Qui Parle, vol. 3, number 1 (Spring 1989): 72–102
The Theatrical Self in Renaissance England
by Michael Macrone
John Marston, one of a new generation of “Inns of Court men”—law students at the cluster of gentlemen’s breeding schools outside London—engaged early in his career in a common Inns of Court pastime: promulgation of “cynic satyres” to scourge the evils of the time. I have presented at the outset a passage from one of Marston’s better-known juvenile, or Juvenalian, productions. Among the satiric conventions it illustrates is the singling out of one character type as emblem of a more general corruption. The speaker, whom we are to imagine on a random stroll through the streets of London, spontaneously encounters one specimen of an egregious affectation: sumptuous, gorgeous, Frenchified fashionability.
Marston’s use of the word “sumptuous” in describing this gallant’s vestments is far from casual; still on the books were the Elizabethan “sumptuary laws” which regulated, among other things, the fabric and fashion of the dress appropriate to each sex in each particular social class. The satiric narrator shares with other enemies of exhibitionism fundamentally conservative assumptions not only about appropriate levels of social display, but, more hysterically, about the Satanic origin of violations of gender, class, and national boundaries. Gender boundaries are violated by gorgeousness; class boundaries by sumptuousness; national boundaries by French herring-bones.
Yon gallant, therefore, exemplifies the dissolution of crucial identifying signs. He disseminates an identity as “new-stamp’d” as his flattering compliments. As he puts his counterfeit signs into circulation, he enters into a histrionic economy—the eyes of the city, he hopes, are upon him. He becomes an interpretive commodity in a world that has become, in effect, a stage. Not everyone in the audience, however, is enjoying the show. The actor plays his part badly, it is true: the marks of rehearsal, of unspontaneity, are about him. Yet the satirist’s anxiety has little to do with aesthetics, and everything to do with authenticity. The actor falsifies himself by transgressing a series of socially instituted boundaries of the self, boundaries which both create and regulate identity. The satirist’s anxieties are, ultimately, ontological.
Marston’s arguably sincere polemics are hardly unique. Similar damnations of the histrionic overdresser had issued from the pulpit for years, spilling over into pamphlets and, ultimately, onto the stage. The literature is marked by characteristic ideological leaps—from sumptuousness to class mobility, class mobility to gender confusion, gender confusion to theatricality, theatricality to heresy, theatricality back to class mobility, an entire chain of ontological deviance. The first and last figure in the chain is the actor; the actor is the archetype, the constitutive ontological deviant, the androgyne, the counterfeiter, the idler, a devil’s minister without portfolio.
The actor was regarded as a kind of walking trope for a larger social ill, a disease corroding the inherited signifying system whereby one published identity. The actor then was himself a sign in this inherited system; but he also propagated signs. In late sixteenth-century England, the actor began selling his signs in the open market, at newly instituted emporia of histrionic not-being. The boy dressed up as the girl and made love to the actor dressed up as a gentleman. The boy even dressed up as a queen, as the actor cloaked himself in the refuse of state, discarded costumes and props which had lost their usefulness but not their ideological value. But the actor was not a girl, a gentleman, a queen, or a king; he was a vagabond, a social nonentity, a nothingness who tampered with being.
At a certain moment near the turn of the seventeenth century, as Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, the actor began to act ... the actor. Impostors had always been theatrical stock; but this new phenomenon represented an unprecedented move in English drama. The very ontological deviants for whose existence the actor was blamed began making regular stage appearances en masse. Comedies in particular put the increasingly theatricalized city on the boards; they theatricalized theatricality. It is as if, by performing this social and aesthetic involution, the playwright fulfilled some intrinsic demand of his art. Why, at this historical moment, did the theatricalization of theatricality become not only possible but also nearly definitive of the form?
This is the central question I will pursue, using as a test case for my conclusions Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour (1599) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600-1). My case rests on an understanding of the period’s inherited ontology and of an emergent counter-ontology. At stake are the boundaries defining selfhood and its manifestations. I will examine the conflict of ontology and counter-ontology with particular respect to developments in sixteenth-century philosophy, economics, and religion. Finding itself the chief symbolic antagonist in an ideological war, the theater drew the conflict into itself, and seemed to side with the wrong party. The stage became antitheatrical, but in the process became hypertheatrical. As they attempted to negotiate ontological conflicts whose implications they only dimly perceived, the playwrights in reality presented new models of selfhood for London’s consumption.
Just as John Marston was publishing his excoriations of brisk, spruce, gorgeous gallants, Ben Jonson staged his own exemplum of the species: Fastidius Briske, the vapid fashion-plate anti-hero of Jonson’s first London comedy, Every Man out of His Humour (1599). Among the “characters”—Theophrastian character sketches—Jonson appended to the 1616 folio edition of the play is the following:
A neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and in fashion; practiseth by his glasse how to salute; speakes good remnants (notwithstanding the Base-violl and Tabacco:) sweares tersely, and with variety; cares not what Ladies favour he belyes, or great Mans familiarity: a good property to perfume the boot of a coach. Hee will borrow another mans horse to praise, and backs him as his owne. Or, for a neede, on foot can post himselfe into credit with his marchant, only with the gingle of his spurre, and the jerke of his wand.
For his sins—affectation, parasitism, a taste for decadent luxuries such as tobacco, and, in short, histrionic hypocrisy—Briske will be systematically humiliated and ultimately consigned to a debtor’s prison. Jonson seems perversely fascinated with the city’s follies, and almost sadistically invested in purging them. To some extent, he follows classical precedents in this. But do the transgressions of a figure like Briske—which seem fairly innocent to us—really call for relentless humiliation and his final ostracism from society?
