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Ruth Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Ruth Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). ISBN: 9781107040304, 241 pp. £55.00.

Reviewed by Patrick J. Murray


[1] ‘Some of history’s most influential writers, thinkers, and political figures’ writes Ruth Ahnert in her introduction to this stimulating book, ‘wrote from prison, including St. Paul, Boethius, Marco Polo, Walter Raleigh, John Bunyan, the Marquis de Sade, Oscar Wilde, Lady Constance Lytton, Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ezra Pound, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Gerry Adams, to name a few’ (p. 1). As such a range of authorial sources implies, while prison writing as a generic convention may be broadly classified, its themes, purposes and subjects elude codification. This variegation is evident even when one delimits the canon to a specific historical epoch and even geographical location – England in the sixteenth century saw Catholic and Protestant, male and female, the powerful and the marginal, write from prison during incarceration, evincing an array of political and religious imperatives. As such, Ahnert has a substantial and textured body of primary material with which to formulate her thesis.

[2] And this thesis is by turns elucidatory and engaging. Underpinning Ahnert’s study is a nuanced understanding of wider theoretical narratives. Reference to classic sociological studies by Jurgen Habermas (p. 6), Michel de Certeau and Edmund Husserl (p. 29) and their theories of spatial interaction, public spheres and counter-publics provide a solid foundation for this narration of ‘the emergence of the prison as an important literary sphere’ (p. 7).The interrogation commences with a summary of the realities of the sixteenth century English prison. Centring upon the notion of the prison in the period as an ‘antipanopticon’, Ahnert adumbrates a sphere where, unlike the later standardised model of the house of correction conceived by, among others, Jeremy Bentham and interrogated by Michel Foucault, fragmentation, divergence and variance prevailed. Certainly, the author acknowledges, a coherent notional model, through the enactment of significant reform, was emerging. However, the two main changes in penal practice in the sixteenth century – ‘the use of prison as both punishment and a corrective’ – were mitigated by their limited application. ‘These two Tudor developments,’ Ahnert asserts

‘[…] show that key individuals and bodies were beginning to develop new penal theories and ideologies that foreshadow the kinds of developments Foucault sees occurring a century and a half later. But, because these sixteenth-century changes were so piecemeal and divergent in nature, they merely contributed to the fragmentation of a system that was already riven by conflicting penal theories’ (p. 12).

[3] The differences in the way people were imprisoned led to a divergent range of experiences. Some, such as the Carthusian martyrs William Exmew, Sebastian Newdigate and Humphrey Middlemore, who were chained by their necks and legs and kept in their own effluvia to force confession, or Anne Askew who was subjected to the rack in the Tower of London, accord with popular perceptions of late mediaeval and early modern forms of punishment. However, more affluent prisoners, such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, even when charged with similar crimes, were held under house arrest in the relative comfort of mayoral homes and university colleges. The diversity within the modes of punishment stemmed primarily, Ahnert points out, from the limited role of the state in the functioning of the prison system. Nonetheless this restriction carried its own benefits for the ruling classes: ‘For the government’ writes Ahnert ‘there were clear advantages to be afforded by this decentralised, privatised prison system. Importantly, it allowed the government to maintain a vast number of prisons with minimal cost’ (p. 19). On the flipside however, the fractile nature of the system also precipitated a loss of control in regards to adequate administration: ‘But the drawback was that it had very little control over how they were run. Some of the benefits that money and social stature could buy in these fee-paying institutions posed a serious risk to the prison’s security.’ (p. 19). Consequently, the concerns of government – political, social and economic – influenced the ways in which crimes were punished even within a limited carceral system.

