transparently’ reflect his own comparable ‘greatnesse’. The volume’s longest biography is Henry V’s, whom Fletcher praises for fortitude, endurance, and fastidiousness — virtues that will recur in the early biographies of Henry. By installing the prince in this domestic pantheon, Fletcher’s Nine English Worthies realizes Henry’s aspiration to epitomize his forebears.

[34]  Fletcher also signals his preferential treatment of Henry V by invoking Homer, Virgil, and Cicero to write the king’s epitaph, just as the worthies collectively propose Wyatt and Surrey as authors of Prince Henry’s praise (Fletcher 1606: sigs. F2r–F3r, F4r, K2v). Authorial invocations like these were a familiar part of the humility topos; Hawkins protests at the beginning of his Life and Death that he is hampered by ‘conscience of my unworthiness, & insufficiencie to performe so high a task, (which rather would become some Homer, Virgil, Demosthenes, Cicero, or rather some one in whom all their excellencies are combined, to performe aright)’ (3).

[35]  Fletcher’s emphasis on Henry V also echoes Michael Drayton’s description of the prince in 1604. In his Paean Trivmphall, Drayton uses the word ‘abridgement’ to describe Henry’s encapsulation of his ancestors.[4] Witnessing the Stuart royal family’s first royal entry in March 1604, he describes ‘the faire Prince’ as one

in whom appear’d in glory
As in th’abridgement of some famous story,
Ev’ry rare vertue of each famous King
Since Norman Williams happie conquering:
Where might be seene in his fresh blooming hopes,
Henry the fifth leading his warlike troupes,
When the proud French fell on that conquered land,
As the full Corne before the labourers hand. (Drayton 1961: vol. 1, 481; ll. 55–62)

Henry’s appearance on horseback ‘abridges’ these exemplary and ‘famous’ stories of his ancestors, in Drayton’s words. The poet looks forward to a future in which this eleven-year-old prince, who contains both the germ and culmination of Henry V’s conquests, realizes his narrative potential.

[36]  Narrative terms describing the living Henry reinforce the textual quality of these plans for his future. In 1611, Francis Davison included in his Poetical Rapsodie a eulogy ‘To my Lord the Prince’, whom he praises as one ‘On whose faire structure, written is the story / Of natures chefest skill’. He uses another term to wish Henry everlasting fame after a long life:

Abridgement of all worth, the mighty Ioue,
Long lengthen your good daies, and still your name,
And when you shall haue honoured long this land
Grant you a glorious Saint in heauen to stand.
(Davison 1602: 208; sig. K2v; my emphasis)

Davison uses ‘abridgement’ to mean an epitome of ‘all worth’, or at least a summation of the stories of that worth — stories of nature’s skill that will persevere after Henry’s eventual death. He glances forward to the legacy Henry will earn posthumously, though after a long life.

[37]  Davison’s projection evokes the second meaning of ‘abridgement’ in early modern culture, namely a premature conclusion or death. Dramatic texts make frequent use of variations of the verb ‘abridge’ or the noun ‘abridgement’, denoting both meanings of condensations and premature ends. The first is with reference to the economics of staging events ‘Which cannot in their huge and proper life / Be here presented’, as the Chorus to Shakespeare’s Henry V explains when asking audiences to ‘brook abridgement’ and allow him to describe events between the acts (Shakespeare 1995, 5.0.45, 5.0.5–6). Shakespeare uses the word apologetically, in the same spirit that he asks the audience to ‘Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts’. Elsewhere, Shakespeare uses ‘abridgement’ more narrowly, for a narrative shortened to distil both its moral and its entertainment value. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus asks Egeus for an ‘abridgement’ to pass the evening, a term he interchanges with ‘masques’, ‘dances’, and ‘revels’ (Shakespeare 1994a, 5.1.39, 32, 36). In Hamlet, Shakespeare encapsulates the two meanings of abridgement, when the eponymous prince describes the visiting players as ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of the time’ and then, interrupted by their entrance, says ‘look where my abridgement comes’ (Hamlet, in Shakespeare 2006: 2.2.358, 462–63): they are both Hamlet’s interruption, and his abstracted chronicles.

[38]  When dramatists use ‘abridgement’ with reference to ‘days’ or ‘lives’ rather than to entertainments, the word has overtly threatening overtones. Christopher Marlowe uses variations on this phrase to refer to murder, in Edward II, or suicide, in 1 Tamburlaine; and variations on the phrase ‘to abridge one’s days’ are used to imply a premature death in plays, romances, and elegies by Emanuel Ford (1598), William Shakespeare (1600), Thomas Rogers (1603), and Gervase Markham (1607), among others.[5] Ben Jonson’s Volpone urges rich men to purchase health with good physicians, so as not ‘to abridge the naturall course of life (Jonson 1607, 2.2). In Philip Sidney’s Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1593), Zelmane laments ‘that hatefull death can abridge [human minds] of powre’. Similar phrases appear in romances or moral histories by Henry Roberts (1590), Thomas Beard (1597), and Richard Johnson (1597).[6] Finally, ‘abridge’ simply means ‘limit’ in the anonymous Life and Death of Jacke Straw (1593), when Richard II knights the Lord Mayor with the promise that ‘Time, shall nere abridge thy fame’ (1994: Act 4).