Jonson was a strict partisan of neo-Aristotelian views of the function of drama, which, so the theory goes, should act on the audience as a sort of “purge” (the literal meaning of catharsis). Just as tragedy had its proper therapeutic realm, so too did comedy. Comic therapy, again on classical precedents, involved the display and ridicule of everyday follies. Responding to perceived resentment among certain of the classes subject to his comic therapy, Jonson defends the right function of the poet:
If men may by no means write freely, or speak truth, but when it offends not; why do Physicians cure with sharp medicines, or corrosives? Is not the same equally lawful in the cure of the mind, that is in the cure of the body?
The incidental violence entailed by the proper administration of Jonson’s medicine is far from insignificant. His spokesmen insist, in all the “comicall satyres,” on the necessary violence of the comic purge. Asper, the satirist and partial authorial spokesman in the play’s weighty induction, proclaims his intention to “strip the ragged follies of the time,/Naked, as at their birth” and “with a whip of steele,/Print wounding lashes in their yron ribs” (Induction, 17-20). Jonson had very clear ideas about when and how the lash ought to be applied to a character’s “humour”—his self-conceited fixations and peculiar appetites. When one choral character in Every Man Out questions his author’s exacerbation of these “humours” all the way through to the last act, the other, Cordatus, claims that
[t]herein his art appeares most full of lustre, and approacheth neerest the life: especially, when in the flame, and height of their humours, they are laid flat, it fils the eye better, and with more contentment. How tedious a sight were it to behold a proud exalted tree lopt, and cut downe by degrees, when it might bee feld in a moment? and to set the axe to it before it came to that pride, and fulnesse, were, as not to have it grow. (IV.viii.166–73)
Cordatus is invoking the standard contemporary understanding of dramatic structure, especially comic structure. The comic “catastrophe,” that is, dramatic resolution through discoveries and unmaskings, is most “verisimilar” (“approacheth neerest the life”) when deferred as long as possible. Such deferral is in the service of dramatic—that is, violent—purging, catching vices at their peak and felling them with the most satisfying blow. In what way this sort of catastrophe approaches life is never explained; this notion of verisimilitude is purely conventional. It is a generic codification of a latent wish to both display “folly” in hyperbolic form, and then to violently repress it.
Folly is both desired and feared; the comic dramatist allows himself to see to its display, while assigning responsibility for its repression to a social order idealized in the final, deracinating gestures of the play. Under the guise of social therapy, the dramatist revels in a kind of exhibitionism, the production of ghettoized fantasy versions of social deviance. Whatever one might say about the psychological benefits of dramatic fantasy—a kind of sublimation is clearly at work—deviance sells. Jonson’s theater was, after all, a commercial theater, whose professed aims are socially therapeutic (are couched in Aristotelian and Horatian notions of dramatic function, and rooted in an almost medieval fascination with visual exempla of moral corruption), but whose actual aims are more purely economic. In effect, Jonson’s theater depends on the “ragged follies of the time,” which significantly included a fashionable appetite for playgoing. Economist Jonson fashions appealing commodities, and Moralist Jonson packages them in classical theory. Medieval Jonson scourges folly, Renaissance Jonson propagates it. As I will discuss later, Jonson—the textual Jonson, if not the man himself—is a kind of prime locus for the Renaissance ontological conflict, and he is so in part precisely because of his status in the commercial theater.
Fastidius Briske is not the only character in Every Man Out lashed for his crimes. His ilk has its feminine counterpart in the Jonsonian comedy, greedy and frustrated social climbers either on the market for upwardly mobile love-affairs, or at home persecuting their bourgeois husbands. Their representative here is the city-wife Fallace, whose “character” is as follows:
Deliro’s wife and Idoll: a proud mincing Peat, and as perverse as he is officious. Shee dotes as perfectly upon the Courtier, as her husband doth on her, and only wants the face to be dishonest.
The courtier she dotes on is Fastidius Briske; that he is a courtier is his primary appeal:
Oh, sweete Fastidius Briske! ô fine courtier! thou art hee maks’t me sigh, and say, how blessed is that woman that hath a courtier to her husband! ... O, sweete Fastidius! ô, fine courtier! How comely he bowes him in his court’sie! ... how upright hee sits at the table! how daintily he carves! ... how cleanely he wipes his spoone, at every spoonfull of any whit-meat he eates, and what a neat case of pick-tooths he carries about him, still! O, sweet Fastidius! ô fine courtier! (IV.i.29–41)
What Jonson execrates here is not Fallace’s contrived rhetoric, although that is a symptom of her disease. Her problem is that she approves, among other social crimes, the courtier’s fixation with self-display, his parasitic dependence on his position at court, his affectation for decadent Continental imports such as toothpicks.
Fallace has an especially precise appreciation of Briske’s ostentatious table manners. As Norbert Elias has demonstrated, table manners, along with other behavioral customs associated with “civility,” functioned first and foremost in the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe as a means of class distinction. In a related fashion, Fallace conspicuously refers to herself as a “dame,” which, in a period obsessed with decaying class distinctions, smacks of pretensions to the knightly caste. As Fallace’s “character” makes clear, her upwardly mobile ambitions have supplanted her wifely duties; she scourges a doting husband, while pining after a counterfeit courtier whose falsity, precisely because she lacks intimacy with the court’s signifying system, she cannot recognize. But while she pines for Briske, Briske pines for a phantasmatic version of selfhood, an image of the “fine courtier” which utterly galvanizes his desire.
Jonson’s conception of vice—the embrace of surfaces and the self-loving indulgence of appetite—ultimately derives from a long tradition of Christian polemics against tampering with the identity God has bestowed upon the self—against transgressing the boundaries of class, occupation, gender, and the body in general. The third-century theologian Tertullian, as Jonas Barish has illustrated, is an exemplary polemicist in service of the notion that God has bestowed upon the individual an absolute, completely detailed identity. From the shaving of one’s beard, to the use of cosmetics, to the costuming of the stage-player, any attempt to alter one’s identity in general or in particular is an impious act prompted by the Devil. “For who else,” Tertullian asks, “would teach how to change the body but he who by wickedness transformed the spirit of man?”
