Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance Drama: From the Raising of Lazarus to King Lear.
Katharine Goodland's Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance Drama is a welcome addition to the growing field of study that crosses the previous critical boundaries of medieval and Renaissance drama and instead analyzes the influences and echoes that can be found within these two eras. It is much to Goodland's credit that she spends equal time discussing each period rather than compressing the discussion on medieval theater to favor the Renaissance, as is often the case.
Goodland sets out to show how grieving women on the early modern stage are not influenced only by classical drama but developed from the Catholic past (2), and the importance of the cultural trauma of the Reformation in shaping mourning (7). She does this by identifying a series of laments that can be found within the medieval Lazarus plays, the Nativity and Passion plays, and the Resurrection plays before examining mourning women in early modern English tragedies: King John. The Spanish Tragedy, The White Devil, Hamlet, Lucrece, and Titus Andronicus, as well as looking at how lamentation frames Richard III and the figure of King Lear as symbolic of a female mourner.
During the introduction Goodland interweaves examples from classical, medieval, and Renaissance drama. The examples demonstrate a large and impressive arena of scholarship, but often there is a tendency to dash between the examples without making clear the substantial differences between the contexts of the chosen plays. For example, Goodland begins by stating that, "In the world that extends from Homer to Hamlet grief is a performance incumbent upon the female relatives of the deceased, simultaneously a responsibility, a right, and a source of pride" (9). She illustrates her point by reference to The Trojan Women, the N-Town Raising of Lazarus, the Digby Mary Magdalene, Electra, and Antigone. So while the breadth of Goodland's examples is to be commended, she often fails to distinguish how these dramas are also part of differing cultural worlds. In fact this is symptomatic of a larger problem: Goodland gives little time to establishing the cultural, social, or political milicus of the worlds that she examines. She often makes useful references to other literary writings,, but this in fact increases the sense of drama existing in a vacuum with little attachment to real life. This problem decreases during the course of the book, however, so that by the final couple of chapters the textual analysis and argument is more grounded.
Part 1 of the book examines the figures of women mourners across a range of medieval "cycles" and the Digby Mary Magdalene play. In the first of these sections she concludes that the Lazarus plays "attempt to resolve the inherent opposition between the residual practice of lament and the dominant Christian eschatology" (52). This section, and the two that cover the Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection plays, undertake detailed textual reading of the plays. The thoroughness of these readings is to be commended, but is reminiscent of that of Rosemary Woolf whose 1970s study Goodland frequently draws upon. It is an approach which seems rather old-fashioned these days and leads Goodland to frequently treat drama as though it amounts to words on a page. When Goodland strays into considering the performative production and reception of drama her analysis is immediately lightened. For example, reference to actresses playing Constance (120) and Alexandra Johnston's writing on the experience of playing the N-Town virgin (122) produces a more dynamic reading. Goodland's dense textual commentary is not aided by an editorial decision to run textual quotations into the prose rather than indent them on new lines.
The second part of the book shifts to Renaissance drama, and it is here that the structure seems less secure. While the chronology of medieval pageants serves Goodland well in the first part, the second part is less clearly defined. Her link between the traumatized society of post-Reformation England and the world of King John is convincing, and the reading of Richard III as explorations of the "consequences for England's communal memory of the suppression of mourning practices" (155) is interesting. However, the "monstrous mourning women" identified in a chapter that embraces Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Rape of Lucrece, and Webster's The White Devil makes a less convincing case that "the ritual destruction of English icons of the Virgin Mary seem to haunt these moments" (170) given the vast historical shifts that occurred during these various works.
Goodland approaches the chapter on Hamlet with greater control, drawing on textual readings, references to pamphleteers, and critical readings, to argue that Ophelia's laments shape the reception of the play (198). However, there is no consideration given as to how her laments might be read differently given that they were performed by a boy actor. The final chapter examines Lear as an inverted Pieta, pointing out that in his direction of "look there" he calls the audience's attention to the corpse of Cordelia in a manner that was now forbidden within the funeral service.
Goodland's book will be of value to those searching for specific texts in this area, but there is a sense that there is an embryonic book of much greater appeal and importance lurking here. Had Goodland been more selective and directional about her use of critical perspectives (for example, on page 7 she dashes through six alone), she could have carved out a very influential book.
Reviewer: KATIE NORMINGTON