[39]  That was what Prince Henry wanted: to earn the kinds of abridgements that time would never abridge. From a literary-critical perspective, much of the pathos of Henry’s death comes from his elegists’ conventional disappointment at the loss of these prospective narratives. One way to measure the implications of Henry’s death was to describe its effect on his future exemplarity, its destruction of hopes that his actions would provide heroic material for unwritten texts.

[40]  William Drummond laments Henry’s lost biography in particularly ambitious terms:

A booke had beene of thy illustrous deedes.
So to their nephewes aged Syres had told
The high exploits perform’d by thee of olde;
Townes raz’d, and rais’d, victorious, vanquish’d bands,
Fierce Tyrants flying, foyl’d, kild by thy hands.
And in deare Arras, Virgins faire had wrought
The Bayes and Trophees to thy countrie brought:
While some great Homer imping wings to fame,
Deafe Nilus dwellers had made heare thy name (1613: sig. A2v).

Drummond depicts Henry’s heroic future as meriting Homeric treatment. Citing the virgins and poets who might have recounted these ‘illustrous deedes’, Drummond concedes that the elegy is a poor substitute for the epics Henry’s life ought to have inspired. Predictions of his epic appeared long before Henry’s death; in William Alexander’s Parænesis to the Prince, the poet is enthusiastic about the prospect of retelling Henry’s narrative:

I (Henrie) hope with this mine eyes to feed,
Whilst, ere thou wearst a crown, thou wear’st a shield,
And when thou making thousands for to bleed,
That dare behold thy count’nance and not yeeld,
Sturres through the bloudie dust a foaming steed,
An interested witnesse in the field,
I may amongst those bands thy Grace attend,
And be thy Homer, when the warres do end (Alexander 1604: sig. C4v).

All that distinguishes Alexander’s poem from Drummond’s is their verb tenses, with Drummond in 1612/13 substituting what ‘had beene’ for Alexander’s anticipation in 1603 of what ‘may’ come to pass. Whether either poet was prepared (or qualified) to write this Henriad is questionable; in any event, it was a convention of military biographies to compare them to Homer’s war-epic. Samuel Daniel had begun his account of Henry V’s French campaign, culminating in the famous Battle of Agincourt, by lauding ‘What euerlasting matter here is found, / Whence new immortal Iliads might proceed’ (Daniel 1611: sig. K3v).

[41]  The difference between projecting and lamenting Iliads is that a death liberates you from the obligation to write one. It must be said that after Henry’s death it was far easier to bemoan lost epics now that poets could never be expected to write them. Honesty is not a characteristic quality of eulogy, nor of elegy. But death confronts all subjects and poets with a stronger insistence, and the slipperiness of language gives their words a meaning beyond their control.

[42]  Elegy is always a reluctant genre, the poor cousin and paltry substitute for those that poets aspire to write. In An Anatomy of the World, John Donne ends ‘The First Anniuersarie’ resolved to write more elegies for Elizabeth Drury, though he adds that her life is ‘matter fit for Chronicle, not verse’ (l. 460) Yet by the beginning of ‘A Funerall Elegie’, the next poem in this volume, Donne’s attitude has shifted:

Can these memorials, ragges of paper, giue
Life to that name, by which name they must liue?
Sickly, alas, short-liu’d, aborted bee
Those Carkas verses, whose soule is not shee. (1612: sig. D3v, ll. 11–14)

Elegies are carcasses and earthly remnants of the souls and names they memorialize. Surveying the hundreds of elegies that disconsolate writers and erstwhile soldiers offered in Henry’s memory, John Webster could only agree:

Fames lips shall bleed, but not in such sicke aire,
As make waste Elegies to his Tombe repaire,
With scraps of commendation more base
Then are the ragges they are writ on, ô disgrace
To nobler Poesie. This brings to light,
Not that they can, but that they cannot write,
Better, they had, nere troubled his sweet trance,
So, silence should haue hid their ignorance:
For hee’s a reuerend subiect to be pend
Onely by his sweet Homer and my frend (Webster 1613: sig. C1r).

Both Donne and Webster disdain these ‘ragges’ and remnants of their dead subjects, who deserve far worthier textual monuments. When Webster praises Henry as a ‘subiect to be pend / Onely by his sweet Homer and my frend’, he offers the task to Homer’s most recent English translator, George Chapman. (Browne also refers to the same translator as ‘My friend’ in 1616: 88, sig. M4v.) Chapman’s dedications of his 1609 and 1611 translations of Homer’s Iliad offered Henry no less than a fully-translated epic to guide him toward his potential, and evidently inspired rampant anxiety among Henry’s elegists.[7]

[43]  The legacy these admirers intended for their ‘reuerend subiect’, to borrow Webster’s phrase, was Henry’s transition from heroic conquests to epics chronicling these actions. Chapman sought a prince who would emulate Alexander the Great, turning to Chapman as a modern Homer to inspire his actions and preserve his posthumous reputation. Thus Chapman’s Epicede or Funerall Song (1612) is unique, as the reflections of a poet who was largely responsible for shaping the Homeric expectations of his future. Chapman marvels at the texts that once seemed guaranteed commissions, when classical models inspired Henry with their abstracted rules of justice and of war:

Of which lawes, thy youth, both contain’d the text
And the contents; ah, that thy grey-ripe yeeres
Had made of all, Cæsarean Commentares,
(More then can now be thoght) in fact t’enroule. (Chapman 1613: sig. C3r.)