Tertullian’s rhetoric is extreme even for its time; but his ontological argument survived in the mainstream of medieval philosophy, and was indirectly embraced by “left wing” reformers after the Reformation. In this circle were the chief enemies of the stage, abetted by doctrinally orthodox thinkers such as Stephen Gosson, a former playwright who came, perhaps for hire, to trumpet the evils of his erstwhile ways. In his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), Gosson applies Tertullian’s axioms to a polemic against players, equating stage-dress with the usurpation of illegitimate identities. Actors “lie” because “by outward signes [they] shewe themselves otherwise than they are.”
We are commanded by God to abide in the same calling wherein we were called, which is our ordinary vocation in a commonweale. ... If privat men be suffered to forsake their calling because they desire to walke gentlemen like in sattine & velvet, with a buckler at their heeles, proportion is so broken, unitie dissolved, harmony confounded, that the whole body must be dismembred, and the prince or heade cannot chuse but sicken.
The ontological stability of the entire universe is secured only by the strict observance of divinely legislated hierarchies and Neoplatonic ladders. Just as in Plato representation tends to scale down the ladder of Being, in Renaissance polemics the representation of other classes and other genders on the stage threatens to sink the entire social, and corporal, order legislated by God. It is not insignificant that Gosson stresses the corrupting power of “signes”; the classical notion of the eidolon, the visual image or sign which penetrates the eye like an alien agent, is one root of his theory of representation. Not only Gosson, but the culture as a whole, nurtured a Platonic suspicion of the power of the sign to shape the spirit, a power which energized the demonized theater.
While Gosson’s anxiety is fundamentally ontological, there is no real room in his philosophy, such as it is, to distinguish ontological from social structures. In the passage just cited, his horror is directed mostly at private men’s forsaking of their “calling” (a word with heavy Puritan overtones) in order to fabricate a new calling (play-acting) out of the fabrication of other selves. The player, by adopting new identities in serial fashion, not only betrays some innate “calling” which was bestowed at birth, he also propagates signs of the transformation. He no longer even imitates a being, he imitates the process of becoming. One can, by Gosson’s logic, only “be” if one is that one thing God made him; the player, indulging the self-negating activity of imitation itself, becomes nothing, and imitates his own nothingness.
By propagating the signs of nothingness, the actor infects the social order. The sins of the ontological deviant were laid at his doorstep. With all the mechanical regularity of their doxology, social critics modulate from damnation of overdressers to damnation of the actor, and vice versa. Social castigations become ontological tracts, bewailing violations of divinely legislated essences. The Puritan Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomie of Abuses (1583), grumbles at his increasing inability to “knowe who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is a gentleman, who is not,” as base, mean, and servile individuals “go daylie in silkes, velvets, satens, damasks, taffeties, and such like.” But he does not stop at condemning the sumptuary violations of the Fastidius Briskes of his day; he moves from the particular to the general and finds such social ills mere manifestations of ontological decay. For God, he claims, “hath given a uniforme distinct and proper being to every creature, the bounds of which may not be exceeded,” as they are by sumptuous falsifiers. The creator “enjoy[n]es all men at all times, to be such in shew, as they are in truth: to seeme that outwardly which they are inwardly; to act themselves, not others” (Sig. X4).
Stubbes evinces considerable anxiety over the effects of representation. Notice that the ontological crime is not actually being something one is not, but seeming to be something one is not—the crime is acting. But in the Stubbesian equation, being and seeming are indistinguishable; as soon as one’s manifestations are false, one’s essence is false. The self, that is, is constituted in a regime of signs. Heresy takes the form of art, of substituting art for nature; thus, clearly, the sinfulness of the stage. The theater promotes the idea that anyone may be an artist by being like a player, by engaging the signifying economy with self-selected manifestations.
By protesting against sumptuous dress, deliberate falsification of one’s class identity, the use of cosmetics—which one polemicist called the “common accursed hellish art of face-painting”—and theatrical manifestation in general, Stubbes and his confederates implicitly acknowledge the passing of their ontology. Manifestation has already become separable from essence; that, indeed, is the entire point of their diatribes. And the damage could no longer be controlled by apocalyptic reassertions of the divine ontology. A new notion of the self had begun to take shape in a world where economic and religious revolutions necessitated new philosophies of social practice. The major philosophy arising along with these conditions was humanism.
Humanism, rooted in the vanguard Neoplatonic schools of fifteenth-century Florence, contested the older ideology, also Platonic in origin, of the “two worlds”: a “real” world (the divine) and an “illusory” world (the human). From this doctrine had arisen the ontology of immanent being. True essence, divine in origin, was vested in the body where it was subject to the corrupting influences of the manifest world. Only by resisting these influences, by avoiding the lure of illusions, could true essence (the soul) preserve itself for a reunion with the divine.
Humanists such as Nicholas of Cusa, Poggio Bracciolini, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, on the other hand, stressed the dignity of the human intellect, of human energy as expressed in action. They replaced the regime of immutable destiny, or Fortuna, with a regime in which the intellect is left free to contest with the forces of destiny. Man’s essence, heretofore defined by immanent being, was redefined as a process of becoming. Medieval man, according to Ernst Cassirer, “is the stage of this great drama of the world, but he has not yet become a truly independent antagonist.” Renaissance man, no longer the neutral stage on which externalized forces (grace, temptation, the flesh, destiny) contest his fate, is Machiavellian man, who collaborates with Fortune precisely by acting, by becoming a protagonist.
Cassirer felicitously hits upon one of the medieval period’s most common models for the place of man: theatrum mundi, the “theater of the world.” The very idea of the world as a stage implies a transcendental playwright who has created roles which, though transitory and subject to some modification, basically define one’s gestures, speech and action for the duration of the performance. The theatrum mundi metaphor lends itself to a deterministic notion of the universe; but a different notion emerges if the limits of the stage are reconfigured. If the stage encompasses merely the realm of social interaction, any individual might become the transcendental playwright scripting her or his own role.