[4] More significantly, however, for studies of prison writing, the broader disorganisation of the system was mirrored in the literature produced from within. ‘Writings produced by prisoners in the early modern period,’ suggests Ahnert, ‘reflected the inefficiency, disorder, and corruption of the system in which they were detained’ (p. 22). Yet a corollary of this disorder was the lack of a standardised literature, with its own strictured conventions, and as such proffering intriguing and sometimes unusual avenues for investigation for literary scholars. For instance, where there was a lack of writing material, other forms of literary ephemera emerged. This can be seen for example in the contemporary graffiti in the Tower of London, a significant resource exploited by Ahnert as she explores ‘writings that break down the dichotomy implicit in the term counter-public’ (p. 32). Wall markings, both ornate and rudimentary are analysed for what they can tell us about the practice of writing or recording in a space specifically designed for the prevention of the transmission of writing and recording. The impulse towards individuation among sixteenth century prison writers emerges as a focal point, for example in the appending of signatures, initials and other imprimatur to reproduced Bible verses which ‘acts as a defence against anonymity’. ‘Even though the sentence still offers wisdom to each subsequent viewer,’ argues Ahnert persuasively, ‘it has become irrevocably associated with the name or monogram inscribed beside it, thereby ensuring that the given individual is remembered in relation to that particular, pious phrase’ (p. 41).

[5] Subtler forms of graffiti are also examined, as for example marginalia. Taking William Sherman’s justified description of marginal annotations, inscriptions and reader’s glosses as a form of this unofficial literature, Ahnert considers Thomas More’s Tower works, and in particular inscriptions in his prayer books. Evaluation of More’s concentration upon religious meditation leads to some stimulating conclusions. ‘By writing, and not writing about prison’ Ahnert observes, ‘More suggests that his identity as an author transcends his identity as a prisoner; although the prison has given him the chance to write, it is writing that defines his incarceration, not incarceration that defines his writing’ (p. 58). Once more, the sense of prison writing motivated not only to write, but also to record the presence of an author is iterated.

[6] Such a focus upon authorial agency, and how imprisoned early modern authors expressed identity through their literary endeavours, is a key aspect of Ahnert’s study. Writing, especially that which expressly ignores the prison (as with More’s annotations) in itself becomes a form of protest: ‘[b]y writing More is asserting that he is not daunted. His reading and writing materials may have been subsequently taken away, but it does not matter; it matters only that More wrote’ (p. 59). The presumption of a drive towards both authorship and, as a consequence, a readership is interestingly linked to prison writing transmitted between prison writers. Thus, a chapter is dedicated to the epistolary verse between Margaret Douglas and Thomas Howard, imprisoned over their clandestine marriage. Here, Ahnert draws in the well-worn literary paradigm of amatory isolation – the notion that the writer of the love lyric is a solitary figure’ and ‘love as isolation, love as suffering, love as imprisonment’ (p. 85) – to consider how the solipsistic symbiosis of the Douglas-Howard interaction influenced reception of their work when exposed to a broader audience. Later added to manuscript and subject to scribal dissemination, the erstwhile intimacy of the interaction was exposed to the fluidity of authorship inherent in coterie culture. Nonetheless, even when subsumed into broader collections of lyric poems, the authorial ascription of Douglas and Howard persisted, foregrounding the importance of authorship within the prison writing genre.

[7] The Rise of Prison Literature also demonstrates sensitivity to the wider socio-political resonances of its subject, particularly in its analysis of Renaissance martyrologies. Enormously popular, this genre presented to the reader, in the words of one of the most famous, John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church (more colloquially Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) ‘the bloudy times, horrible troubles, and great persecutions agaynst the true martyrs of Christ, sought and wrought as well by heathen emperours, as nowe lately practised by Romish prelates, especially in this realme of England and Scotland’ (p. A1r). The anthologising of editors, such as Foxe and John Bale, of previously-discrete prison works is a key aspect of early modern prison literature – Ahnert’s allusion to the ‘powerful stamp of approval’ born by such figures is both apt and eloquent. Anthologies have, as Ahnert rightly notes, an ambiguous character as texts, serving both to legitimize the material included within them in a broader thematic schema; whilst also tempering the sole agency of the author through often-unforeseen editorial input. In the context of prison writing – a delimited genre – the subtle dynamic of authorial text and editorial paratexts or revision is rendered especially crucial. ‘[I]f we choose to interrogate, or at least notice, the ways in which editors frame the prison writings with their own narratives and agendas’ writes Ahnert, ‘then we can avoid becoming the editor’s accomplice and instead assist the imprisoned author in overcoming the constraints of institutional oppression’ (p. 192).