His textual schema of Henry’s future suggests that these commentaries were acts set out in the table of contents of Henry’s youth, and his reading.

[44]  These evocations of Henry’s life as a text and its contents resurfaced the year after his death. In 1613, Robert Dallington dedicated to Prince Charles his Aphorismes Civill and Militarie, a partial translation of Francesco Guicciardini’s book of aphorisms and anecdotes applied to history. Dallington’s dedication was significant because in 1609 he had presented the same book in manuscript to Henry. His dedicatory epistle underscores Charles’s inheritance of his brother’s public position and of Henry’s reading practices, and offers a textual metaphor for his own life:

All eyes are upon you. Those your sweete graces of nature, and ingenuous dispositions to goodnes, makes men looke upon your worthy Brother in your princely selfe; holding you the true inheritor of his vertues as of his fortunes, and making full account that he had no oddes of you but in yeares. If you wil not have them fall short in their reckoning, this Imprimis of your hopefull beginnings, must be continued with many Items of vertuous proceedings, and closed up with a Summa-totalis of all princely worthinesse (Dallington 1613: sig. A3r).

Dallington uses the image of Charles’ life as a book, beginning with an itemized table of his ‘vertuous proceedings’ and ending with a ‘Summa-totalis’ or index of his worthiness. All eyes are upon him, reading his outward actions to compare them with the contents of Henry’s life. The trouble with this comparison was that it relied on a very selective reading of very recent history.


[45]  As Chloe Wheatley has shown, abridgements often claim to represent their originative texts synecdochically — that is, to encapsulate their essential qualities while stripping away only what is inessential or impure. The early modern rhetorician Thomas Wilson defined synecdoche as a trope by which the reader may ‘gather or judge the whole by the part’ (cit. in Wheatley 2011: 22; for Erasmus and Puttenham on the rhetoric of synecdoche see 22–23). But when the part leaves out essential details, like the abridgements that Henry resembled in his lifetime, it is unreliable. Henry V may have been a famous story, but only if you focus on his famous victories and ignore his death from smallpox.

[46]  Calling attention to counter-rhetorical facts can miss the point of exemplary rhetoric, however, the purpose of which is not to describe things as they were but to provoke actions that might be. Wilson’s example implicitly promises comparable renown to suitably responsive readers: ‘It does not pretend to narrate past action’, at least in isolation, ‘but suggests a possible future narrative’. The object of this rhetoric, Henry himself, can only aspire to such a narrative. In Montaigne’s Essais, the contemporary text wherein we find the most skeptical judgments of rhetorical examples, the example ‘posits a failed representation; it shows the distance between paradigms of ideal behaviour and actual norms of conduct’ (Nichols 1995: 54–55).[8] The friction between this promise (of a future narrative) and this reality (of that narrative’s distance from paradigmatic ideals) results from the example’s unreality, its neglect of externalities like fortune or collaboration in its focus on the exemplar’s singular self-determination. An idealized, exemplary biography will always be more purposeful than the experience of its quotidian readers.

[47]  Does this obtain in every instance? Much of my focus in this argument has been on positive exemplarity, exhorting imitation. But examples are also often negative, encouraging their objects to shun the vices or errors that led people to bad ends. If positive lessons rely on metonymy, on selective exclusions of conflicting or unsympathetic qualities, then negative lessons rely on the inspiring power of failures — and on a willingness to restore excisions like indecorous deaths, to restore nuance to exemplarity. Henry V may encourage heroism in war, but he also reinforces the need to remember that kings are mortal. Prince Henry earned more epitaphs than epics, because he serves equally as an exemplar of mutability as of ambition. His chaplain Daniel Price preached thus two days after his death in November 1612:

Let your deare bought experience teach you the lesson that Dauid, a great Prince, gaue to his People; Trust not in Princes, for they be sonnes of men, there is no health in them, their breath departeth, and euery one of them returneth to his earth; If a man may speake any thing worthy of the greatest admiration, it is this, Trust not in Princes, they themselues are not in safety; their sublimitie is but sublunary; they are within the verge; … yeeld them faithfulnesse and obedience, but settle not in them your faith and confidence (Price 1613: 479–480; sigs. F4v–G1r).

Price’s lesson, drawn from Psalm 146, is to place your trust in providence rather than in your misperceptions of sublunary princes. His negative example confronts the absent dead, rather than conjuring up false presences and comparisons. It confronts the unabridged experience or text, ending in death, leaving readers to recognize it as truly universal.