When Jaques famously invokes the theatrum mundi metaphor in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players ...”) he refers to typical forms of manifestation, not to prescribed essences. Jaques refracts the individual into a spectrum of temporally successive manifestations, the “Seven Ages of Man”; while we assume there is some essence to bind these manifestations into a unified individual, Jaques doesn’t raise the issue. He’s looking at things from his jaundiced, sublunary point-of-view; God’s point of view is left out of the thesis. In the humanistic regime, the spectator of this “theater of the world” became less and less divine and more and more human. People began to write their own scripts, for the consumption of other people.
Humanism, which encouraged individual determination of behavior as a dignified pursuit, flourished concurrently with the Reformation, which propagated its own ideas of the limits of self-determination. Especially in its extreme form, Protestantism, adopting the Calvinist notion of predestination, seems to have made a strictly conservative move, rejecting the new celebration of man’s free will. There are, however, practical effects of Puritan doctrine that dovetail with the humanistic project. In discussing the rehabilitation, in the humanistic era, of “curiositas,” or intellectual curiosity with regard to the manifest world, Hans Blumenberg claims that Calvinist ideology, while taking away the one significant decision the medieval individual could make—whether to resist or succumb to the external forces battling over his soul—also vested the individual with new responsibilities. As the “preconditions of salvation” were displaced into the transcendental realm, the transcendental divinity consequently receded from the world, out of disinterest in mankind’s everyday actions. Concomitantly, the manifest world could no longer be understood as a vehicle of divine revelation, as an active and continual expression of God’s voluntary engagement—the world, that is, was no longer the subjective expression of the divine. The “meaning” of nature, therefore, was “no longer performed by the object,” but produced by the perceiving subject, whose perceptions became the foundation for hermeneutic access to metaphysical structures. Ultimately,
The self-assertive character of the theoretical attitude eradicated the immediacy of contemplation [Anshauung], the meaningfulness of watching the world from an attitude of repose, and required the aggressive cognitive approach that goes behind appearances and proposes and verifies at least their possible constitution.
Blumenberg is interested in theoretical curiosity primarily as a historian of Western epistemology. But his insights, mutatis mutandis, speak equally well to the qualitative change in social relations that Tudor England was undergoing. The development, guided by both humanistic and Protestant valorization of subjective experience, of a notion of the “private” self opened another regime for the “theoretical attitude.” An old dichotomy—divine “reality”/worldly “illusion”—was being replaced with a new dichotomy—subjective experience/objective manifestation. Given changing socio-economic conditions, which I will describe shortly, the new dichotomy began to manifest itself in the form of competitive social relations, which necessitated increasingly self-conscious care for one’s presentation of self “on the market.” This new situation made penetrating the surface of other public selves increasingly important to social survival.
In his provocative study Worlds Apart, Jean-Christophe Agnew traces the progressive dispersion of the marketplace in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the medieval period in England, it was almost unheard of, outside Westminster, to accumulate capital; in the age of exploration, of international trade, and of the new, unregulated market, capital formation and investment schemes became both necessary and common. Large-scale aggregation was accompanied by local dispersion and the dissolution of the regulated marketplace. On the level of everyday exchange, scrutiny by parish authorities gave way to the mutual interrogation of buyer and seller. The notion of “intent” became more important, “fair price” having been replaced by self-interested negotiation. A public reputation for “credit” had to be cultivated, and this involved the regulation of one’s deeds and gestures so that they would be appropriately interpreted. Agnew calls this regulation a “histrionic calculus.”
The polemicists we have encountered are nostalgic for an era when one’s self-presentation—so they imagine—offered the viewer immediate access to one’s identity, that is, the whole aggregate implied by one’s class. In the ever more free market, class identity became negotiable, became, especially for the mercantile class, a fluid, externalized attribute which hinged on commercial success. Commercial success, in turn, depended on the cultivation of self-interested techniques of negotiation, of manipulating one’s self-presentation to a prospective buyer or seller. Such manipulation, in the context of increasingly subtle attempts to master the codes of social identity, led, as Frank Whigham describes it, to a “preoccupation with interpretive matters”; all “substantive actions become subject to self-depictive symbolic imperatives.” As Whigham notes, the burgeoning of the symbolic realm skews the “power relation between speaker and hearer ... normatively toward the audience” (39). The self becomes a self subject to the interpretive gaze of others, and therefore invested in modeling the self to the gaze. This subjection results in a new relation to the quasi-objectified self, involving a phantasmatic relationship to the expectations and desires of the others one encounters. Caught in a web of symbolic imperatives, the individual developed techniques of abstraction from the self, and began rehearsing the self as if it were a dramatic role.
All the world was a stage: and, among the local sub-stages it encompassed, the most prominent in England by the end of the sixteenth century was London. London’s rate of population growth was outstripping by a wide margin that of the rest of England. Demography, as usual, followed economy. As a result, according to F. J. Fisher, not only did London and its suburbs “constitute a centre of production where substantial incomes were earned from industry and trade; they were also a centre of consumption where men expended revenues which they had acquired elsewhere.” The proximity of Westminster (the nation’s most vociferous consumer), and therefore the establishment of London as a diplomatic center, helped stimulate a market for consumable fineries. Westminster, along with London’s increasingly active courts of law, also attracted the gentry like a magnet. The more the nobility flocked to the City, the harder it became to attract the attention of the crown, and of wealthy merchants with marriageable daughters, to one’s virtues. As it became more difficult to cut an impressive figure in London, it became incumbent on the gentry to trade in land (now reduced to mere convertible property, though not without ideological value to the purchaser), or even to visit the moneylender, to raise cash for the fashion competition.