[8] In keeping with this attention to the power of the relationship between reader and writer, Ahnert’s study retains an admirable focus on the literary. The concluding chapter entitled ‘Liberating the text?’ draws on Leah Price’s exploration of book it-narratives to consider ‘the idea that print publication and subsequent circulation of prison literature can unproblematically be described as a form of liberation’ (p. 144). Interrogation of the dissemination and reading networks of sixteenth century prison literature, alongside their concomitant array of ‘copiers and carriers both inside and outside the prison’ (p. 45) forms a key element of Ahnert’s thesis. The subtle differentiation between scribal and print publication – one of the most important and stimulating aspects of the field of early modern literary studies, influencing debates form dramaturgical collaboration to authorial identity to the place of literature in courtly and patronage structures of power – is explored with regard to the perceptions of the author-reader interaction and its significance in the production and consumption of prison literature.

[9] For Ahnert, prison writing represents an act of liberation involving writer, reader and editor. In the various case studies examined in this book, the intricacies and boundaries of this process are mapped out. Scholars of early modern literature will find much of interest here in the author’s sensitive readings of poetry and prose by both canonical and lesser-known writers; and those interested in the development of the carceral system in the early modern period in England will find Ahnert’s observations on its evolution both informative thought-provoking.

University of Glasgow, January 2014

Erika T. Lin, Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Erika T. Lin, Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). ISBN: 9781137001061, 256 pp. £55.00

Reviewed by Katherine Walker


[1] Navigating among multiple critical paradigms – historical phenomenology, historical formalism, and material text studies – Erika T. Lin’s Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance seeks to understand the cultural attitudes informing not only the semiotics but also the effects and affects of early modern performance. Lin’s point of departure from previous performance studies resides in looking closely at the materiality of immaterial performances. In surveying plays, primarily Shakespearean, which emphasize a shared early modern understanding of the power of performance to influence spectators, Lin seeks to uncover how most early modern playgoers encountered the dramas presented before them: as objects that challenge our modern notions of perception, presentation, representation, and affective responses to dramatic spectacle. Part of Lin’s project, and one of the most valuable aspects of the work, is to redirect attention from representational (and thus material and static) dramatic texts to performance’s role in the period as presentational spectacle. Lin’s analysis often loops back to the imbrication of the material and the immaterial; the repetitive immaterial acts of performance become comprehensible only through cultural attitudes and practices that located these acts as materially influential upon the bodies and perceptions of early modern audiences. In Part I, ‘Performance Effects’, for example, Lin demonstrates that performance in its materiality at once ‘cites particular cultural discourses related to specific semiotic transformations occurring within a play, and […] cites affective and experiential dimensions of social life in its presentational effects’ (pp. 8-9). What is impressive about Lin’s work is the diversity of secondary material she brings into conversation with early modern drama to argue for the dynamism at play between presentation and representation. Dream manuals, medical texts, travel narratives, anti-theatrical treatises, and accounts of wondrous physical feats all support Lin’s analyses of the events of performance as just that – dynamic, unfolding actions informed by early modern ways of thinking about meaning, language and audience participation in spectacle.

[2] After laying the groundwork for her theoretical and analytical framing of performance as an object of study, Lin moves to refashioning Robert Wiemann’s theory of character positioning to demonstrate how representational fiction is informed by spatialized presentations in Chapter One, ‘Theorizing Theatrical Privilege: Rethinking Wiemann’s Concepts of Locus and Platea’. In Wiemann’s Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, the locus is the position of authority or social superiority; the locus is emblematized as a scaffold, throne, or other edifice to delimit distance between character and audience. In turn, the platea is the position of proximity, or intimacy with the audience, and represents the space that clowns, fools, and the socially inferior occupy onstage. Lin repositions platea and locus in terms of early modern conceptions of sight and sound, arguing that by paying close attention to how attune particular characters are to the similitude of what is displayed aurally or visually onstage and what is ‘actually’ represented, the more firmly they are located in the platea. Lin extends this argument to suggest that the more these characters are aware of theatrical conventions or artifice, the more they are in the platea. This reading has implications for how we read actor-audience relationships and, more importantly, allows us to look beyond social privilege in representational drama to the theatrical privilege held by those characters who are aware of the visual, aural, and verbal semiotics of theatrical modes.