University of Calgary


[1] For citations at various turns of this argument, I am grateful to Heather Hirschfeld, Scott Schofield, and Chloe Wheatley (personal communication).[back to text]

[2] My word counts are approximate, and use the ABBYY FineReader 8.x Engine (for OCR) and the Text Creation Partnership (for transcriptions).[back to text]

[3] Roy Strong corrects the attribution in 1986: 227. This is based on its source, BL. Add. MS 30075; a copy (BL. Add. MS 11532) is dated 1613. A third MS, Folger V. a. 486(1), is very similar to Butter’s printed edition, and might have served as its copy-text.[back to text]

[4] For other descriptions of Henry in this entry, see Brown and Bentinck 1864: vol. 10, 139; Dugdale 1604: sigs. B2v–B3r; and Bergeron 2003: 36.[back to text]

[5] Usage data and textual quotations in this paragraph are from Literature Online <http://lion.chadwyck.com> [accessed 7 October 2011], using a keyword search for ‘abridg*’ and limiting the date range from 1590 to 1610.[back to text]

[6] In Roberts 1590, Andrugio wishes that he could have been spared his life’s torments by poisoned serpents in his cradle (like those of Hercules) ‘which might haue abridged my life’. The same expression for a wish for death to relieve suffering appears in Beard’s macabre Theatre of Gods Iudgements (1597: ch. 20), a translation from the French of various histories illustrating divine reprobation against apostates and other sinners. In Johnson 1597: Part 2, ch. 8, the knight of the Black Castle threatens Saint George that if the English champion’s wife and children were present he would ‘abridge their liues that thy accursed eyes might be witnesses of their bloodie murthers’. In the same text Rosana laments her mother’s death: ‘the gloomy fates doe triumph in your death, and abridge your breathing ayre of life’ (ch. 6).[back to text]

[7] Chapman began publishing his translations from Homer’s Iliad in 1598, when he dedicated both Seaven Bookes of the Iliades and Achilles Shield to the Earl of Essex, whose disgrace and execution led Chapman to seek favour elsewhere. He dedicated to Henry his Homer Prince of Poets…in twelue Bookes of his Iliads (1609), followed by the complete Iliads of Homer Prince of Poets (1611). Both Essex and Henry died before realising the ambitions of those who praised them as Protestant warriors. ‘No poet was ever so unlucky in his choice of patrons’ (Soellner 1985: 138).[back to text]

[8] Nichols focuses on disjunctions between the orator’s words and conduct, as mitigated by poetry, but his argument on Montaigne’s critique of historia in ‘De la cholère’ (Of anger) is relevant here. Further discussions of Montaigne’s irreverent enthusiasm for examples appear in Jeanneret 1998; esp. 573–78; and 1991; esp. 275–83.[back to text]


Alexander, William, Earl of Stirling. 1604. A Paraenesis to the Prince By William Alexander of Menstrie (STC (2nd ed.) 346)

Anonymous. 1593. The Life and Death of Iacke Straw, a Notable Rebell in England: Who Was Kild in Smithfield By the Lord Maior of London. (STC (2nd ed.) 23356)

Ascham, Roger. 1570. The Scholemaster Or Plaine and Perfite Way of Teachyng Children, to Vnderstand, Write, and Speake, the Latin Tong But Specially Purposed for the Priuate Brynging Vp of Youth in Ientlemen and Noble Mens Houses, and Commodious Also for All Such, as Haue Forgot the Latin Tonge (STC (2nd ed.) 832)

Bacon, Francis. 1860. ‘In Henricum Principem Walliae Elogium Francisci Bacon’, in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Heath (Boston, MA: Brown of Taggard, 1860), 15–22

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              . 1607. The Most Pleasant Historie of Ornatus and Artesia Wherein is Contained the Vniust Raigne of Thaeon King of Phrygia. Who With His Sonne Lenon, (Intending Ornatus Death) Right Heire to the Crowne, Was Afterwardes Slaine By His Owne Seruants, and Ornatus After Many Extreame Miseries, Crowned King. (STC (2nd ed.) 11169)

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Review Article: Shakespeare and the Middle Ages

Review Article: Shakespeare and the Middle Ages

Dermot Cavanagh

Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, eds. Curtis Perry & John Watkins. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). 295 pp + xiv. £59.00 hbk.

Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, eds. Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray. (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Co, 2009). 276 pp + viii. £35.00 hbk.

[1]  Shakespeare’s works are subject to a wide range of needs and demands. His writing has elicited a continuous and sometimes volatile debate over both the values it espouses and the contexts which best illuminate these. In this respect, Shakespeare remains a writer that different interpretive communities want to claim for their own. One area of dispute that has intensified in recent years concerns the temporal and cultural context within which we locate Shakespeare. Curtis Perry and John Watkins present a collection of essays on Shakespeare and the Middle Ages that sets out to challenge a habitual perception of his works as being embedded wholly within the Renaissance (or early modern) world. Instead, they and their contributors invite us to reconsider how deeply Shakespeare’s work is suffused by habits of thought and artistic conventions that derive from the medieval period. Indeed, this volume suggests that Shakespeare’s writing has also helped to determine the chronological categories and process within which it is located. As the editors put it in their impressively thoughtful and considered introduction, the role of Shakespeare’s works in the ‘invention of the Middle Ages’ should not be underestimated (3). This has helped to promote, in turn, the professional, and even ideological, interests of Renaissance specialists and to constrain understanding of the works themselves. Shakespeare’s position at the centre of the Renaissance canon has undoubtedly been a crucial factor in ensuring the continuing cultural presence and prestige of this field of literary study both within and without the academy. We have become familiar with readings that construe his works as enacting both a rupture with the norms and assumptions of the ‘middle ages’ and a turn towards modernity. But what if this enduring paradigm is misconceived? Shakespeare may not be better understood as a medieval writer exactly but beginning with the assumption that he belongs to a distinctively Renaissance period can obliterate legacies that are integral to his writing and thinking. In addition, it also excludes medievalists from the interpretation of works that are affected profoundly by earlier sets of values and conventions or that simply do not fit within a strict conceptualisation of period-boundaries.