As Jonson’s Carlo Buffone advises the grasping country gull Sogliardo in Every Man Out,
First (to be an accomplisht gentleman, that is, a gentleman of the time) you must give o’re house-keeping in the countrey, and live altogether in the city amongst gallants; where, at your first appearance, ’twere good you turn’d foure or five hundred acres of your best land into two or three trunks of apparel (you may doe it without going to a conjurer) ... but above all, protest in your play, and affirme, Upon your credit; As you are a true gentleman (at every cast) you may doe it with a safe conscience, I warrant you. (I.ii.37–51)
Though Buffone jests, Sogliardo takes him very seriously. His “humour” an irrational desire to be taken as a “gentleman of the time,” Sogliardo is quite willing to pander his father’s country income in return for the superficial signs of “credit” in the status market. The fashion for swearing comes ironically recommended above all, precisely because, in the performative economy, its standard is credit itself—one’s oath, that is, is backed up only by one’s credibility. In the confusing bustle of the City, one found it difficult to secure anyone’s attention long enough to make his interior virtues manifest; one had to perform virtue, to cultivate credit—whether or not one had the moral and financial backing. Credit is the product of an economy where personal and financial assets have become liquid, abstracted; if the performer plays his part convincingly enough to suspend the disbelief of potential backers, reality may follow upon illusion.
Obviously, the cultivation of credit takes practice; and the actor requires a part to rehearse. In the credit market rose a clamor for the multitude of behavior manuals and courtesy tracts published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England. While the professed aim of this literature was to aid gentlemen in polishing their gentlemanliness, it also served to codify manners that had previously been treated as the innate gift of the noble. Consequently, behavior manuals rendered ontological markers as transferrable symbols.
Courtesy literature was therefore a boon to the bourgeoisie, a rising “middle class” hankering for social legitimacy. The new merchant and service classes engendered by the rise of capitalism were caught in an inherited ideological bind; in the olden days, God decided that there were three types of individuals—those who preach, those who rule, and those who work—and the “new men” fit into none of these categories comfortably. If they had their choice, they would opt for the second—gentle—class, and with the help of guidebooks to gentle manifestations, they were going to try making that choice.
According to the courtesy literature, the competition for social eminence among the gentle and middle classes required a new fluidity of self-manifestation, and new attentiveness to symbolic imperatives. Stefano Guazzo, in his La Civile Conversatione (1574), translated into English in 1581, uses “conversation” as the model of all social interaction, especially economic interaction. Conversation required that people “put of[f] as it were our own fashions and manners, and cloath our selves with the conditions of others, and imitate them so farre as reason will permit.” Furthermore, he insists, we “must alter ourselves into an other,” that is, conform to extrinsically defined roles, if we are to be social beings at all. What Guazzo and other courtesy “experts” are encouraging, clearly, is the theatricalization of the self. This involves cultivating a detachment from one’s own manifestations in order to scrutinize and thereby regulate them. It also involves scrutiny of others’ manifestations in order to observe, decode, and absorb their techniques.
The “histrionic calculus” of the market turns to the theater for its model. The theater, in turn, makes it the subject of representation. A new genre—the Jacobean “city comedy”—arose to expose the varieties of fraud and fabrication fostered by the competitive credit market. Adopting classical models of “intrigue comedy,” Thomas Middleton specialized in depicting the mutual defrauding of rapacious merchants and down-at-heels gentlemen. Middleton’s outlook on the scene he depicts is relatively detached; neither party in this retributive defrauding structure is innocent, but that doesn’t prevent the dramatist’s awarding of land, loot and the girl to the wittiest of the falsifiers. Ben Jonson’s moral territory is more clearly demarcated. Especially in the early comedies, Jonson severely censures the new acquisitiveness and gross appetitiveness of his histrionic pretenders. His most theatrical figures are typically mountebanks, phony gentlemen, upscale adulteresses, and the much despised Puritans, and they’re all regularly subjected to the Jonsonian purge.
Surely, this is a fascinating phenomenon. The very social evils which had been blamed on the theater are in turn staged by the theater and scourged. In a moment of remarkable social and aesthetic involution, theatricality itself—abandonment to the fluidity of self-manifestations—is demonized by the theater. And one of the chief demons in Jonson’s comedy is the antitheatrical “stage Puritan,” who would seem in some senses to be a soulmate, as the archetypal enemy of falsified selfhood. Even the verdict delivered against this creature is self-contradictory: the stage-Puritan is a theatrical enemy of theatricality, and both his theatricality and antitheatricality are held up to ridicule.
The most memorable of these stage-Puritans is Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a professed enemy of the stage, in Bartholomew Fair (1614). A hypocritical glutton who paints over his carnal desires with the veneer of piety, Busy spends most of the play simultaneously indulging in and damning the pleasures of the annual Bartholomew Fair, held in a London suburb. The fair—a carnivalesque of commercial transaction, entertainment, feasting, and pocket-picking—itself stands in for the festive theater, damned by the City Fathers of London because of the crowds it drew and because of illegitimate commercial transactions and petty theft alleged to take place before, during, and after plays. In the last act of Bartholomew Fair, Busy bursts into a ludicrous puppet-show (a parodic mise-en-abîme of the popular stage), crying:
Busy. Down with Dagon, down with Dagon! ‘Tis I will no longer endure your profanations.
Leatherhead. What mean you, sir?
Busy. I will remove Dagon there, I say, that idol, that heathenish idol, that remains, as I may say, a beam, a very beam, not a beam of the sun, nor a beam of the moon, nor a beam of a balance, neither a house-beam nor a weaver’s beam, but a beam in the eye, in the eye of the brethren; a very great beam, an exceeding great beam; such as are your stage-players, rhymers, and morris-dancers, who have walked hand in hand in contempt of the brethren and the cause, and been borne out by instruments of no mean countenance.
Busy collapses a number of points of attack against the stage: its kinship with idol-worshiping rituals of the unreformed church; its eminent place in the company of other frivolous and lewd pursuits such as poetry and public dancing; its pseudo-conspiratorial hostility to the reforming “cause.” Busy will go on to directly attack the transvestism of the stage, but is frustrated when it is shown that the puppets, his “Dagons,” having no genitalia, are of no determinate sex.