[3] Part II, ‘Theatrical Ways of Knowing,’ examines how early modern theatergoers brought particular perceptual and explanatory models of understanding to their experiences of performance. Consequently, Chapter Two, ‘Staging Sight: Visual Paradigms and Perceptual Strategies in Love’s Labor’s Lost,’ looks closely at notions of vision and perception in how audiences might have understood complex moments of staging, particularly the multi-layer spying scene in Shakespeare’s comedy. Lin’s primary aim in this chapter is to overturn assumptions about the need for theatrical verisimilitude in dramatic representation. Lin argues that Italian Renaissance perspectival models arrived in England relatively late and that surface patterning was more recognizable and thus valued by audiences. Chapter Three contextualizes allegory by looking at several texts in the period that suggested both literal and abstract levels of interpretation of entities like demons, ghosts, or dreams. For Lin, allegory in the period ‘was one of the underlying cultural logics that shaped basic theatrical literacy,’ and thus ‘allowed onstage actions to be intelligible as representations’ (p. 72). Through a discussion of visual paradigms, dream manuals, and demonological tracts, Lin argues that the figures of Revenge and Andrea’s Ghost in The Spanish Tragedy represent a much more complex consideration of metatheatricality. She also explains that the drama’s role in signifying particular meanings provided a guide for audiences in terms of negotiating the difficulties posed by theatrical interpretation. Lin concludes this chapter by looking closely at the layers of this mode in the play-within-a-play that Hieronimo stages at the end of The Spanish Tragedy. In claiming that the ‘characters’ must all speak different languages, but then in printing and perhaps performing this scene entirely in English, Lin argues, the performance elevates the embodiment inherent in theatrical language. Rather than seeing this moment of metatheatricality as emblematizing the failure of language, Lin focuses on the tensions between language and performance, arguing instead that this scene ‘gestures toward the fantasy of semiotic resolution as effected through performance’ (p. 103).

[4] The third and final part of Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance, ‘Experiencing Embodied Spectacle,’ seeks to unearth some of the even more inaccessible modes of performance in early modern theater, actions like dancing and dismemberment, whose representations receive little description in extant playbooks. Chapter Four, ‘Dancing and Other Delights: Spectacle and Participation in Doctor Faustus and Macbeth,’ explores the interpretative complexities of dancing in performance, especially by supernatural creatures. Particularly valuable in this chapter is Lin’s careful attention to specific language in the period: Lin demonstrates how words like ‘pleasant,’ ‘delight,’ and ‘ravished’ carried nuanced, not always salutary, meanings. Both the positive and negative valences of the terms are operative in moments when characters or audiences are captivated by the physical strengths or skills exhibited in dancing. For Lin, these terms and other early modern discussions of spectacle all emphasize the active role that the audience or spectator plays in witnessing these performances. In this case, the demons with which Mephistopheles surrounds Faustus when he signs the fateful contract, or the witches who ‘vanish’ after dancing for Macbeth, implicate not only the protagonists – dazzling them with their pleasant shows as they do – but also the audience members, who are at once delighted and seduced. Chapter Five moves from the pleasure in watching dancing to the violence of dismemberment in Titus Andronicus, Cymbeline, and Doctor Faustus. Through early modern drama’s fascination with limbs and penetrable bodies, the actors themselves are both represented characters and material signifiers of embodiment. Lin suggests that this dual position of an actor’s body is repeatedly foregrounded in performance. By concluding on moments of the un-representable (bodies were not literally dismembered onstage), Lin shows how theatrical violence contributed to performance as a material, and thus materially influential, medium of representation.

[5] Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance powerfully redirects our attention as scholars of early modern drama to the fact that the plays we discuss were performed before audiences carrying specific cultural assumptions about what it meant to engage in watching and listening to theatrical spectacle. This book is of value to scholars interested in performance theory more broadly but will also be useful to historicist scholars seeking to understand the nuances of bodies, actors, and representational drama converging in particular moments upon the early modern stage. While sophisticated in its articulation of theatrical performance’s complexity, Lin’s use of argument by analogy tends to proceed quickly and only develops partially the ways in which other discourses – pre- and post-Reformation paradigms of sight, for example – bear upon how we read particular moments as an early modern audience would. At times, Lin jumps too hurriedly from secondary text to primary drama and it is quite often a unidirectional move. Nonetheless, Lin’s analyses are sharp, provocative, and helpful for scholars seeking to approximate early modern ideological and social conditions of interpretative strategies in theater.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, January 2014