[2]  To be sure, such a challenge to the historical understanding of Shakespeare has been made before. Emrys Jones’s ground-breaking study, The Origins of Shakespeare (1977) explored how Shakespeare’s breakthrough as a writer in the 1590s was enabled by his profound awareness of medieval forms rather than being initiated by a breach with these traditions. Jones demonstrated how much Shakespeare learned from his medieval forebears: the plays absorbed a wide range of scenic and structural principles from the mystery cycle and morality play traditions and this underlay some of their most compelling and seemingly distinctive theatrical techniques. On this account, the principal sources that shaped Shakespeare’s compositional habits in the formative phase of his career derived from indigenous theatrical traditions not classical influences. In an equally arresting study of Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (1989), John D. Cox challenged the influential assumptions of New Historicism concerning Shakespeare’s incipient modernity, especially with regard to the representation of political power. Rather than attributing the writer’s unillusioned attitude in this respect to his modernity – and to an outlook shared by such avant-garde writers as Machiavelli – Cox showed how Shakespeare’s unflinching political realism was shaped by his medieval heritage, most notably by an Augustinian scepticism towards the prerogatives and pretensions of worldly power. It was this vision of temporal authority that pervaded the great civic theatre of the mystery cycles, informing its often troubling account of the vulpine nature of kings and magistrates and the consequent vulnerability of subjects to their predations. It was this dramatic tradition that most influenced Shakespeare and it offered a wide range of theatrical situations and experiences to draw upon in his often pitiless examination of the pursuit and exercise of authority. Again, when Shakespeare appeared most forward-looking he was actually looking back.

[3]  Yet these two significant contributions exercised little sway over the mainstream of Shakespeare studies. Over the last three decades, the issue of how Shakespeare’s works address those forces deemed to constitute our present disenchanted world — the rise of individualism, market relations, colonialism — has remained at the forefront of critical concern. More recently, however, interest in how Shakespeare’s writing was constituted by his past has been reinvigorated with major studies by Beatrice Groves, in Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare, 1592-1604 (2007), and Helen Cooper’s, Shakespeare and the Medieval World (2010). The two collections of essays under review offer an opportunity to consider what kinds of questions and dissatisfactions drive this research and to clarify what difference it makes to perceive Shakespeare in terms of a medieval rather than an early modern world. As we’ll see, they also demonstrate some of the difficulties of this project. This is especially apparent in terms of the residual power of assumptions concerning the medieval period and the contrasting modernity of Shakespeare that still underlies even the analysis that sets out to overturn this.

[4]  In Perry and Watkins’s Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, the essays follow three directions, some of which intersect and overlap but which can still be distinguished in broad terms. The first approach is less interested in questioning received approaches to periodisation and instead emphasises how Shakespeare (and others) understood the distinctiveness of the medieval past, principally in historical drama. In a suggestive essay, Brian Walsh considers Shakespeare’s characteristic stress on discontinuity and historical difference in Henry V. In particular, he emphasises the play’s recreation of the ‘otherness’ of a past world that existed before the key moments of historical transformation marked by the Reformation, the advent of printing and the development of the professional theatre (including the key genre of the history play). In its self-conscious attention to these crucial differences — such as the chantries Henry has founded to pray for the soul of Richard II — Henry V demonstrates a sharp awareness of historical distinction and transformation. It is also attentive to the different ways in which the past is construed and disseminated as different sets of protagonists apprehend it in their own ways. The commentary of the Chorus also reminds us of the uniqueness of the theatre as a performative medium within which the past is recreated.

[5]  The two editors of the collection also consider historical drama. Curtis Perry has granted himself some welcome editorial largesse to consider how variously historical dramatists aside from Shakespeare recreated the medieval period. He considers a number of plays that deal with the Danish and Norman conquests of England in the eleventh century, such as Fair Em, the Miller’s Daughter, Edmund Ironside, and The Love-Sick King. The aim is to remind us of the heterogeneous and conflicting ways in which the medieval past was imagined, especially in terms of national identity. The plays considered by Perry emphasise the ancient liberties associated with localities and the power this gives them to resist conquest and invasion. The subject-matter of the essay is fresh and handled interestingly and it is good to see non-canonical theatre given such attention. The argument is less convincing when it contrasts these plays with the fundamentally royalist conception of Englishness represented in Shakespeare’s historical drama, a highly contestable assumption that is largely reliant on Richard Helgerson’s work. In ‘Losing France and becoming England’, John Watkins reads King John as exploring the shift from dynastic to state-based forms of diplomacy. The play presents the breakdown of the strictly dynastic interests pursued by John’s military endeavours and marriage treaties and reveals, in the wake of this, the emergence of a new kind of political identity where subjects belong primarily to a nation. John’s political failure as a dynastic monarch thus opens the possibility for a newly assertive understanding of the significance of England as one nation within an emerging system of competing, distinctive and sovereign nation-states. These three essays are full of insight yet they largely conform with a traditional understanding of Shakespeare as a Renaissance writer who possessed a sharply differentiated sense of the ‘middle ages’, a period with its own unique and now vanished characteristics.