While Jonson ridicules Busy’s puritanical enmity toward innocent entertainment, his central charge against this stage Puritan is the charge of hypocrisy. The antitheatrical Busy, as if on cue, makes his dramatic entrance in order to theatricalize his revulsion. Almost every stage Puritan, in fact, is a bundle of carnal desires histrionically cloaked in self-satisfied self-righteousness. It would seem that what playwrights and Puritans refused to accept in themselves, they damned in each other. It is true that Puritans, by doctrine inimical to surface manifestations (in the form of “idols” or of excessive care for the body), nevertheless insisted on public professions of faith. Such professions were supposed to be as “spontaneous,” and therefore presumably as sincere, as possible. Yet the need to make professions of faith public belies the ideology of an incommunicable “inner conviction,” and therefore smacks of “histrionic calculus.” Furthermore, the most visible Puritans were bourgeois Puritans, noted for severe internal accounting as well as economic calculation. As such, their protestations of spontaneity could not have been convincing.
Encumbered with inherited ideological structures which branded theatricality as the falsification of essence and as corrosive of social hierarchies, both parties lacked a legitimating discourse. The theater’s treatment of the Puritan—especially insofar as it reflects the theater’s treatment of theatricality—therefore seems oddly misguided. While Puritans were represented as creatures of the marketplace, the theaters owed their existence to the new consuming habits of Londoners. While Puritans were condemned as separatist enemies of society, the theater, by offering models of exemplary self-transformation, colluded in promoting the new individualism. While Puritans became emblematic of ontological perversion, hypocritical pretenders to elect selfhood, the theater played a progressive role in the ontological dialectic which was in part inspired by Reformist theology, in part inspired by new modes of social interaction. This dialectic engages both older notions of being and newer notions of becoming, both the divinely legislated self and the “private” self invested with control over its own boundaries.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600-1) is perhaps the play in which the dialectic I am describing is most clearly drawn. Not coincidentally, the play suggests a psychological intensity unknown in earlier English drama, which was much more rhetorically patterned, so much so that linguistic gesture seems, from our perspective, to suffocate “interiority.” That Hamlet does represent an advance in psychologistic naturalism is due in large part to its treatment of theatrical conventions—its theatricalizing of theatricality. As the play’s protagonist delivers speeches on the theater, and on its dangers and deficiencies, he participates in the actor’s constitutive self-negation. Unable to be an actor and unable not to be, Hamlet is the emergent subject of the theater, strikingly suggestive of the modern, psychologistic subject.
In his first appearance in the play, after his uncle-now-stepfather and his mother have rebuked him for ostentatiously mourning the death of his father, and thus spoiling their newlywed bliss, Hamlet strenuously rejects the suggestion that his glumness is mere “seeming”:
Seems, madam? nay, it is, I know not “seems.”
His clothing and his gestures may indeed “seem”—may be a show; they are things an actor could fabricate. But he has “that within which passes show,” a private intellectual and emotional reserve which can never be outwardly manifested.
Hamlet’s claims to such a private self indicate the central problem of the play; if Hamlet has a self that exceeds all shows, how could an audience ever grasp it? While actions may be recorded, or “imitated,” on the stage, Hamlet claims a subjectivity to the other side of an unbridgeable gap separating selfhood from manifestation, at least corporal manifestation. Shakespeare, who after all has created and staged the Hamlet-manifestation, seems to introduce a crisis in representation, just as he will seem to solve it by developing to its fullest a linguistic technique: the soliloquy.
In two earlier plays—Richard III and Julius Caesar—Shakespeare had explored this technique in ways that suggest his use of it in Hamlet. Richard and Brutus carry on monologues which suggest a speaking of self to self, a carving out of linguistic space in order to isolate it from the action and the other speeches around them. Still, and more so in the case of Richard, one gets the sense that these soliloquies have incompletely detached themselves from the rhetorical models of tragic monologue in force right up through Marlowe and Kyd, Shakespeare’s major predecessors in the genre. As they address themselves, the protagonists seem to be speaking from a detached position, almost as if addressing a third person. Their self-analyses are rhetorical set-pieces, with classical methods of proof applied to the situations in which they find themselves. In Brutus’s case, one begins to get the sense of internal conflict, the kind of self-engagement and self-division which suggests psychologistic naturalism. In Richard’s case, psychological conflict of this sort is almost wholly absent. His cool, ironic detachment is the flipside of the hysterical abandon of Romeo and Juliet, whose intensely conflicted affair seems equally a rhetorical tour-de-force, absurdly literary and brashly anti-illusionistic. All these characters see themselves precisely as characters on a stage, whose job is to embellish their parts with the requisite poetry.
The soliloquy, as practiced in the sixteenth century, nevertheless already began to suggest possible structures of representation which culminate in psychologistic naturalism. By stepping back momentarily from the illusionistic activity transpiring elsewhere on the stage, the tragic protagonist critically evaluates his part in that illusion. Richard III, in particular, engages intensely in histrionic calculus, spontaneously improvising politic self-manifestations, and congratulating himself on his theatrical talent. Yet, from a literary-historic point of view, Richard’s Machiavellian manipulations point in exactly the wrong direction. For the soliloquy to convey psychological depth, it must in some sense fail to correspond with dramatic action.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare achieves a new level of naturalism precisely by thematizing this failure. Hamlet’s soliloquies incompletely intersect with his actions, and he knows it. As he plays for himself on the stage of the mind the drama of his predicament, Hamlet pushes rhetoric to its hyperbolic extremes. “Hyperion to a satyr”; “To be or not to be”; these are the absolute dichotomies of the raving revenger figure, but one who cannot fit himself to the role, just as the hyperboles are incommensurate with the actions and the speech which surround him.
Hamlet claims “that within which passes show”; what is shown, however, equally surpasses the limits of the rhetorical soliloquy. When Hamlet finally acts, by killing Polonius, he acts without premeditation. In his case, there is neither a “word to world” nor “world to word” fit. The technique of the soliloquy, no matter how advanced, is incapable of fully accounting for the social, or “public,” self which acts in drama as in life sometimes unaware of its motivations, just as the social self and its manifestations are incapable of accounting for an inner, or “private,” reserve. Like the Protestant’s “inner conviction,” the self Hamlet experiences within is incommunicable, non-transferrable. And like the modern, psychoanalyzable subject, Hamlet discovers, by pushing self-scrutiny to the limit, a dark core of inaccessible motivation.
Hamlet assumes many roles in his own stage-play: philosopher, madman, lover, victim, revenger, play-patcher, jester. Despite his antitheatrical protestations, he is a highly theatrical character incompletely able to resist absorption into his roles. His “antic disposition” becomes something more than an act, if less than reality. He plays the rogue and peasant slave because to play the revenger is to become a bloody Pyrrhus. Indeed, in Hamlet we encounter the dialectic between two temporally overlapping ontological models: one holds in reserve a self detached from manifestations, from “shows”; the other equates manifestation with being, so that to play a role is in a sense to become it. In a famous passage, Ben Jonson invokes this second model:
I have considered our whole life is like a play: wherein every man, forgetful of himself, is in travail with expression of another. Nay, we so insist on imitating others, as we cannot, when it is necessary, return to ourselves; like children that imitate the vices of stammerers so long, till at last they become such, and make the habit to another nature, as it is never forgotten.
Jonson’s warning recalls Guazzo’s insistence that we “must alter ourselves into an other” in order to succeed at “conversation” in the competitive new world of social fluidity. But as we “cloath our selves with the conditions of others,” in Jonson’s eyes, we “become” those others and at long last have no real “selves” to return to. Yet if life is like a play, there wouldn’t seem to be any escape from role-playing. The question Jonson does not address here what exactly constitutes the originary role, or “nature,” by which he defines the self. Nor does he tell us why, if we’re always already playing a role anyway, it is undesirable to take on the roles of others if they seem preferable.
In reality, Jonson overplays his hand. As a good humanist, he in fact valorizes the imitation of others as a means of developing style—for example, literary style. The whole edifice of humanist pedagogy in the sixteenth century rested on the foundation of “imitatio,” privileging form over content and promoting imitation of classical forms as a means of self-formation. As with the literary, so with the social: humanists, always eager to serve the state, conceived of the social realm as a hierarchy of roles, each entailing predetermined duties, and they conceived of their service as a mastering of these roles in accordance with esteemed models. Humanistic courtesy handbooks dedicated themselves to the fashioning of the courtier, the construction of an ideal self which could be approached as a series of gestures to be imitated and mastered. Jonson was a product of the humanist pedagogy and ideology of imitatio, and he conceives the fashioning of the poet as a process of imitation:
The third requisite in our poet or maker is imitation, to be able to convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use. To make choice of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him till he grow very he, or so like him as the copy may be mistaken for the principal. Not as a creature that swallows what it takes in crude, raw, or indigested, but that feeds with an appetite, and hath a stomach to concoct, divide, and turn all into nourishment.
So long as imitation is not servile, it is commendable, even necessary. Despite the qualifications, however, Jonson paints himself into a corner. On the one hand, he enjoins the poet to become almost indistinguishable from his model; on the other hand, he condemns dedicated role-playing as a negation of selfhood. Furthermore, despite the antitheatrical intimations of his warnings against habitual role-playing, his argument is ultimately a powerful justification of the theater as a revue of roles, complete with ethical evaluations attached, offered for the consumption of role-hunting Londoners. Why reward virtue and punish vice, after all, if such theatrically actualized judgments were not intended to recommend and discommend roles to the audience?
On one side of the dialectic is the humanistic notion that imitation of “shows,” of the theatrical manifestations of other selves, of forms and gestures, is capable of inducing selfhood in the imitator. We also encounter in Jonson the competing claims of a core selfhood. Such selfhood is never to be taken for granted, because it is still subject to the modifications induced through imitation of other representations. As one may be lured from home by the represented attractions of exotic, or more economically advantageous, locales, one may be lured from one’s identity by the representations of more glamorous or upscale selves.
In Jonson’s work, then, selfhood itself begins to look less like some bounded entity than like the control of boundaries. The adoption of roles, the imitation of other forms of being, is assumed as a necessity for the formation of self. But that formation is not the concretization of some unified interiority; it is the performance of interiority, a constant negotiation of the boundaries between the interior and the exterior. Negotiation has become the model of the self.
The culture of London in Renaissance England was highly theatrical. Political, economic, religious, and philosophical transformations necessitated a new pattern of response in everyday affairs; the individual was offered a range of models and roles to master, and the rehearsal of parts became a state of being, or rather, of becoming. Jonson and Shakespeare, in this environment, could hardly escape formulating characters in the image of the actors who walked the streets outside their theaters. But on the stage, something strange occurs. The dramatists, as yet unable to escape the ideological formations which equate liquidity of role with self-negation, are locked into a double imperative. Their characters cannot help but act, and act the actor—this is the very principle of self-manifestation. Yet by thus acting, the actor negates himself.
The audience watches as its condition of becoming is contested, as theatricality is resisted and countered by speeches and purges that must ultimately fail. But this failure has its productive consequences. Between the actions and the words that distance themselves from those actions is something within which passes show. After a process of mutual subtraction, mutual negation, there is an inscrutable remainder. The theater, as it produced and propagated an “internal distantiation” from the ideologies of social experience, found lodged in the gap between ideologies, in the fissures between word and action, a new form of selfhood unable, finally, to recognize itself. As I have suggested, by both marketing and criticizing a theatrical model of the self, Shakespeare, Jonson, Marston and the others helped foster all the social and ontological conflicts which mark the emergence of the “divided subject.”