[6]  A second direction is followed by those contributors who are interested in what the editors term ‘the medieval invention of Shakespeare’ (3). In these essays the core issue is, in essence, continuity. If the category of early modernity is bound up with ideas of transition, newness and rupture, the critical task is usually to consider how Shakespeare’s works confronted these challenges. Yet as Perry and Watkins point out in their introduction, many of the historical features and social processes that are thought of as constitutive of early modernity — for example, market capitalism — were present in the medieval world. This idea broaches the intriguing possibility of considering how medieval and Renaissance theatre explored shared experiences rather than seeing the latter as brought into being by a wholly new set of forces.

[7]  In this spirit, William Kuskin considers the continuity rather than disjunction between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in terms of their shared ideas of literary and cultural authority. In his account of The First Part of the Contention, more familiarly known as 2 Henry VI, Kuskin stresses the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s manifest interest in the previous century inasmuch as the work both subordinates and dismisses earlier traditions of writing and yet continues to be preoccupied with its self-consciousness about textual reproduction. In a sophisticated argument, Kuskin stresses how our understanding of book history needs to acknowledge the importance of paradox and recursive returns rather being founded on a linear narrative of singularity and progress. The essay stresses Shakespeare’s concern with textuality and how texts within the play can both constitute authority but can also be manipulated and challenged. A linear concept of literary and printing history obscures dependencies and recursive exchanges across time, for example, between manuscript and print culture as well as the concern with textuality Shakespeare shares with fifteenth-century writing.

[8]  Two other contributors also stress the continuities and exchanges that exist between temporal and cultural categories often viewed in isolation. Sarah Beckwith explores the recurrent concern with figures who return from the dead in Shakespearean drama — especially in the post-tragic theatre of the ‘late’ romance plays — and who provoke profound questions of responsibility and repentance. Beckwith considers a number of sources for this preoccupation including the resurrection narratives presented by the mystery cycles and their central concern with the acknowledgement of Christ’s body and the demand this makes to sustain a new kind of self and a new form of community. The resonances for this in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale are explored compellingly and with great delicacy and insight. In another fine essay, Michael O’Connell points out that Shakespeare was unique amongst major contemporary playwrights in having direct access to the last performances of the mystery cycles and this may be a key factor in the equally distinctive influence of medieval theatre upon his work. O’Connell traces a number of allusions and references to the cycles but his main interest is in the legacy of the morality play, especially for King Lear. The latter play relies extensively on emblematic characters and morally polarised situations and the roles of Kent, Fool and Edgar are especially indebted to morality conventions. The narrative of Lear shares similarities with Skelton’s Magnificence, however, the mode that most affects the play is the Summons of Death most famously embodied in Everyman. O’Connell shows how deeply Shakespeare’s play absorbs the patterning and preoccupations of this tradition whilst ironising and exceeding it to intensify its tragic potential.

[9]  The final trajectory taken by these essays is to see the works as less locatable in a particular period but as embedded in and reflecting upon processes of transition and change. In a strikingly ambitious essay on A Lover’s Complaint — the disputed authorship of this text is set aside in a footnote — Christopher Warley reads the poem as expressive of the shift from feudalism to capitalism. Indeed, the author states his intention to explore how the poem reveals ‘the transition from medieval to Renaissance’ (25) which again has the rather odd effect of largely reinstating the very categories the volume sets out to challenge. Still, the reading itself is resourceful, remarkably so in many ways, in its attention to the rhetorical complexity of the poem combined with a reading of its relationship to economic discourses of property-relations and commodification. At times, the theoretical density of the argument does over-burden the poem with an excessive amount of conceptual and historical significance. The core argument is that love complaint expresses a new form of productive social power to transform existing circumstances. The concluding thesis, influenced principally by Gayatri Spivack, is a provocative one: that the maid’s acceptance of her own commodification also constitutes the possibility for new forms of social opportunity and agency. Still, the essay is full of energy and interest although it seems wedded to tracing the ways in which this text does indeed mark ruptures and transitions that point towards modernity.