. I follow the text prepared by A.H. Bullen for Marston’s Works (London, 1887), III: 344-5, lines 17–27. This text is based on the augmented (1599) version, of the Scourge, first published in 1598.
. See Alvin Kernan, The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), for a detailed analysis of the conventions of formal verse satire in the 1590s.
. Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925–1952), III: 424. All citations to the text of Every Man out of His Humour will be to this edition. Here, and throughout, I have normalized i/j and u/v to conform with modern typographical practice.
. Aristotle himself never—in surviving works—specifies the comic equivalent of the tragic catharsis. Later theorists, however, were happy to fill in the blank.
. Ben Jonson’s Literary Criticism, ed. James D. Redwine, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. 27.
. It may be justly argued that this display/repression cycle is less in evidence in romantic comedy, such as Shakespeare wrote, and certainly in tragicomedies of the Jacobean period. As for tragicomedies, I am not addressing them here when I discuss comedy; and as for Shakespeare’s comedies, the same exhibitionistic and repressive impulses are present in them, but in combination with other impulses inherited from popular drama and learned comedy. The treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, for example, is very much along Jonsonian lines. The play shows clear signs of having been influenced by Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour, which had been produced by Shakespeare’s company a few years before the composition of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s play—his last “romantic comedy”—develops out of his earlier experiments with classical-style comedy in the Italian mode.
. On the desire/loathing complex with respect to folly and festivity, see Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), esp. ch. 1.
. Aside from women like Fallace, Jonson’s female characters are by and large passive objects of male desire. There are more interesting women in Jonson’s dramatic works—notably Doll Common (The Alchemist), Ursula the pig woman (Bartholomew Fair), and Mistress Frances Fitzdotterel (The Devil Is an Ass). But these are precisely characters who are intended to stand somewhat apart from generic types, although they are modeled on them. In this paper, I am interested only in typical representations.
. Ben Jonson, III: 425. The editors gloss “Peat” as “a spoilt, self-willed woman” (IX: 415).
. On Fallace’s language, and the language of the play generally, see Jonas Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (1960; repr. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970), pp. 104–121.
. Norbert Elias, The History of Manners (The Civilizing Process: Volume 1) , trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 48–49. Tertullian, De cultu feminarum (The Apparel of Women), trans. Edwin A. Quain, in Disciplinary Moral and Ascetical Works, trans. Arbesmann, Daly, and Quain (New York, 1959), p. 136.
. It is probably worth stating here that my use of “left-wing” throughout is anachronistic with respect to our current political classifications. I am referring to the more extreme proponents of church reform, who were largely Calvinists; their socio-political values, while anti-conservative with respect to Tudor orthodoxy, would be understood today as extremely conservative.
. Sig. G7v; quoted in Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 51 and 142.
. Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (facs. repr. New York, 1973), sig. Cyv; quoted in Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.74.
. From the New Shakespere Society edition of the Anatomie, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall (London, 1877–79), quoted by Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. 92. I have normalized italic type to roman.
. William Prynne, Histriomastix (London, 1633), sigs. X4–X4v; quoted by Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. 93. I have normalized italic type to roman.
. Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (1963; repr. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), pp. 76–77.
. On the classical origins, and evolving signification of, the theatrum mundi motif, see Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), pp. 138–144. Curtius traces the idea as far back as Plato’s Laws.
. II.vii.139–40; in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 381.
. On the evolution of the theatrical spectator from the divinity, to the “people,” to the monarch, see Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985).
. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983), pp. 345–6.
. On the public/private issue, as it relates in particular to psychoanalytic approaches to Renaissance literature, see Stephen Greenblatt, “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture,” in Patricia Parker and David Quint, eds., Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 210–24.
. Agnew, Worlds Apart, chs. 1–2, passim.
. Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 36.
. F. J. Fisher, “The Development of London as a Centre of Conspicuous Consumption in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, 30 (1948), p. 38.
. The most important of these manuals, in addition to the English version of Castiglione’s Courtier, included the sixteenth-century translations of Giovanni della Casa’s Il Galateo and of Stefano Guazzo’s La Civile Conversatione.
. The notion that there was such a thing as a “middle class” in Tudor England has been convincingly disputed, on the grounds that there is no evidence that the people usually counted in this class shared any notion of common interests or purposes. I will use the term here, however, to indicate the social group situated between the gentry and the lower class of manual laborers, most of them rural.
. Quoted in Agnew, Worlds Apart, p. 77.
. Dagon, incidentally, was in the times of the Judges a Philistine god worshipped as an idol, as in Milton’s Samson Agonistes.
. Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, ed. Eugene M. Waith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963); V.v.1–12, p. 178.
. Agnew, Worlds Apart, p. 137. See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 162, 136.
. I was inspired to explore the questions I address in this section after reading Nellie Haddad’s unpublished essay, “Troilus and Cressida: Representing the Problems of Representation.”
. Timber, or Discoveries, ll. 1105–1111, in Ben Jonson, ed. Ian Donaldson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 551.
. Such questions are persistently raised by Barish in The Antitheatrical Prejudice; I refer interested readers to his chapter “Jonson and the Loathèd Stage,” pp. 132–54.
. Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570) is probably the best known of the educational tracts to espouse these views.
. Discoveries, ll. 2490–98, in Donaldson, p. 585.
. This sort of performance of identity is explored by Stephen Greenblatt, in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), esp. ch. 4.
. The phrase is Louis Althusser’s; see Lenin and Philosophy (London: New Left Books, 1971), pp. 222–3. My understanding of Althusser’s notion has been shaped by the comments of Stephen Greenblatt (Renaissance Self-Fashioning, pp. 153–6); and of Steven Mullaney (The Place of the Stage, pp. 56–9).
Originally published in the journal Qui Parle (Spring, 1989)