[10]  In a lucid and immensely suggestive essay on performativity, sacraments and social contracts in The Merchant of Venice, Elizabeth Fowler considers the pervasive role of bond-making in the play, especially in terms of a shift towards a more Protestant form of evaluating a citizen in terms of juridical and economic categories. In the play, the sacramental speech associated with penance and marriage is now articulated in wholly public and secular contexts and this reveals the power of these speech-acts both to create and, as Shylock discovers, to destroy persons and their social relationship to each other. In another essay concerned with questions of social identity in transition, Patrick Cheney turns his attention to the question of authorship. His argument is that Shakespeare understood that he was increasingly seen as the heir to both Chaucer and Spenser and self-consciously sought to be acknowledged as such. In The Phoenix and Turtle, Cheyney suggests that the author re-works Spenserian modes along with Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules to foreground his own first-person voice in the creation of the poem. However, he differs radically from Chaucer in displacing the singularity of this voice. The latter modulates to encompass both the poem’s collaborative funeral lament and then the distinctive dramatic voice of the character of ‘Reason’ within the poem. In this way, Shakespeare combines, or rather effects, a transition between two key strategies of authorial self-presentation: Chaucer’s self-effacement and Spenser’s ‘self-crowning’. In the process, he supersedes both models in his own quest for acknowledgement as National Poet.

[11]  Two further essays discuss Shakespeare’s explicit indebtedness to medieval texts and conventions and how these are transformed. In ‘Marvels and Counterfeits’, Karen Sawyer Marsalek considers the false resurrections performed by characters linked to the Antichrist tradition in the cycle plays as instances of usurpation of rightful power and the dangerous power of theatrical illusion. This is then used as a context for interpreting Falstaff’s (or Oldcastle’s) counterfeiting of death in 1 Henry IV as Shakespeare’s response to Puritan antitheatricalism: it implicates, at one level, a Protestant hero (Oldcastle) in this capacity to exploit illusion. In ‘Shakespeare’s Medieval Morality’, Rebecca Krug examines the ethos of the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of late thirteenth-century moral tales printed in 1577 and whose narratives were widely disseminated in other sources. Krug stresses the enduring power of the stories themselves, rather than their allegorical interpretation, and sees Shakespeare’s interest in these narratives as occasions that demand further reflection and that invoke the audience’s own ethical decision-making powers. In The Merchant, the vexed relationship between a number of moral claims — mercy and justice; mercantilism and morality — are shown to have numerous correspondences with the narratives found in the Gesta as are the core narrative devices of the bonds agreed in the play and the use of the casket-story. The play absorbs these narratives but insists ‘on the importance of human relations in such decision-making’ (260), although Krug suggests that a response that stresses the importance of moral choices in the secular world may have been equally available to medieval readers as well.  Both these essays are suggestive rather than wholly convincing. There are multiple contexts available to explain the aspects of each play that they consider and it’s not self-evident that these sources are decisive.

[12]  In all, this is an immensely stimulating collection which ranges widely across Shakespeare’s poetry and drama and produces some surprising connections and perspectives. Yet it is notable how the residual power of early modernity as a temporal category and, indeed, its medieval precursor is still felt in these essays. Many of them insist both on the significance of the forms and traditions inherited by Shakespeare and also how profoundly these were transformed in new directions. Recurrently, the contributors return to the intensity of Shakespeare’s preoccupation with human contexts and temporal experiences. This involves abandoning the perspective of salvation history which would order and interpret these from a larger metaphysical perspective. Sarah Beckwith insists that it is the ‘human response’ that matters for Shakespeare in his concern with grace, repentance and recognition (64); Michael O’Connell argues that Lear ‘confronts death in a way devoid of the ideology that supported the tradition’ of the morality play (216); Rebecca Krug suggests that The Merchant of Venice inherits ‘the medieval source’s transcendent morals’ but only to ‘insist on finding ways to apply them to life in this world’ (260). This often sounds familiar and proximate to the early modern Shakespeare who moves towards a largely de-sacralised way of perceiving and evaluating experience.

[13]  Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray’s collection shares a title with Perry and Watkins’s volume but there are fewer similarities than this might suggest as its concern with modernity (and post-modernity) is far more pronounced. This study considers how plays with a medieval setting or that draw on medieval sources have been adapted or performed. This definition would include the bulk of Shakespeare’s plays and there’s a diffuse and sometimes uneven quality to the collection’s aims and contents.  In the introduction the editors state a familiar aspiration to challenge disciplinary divisions and explore the permeable boundaries between periods, but the scope of this aim is not fully realised. For example, Shakespeare is defined rapidly as a writer who belongs firmly to one period rather than another: his works ‘give us an early modern perspective on the medieval world, full of inaccuracies and anachronisms, idealizations and demonizations that differentiate the two eras’ (10). Consequently, the value of studying Shakespeare’s recreation or appropriation of the medieval world is what this reveals about early modern culture or that of later periods.  On this view, the medieval period provides material to be worked on or adapted and its own autonomy or residual power is only sporadically acknowledged by the contributors.

[14]  The collection opens with an interview with the film-director Michael Almereyda concerned with his adaptation of Hamlet and is then divided into four sections dealing with Shakespeare’s principal genres; each is introduced by one of the editors. Given the generality of the volume’s aims some of the essays would fit equally well in a volume dedicated to a broader study of adaptation or performance and, at times, there is only a gesture towards a medieval dimension of the analysis. The opening section on historical drama, which promises to ‘consider how ideas about the Middle Ages are filtered through Shakespeare’ (21), in fact pays only glancing attention to these qualities. A musicologist, Linda K. Schubert, offers an interesting account of the musical scores that accompany the portrayal of Agincourt and its aftermath in films of Henry V and Jim Casey provides a useful survey of the different ways in which Richard III has been embodied in contemporary stage and film productions. However, there’s little to be gleaned from these approaches about the medieval dimension of the plays (or, for that matter, early modern attitudes). Catherine Loomis’s essay on ‘Falstaff in America’ coheres more closely with the stated aim of the collection. This makes a genuine attempt at the outset to consider Falstaff’s parodic relationship to medieval values. It then examines, briefly but suggestively, a wide range of performances and films from the nineteenth century onwards to show how this figure’s carnivalesque energy expressed distinctively American concerns.

[15]  The section dealing with the tragedies begins with Carl James Grindley on the potentially interesting subject of cinematic representations of the ‘medieval peasant’, but the latter category is understood vaguely and doesn’t apply to the two groups who are the main focus of the essay: the portrayal of the household servants and citizens of Verona in Romeo and Juliet. The treatment of class-relationships in Shakespeare and within the play is hurried although there’s a more confident discussion of the portrayal of the commoners in Zeffirelli and Luhrmann’s versions of the play and their role in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. The next two essays on Hamlet and Macbeth are founded more surely. Patrick J. Cook offers a thoughtful account of the medieval elements in Hamlet and the rising contemporary and theatrical interest in Denmark. He then discusses the vogue for ‘historical’ stagings of the play in the Victorian period and the medieval settings used in cinematic versions, principally in a more extensive discussion of Zeffirelli’s film. Sid Ray’s essay on ‘Finding Gruoch’ is the strongest in this section which brings together medieval material with modern adaptations in interesting ways. The essay contains an interesting discussion of what the historical sources tell us about Lady Macbeth and the complexities of her experience (which are largely occluded by the play). This context is then used to assess her largely reductive portrayal in the versions of Orson Welles and Polanski and more productive realisations in an Australian cinematic version of the play and in the urban drama Heights.

[16]  One of the editors, Martha W. Driver, opens the section on comedy with a survey of the elements of medieval romance that feature in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and how these are handled in performance, in particular, the roles of Oberon, Puck and Bottom and the mechanicals. Julia Ruth Briggs considers Shakespeare’s adaptation of Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida and The Two Noble Kinsmen and considers some of the other sources that shaped these works. Her essay suggests that the presence of medieval material is much stronger in the latter play. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare diminishes the courtly love ethos of the earlier poem and makes the Greeks appear as much more contemporary to the original audience. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, the chivalric atmosphere of the play is more palpable as its key ritualistic quality. Briggs’s essay also includes a concise discussion of the performance history of both works. In conclusion, Gary Waller discusses the medieval motif of the Pregnant Virgin, most famously captured in paintings that rendered the maternal body with great vividness such as Piero della Francesca’s ‘Madonna del Parto’. Waller considers this tradition as a context for Helena’s appearance at the end of All’s Well, That Ends Well where ‘the apparent Virgin is transformed into a vision of sexual affirmation’ (183).

[17]  The final four essays discuss the ‘late plays’ or ‘romances’. Kelly Jones considers how the use of Gower as a Chorus (and source) for Pericles allows the play to explore the question of authorship. Jones draws attention to the hybridity of Gower’s presence as both archaic and familiar and this draws attention to the performativity and instability of his own role and decentres any stable notion of the author. R. F. Yeager also considers Pericles and presents a more detailed analysis of the numerous sources from which Shakespeare may have gleaned his understanding of ‘moral Gower’ and the commitment in the play to viewing the action from a ‘medieval’ perspective. Louise Bishop turns, like Julia Briggs, to examine Shakespeare’s relationship to Chaucer although in this instance the emphasis is on how the portrayal of successful female eloquence in the Tale of Melibee influences Hermione’s presence in The Winter’s Tale. Finally, Kim Zarins discusses the significance for Caliban in The Tempest of the allusion to the folkloric tradition of the Man in the Moon. This legend embodied the plight of a peasant made eternally outcast and subjected to an eternal penalty of labour for theft and Caliban seems to recognise and identify with this predicament when he meets Trinculo and Stephano.

[18]  It is striking that none of the contributors to these collections engage in any extensive way with the question of Shakespeare’s own religious affiliations or consider whether this might be in some way deducible from this aspect of his work. (A partial exception is Sarah Beckwith, who hints at the author’s sympathy for Anglican theology in the late plays). Both collections present a Shakespeare who is deeply engaged with and shaped by the ‘medieval’ period but from a largely secular perspective. The period presented him with modes, forms and material to be absorbed and re-imagined in his art and with a set of ethical and political concerns that pervade his writing but that are often strikingly reshaped and placed in radically new contexts. Inevitably, readings interested in the legacy of these works in performance have the most immediate and visible compulsion to consider this. Yet even those approaches that concentrate on the works’ original contexts of composition tend to stress either that the predicament of modernity starts earlier than we think or that Shakespeare shows how sacred forms or inherited traditions can no longer encompass, let alone resolve, the condition of the world around him. Either way, returning to the medieval Shakespeare brings us closer to his modernity than we might suspect.

University of Edinburgh