Printer Friendly

'Rooted Sorrow': Dying in Early Modern England.

The two books under review come to very different conclusions about how death was met in the English Renaissance imagination. In "Rooted Sorrow": Dying in Early Modern England, Bettie Anne Doebler argues that the English Renaissance provides a salutary alternative to a late-twentieth century culture that in her view represses death. Renaissance literature concerning death, according to this reading, was properly consoling and accepting of the final hour; the Renaissance, Doebler writes, can therefore help us "minister to the rooted sorrow of our own mortality" (249). In stark contrast, Robert Watson's book, The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance, warns against such nostalgia, and argues that the early modern period in England ushered in a "mortality crisis," as Christians struggled with a difficult Reformation Protestantism. Watson finds that Renaissance writers shielded themselves by means of an "unhealthy denial" of death.

Doebler's study follows the lead of anthropologists, seeking the "root metaphors" of a culture. Drawing upon medieval visual materials representing deathbed temptation scenes, as well as other assorted texts dated between 1400 and 1600, Doebler lays out the symbolic scheme of a heroic deathbed struggle between good and evil. She sees medieval traditions surviving in the Renaissance in counsel and in popular devotional works, as well as in a record of the execution of Essex.

Her study emphasizes the continuity between medieval and Renaissance traditions, and, most daringly, between Catholic and Reformed practices in the recurrence of themes from the medieval emblem book, the Ars moriendi. Central motifs of that book are explored in Renaissance representations of the temptation to despair in Milton's Paradise Lost and in Spenser's Faerie Queene. Turning to Shakespeare, Doebler fits the plays Richard III, Macbeth and Othello into the medieval pattern as well. Only in King Lear is the temptation to despair avoided. The final section of the book takes Donne's sermons and religious poetry to be representative of a comforting answer to death, and Doebler explores the mode of lamentation in funeral sermons, where grief is transformed to comfort.

In emphasizing the survival of the medieval Ars Moriendi motifs, Doebler seems to erase differences between Protestant and Catholic meanings. This attempt to understand the "root metaphors" of culture thus paints with a broad brush. Choosing allegory and type over historical specificity, and setting sources from the fifteenth century next to those from the mid-seventeenth, Doebler uses evidence in a manner that may fail to satisfy historians and new historicist literary critics. A study of this sort should supply us with a principle of inclusion and a deeper engagement with historical evidence to convince us that Renaissance writers, though obsessed with death, indeed salved their fears of it.

Robert Watson's study wipes away any such salve, emphasizing that Renaissance writers, skeptical about an afterlife, experienced a profound crisis over death. In an age stripped of traditional religious moorings, Watson argues, literature expressed the dash between writers' psychological need for a unified self and the physical fact of annihilation that was death: "What made sense theologically made trouble psychologically" (5).

Watson seeks to understand this mortal difficulty by psychoanalytic theory. Stephen Greenblatt once coyly suggested that "psychoanalysis . . . is the end of the Renaissance": that is, Freud's exposing the myths of a constructed personal identity would only derive meaning in a culture with notions of personal identity - and before the Renaissance, culture did not offer such notions. The method of psychoanalysis, in this argument, is guilty of denial - it universalizes a selfhood that must be properly considered as a historical category. Yet Watson's book boldly, and, to this reader, successfully, contests this claim. With what might be called a new humanism, Watson reaches beyond the familiar oedipal narratives, the sexual sub-plots, and the economies of the gaze that have scripted traditional Freudian or psychoanalytic literary criticism. Renaissance England, Watson tells us, was in the throes of a "mortality-crisis," and by this he means not solely the material facts of monstrous mortality rates, but also the new need for psychic armor because of the Reformation. Watson makes a compelling effort to link psychic structures with material and theological, cultural and intellectual contexts. The book is rich in insight.

English literature filled a need for order and meaning in response to the skepticism of Reformation Christianity, Watson argues. In chapters on The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet, Watson shows how the classic Renaissance revenge genre offered an anxious response to Christianity's master plot of filial sacrifice. Revenge tragedy, in this reading, seems to have proffered a figurative cure for mortality by giving humans reasons to act: "we kill others to combat our own mortality" (60). Nonetheless, by laying bare the inadequacy of the revenge consolation, these plays also exposed the feud between humanity and God. Rather than confirming that Christ's death could redeem humanity, The Spanish Tragedy merely offered an endless series of figurative substitutions for death: the play "[was] ultimately a complaint about death itself, in all its forms" (73). Other chapters on Macbeth and Measure for Measure show how Renaissance drama - whether tragedy or comedy - proves to be a medium for exploring, and ultimately subverting, Christian answers to mortality. Hamlet also rejects the fantasy of a comforting death by staging strategies of denial, foremost among them that the child can replace the lost parent. The ghost of Hamlet is a powerful illusion that distracts Hamlet, and us, from the condition of meaninglessness. The grave diggers had it right all along.

The second half of the book concentrates on the lyrics and sermons of Donne and Herbert, offering an assortment of patient and perceptive close readings to explore how these poets accepted and denied death. The fear of annihilation in death is proven to be a struggle more basic to Donne than a sexual or religious one; Donne's metaphysical violent yoking is both the emblem and the saving device for that central fear. Though he relies on psychobiography to explain some of Donne's fixation - Watson's portrait of Donne as an abused child underpins his analysis - the readings of the poetry are brilliant. Herbert, in contrast to Donne, writes poetry in which annihilation is confronted healthily, with the poet submitting to death by effacing himself in his poetry. An epilogue descends from metaphysical poetry to social history, as two accounts of women on their deathbeds are chosen to demonstrate the reality of atheistic doubt in the Renaissance. Watson strikingly ends his study, then, not in the realm of imaginative literature, but in material culture, reminding us that figures for death cannot be seen without humane regard for the struggles of people who actually died. This epilogue is a sobering rejoinder to much of the familiar critical practice of preferring metaphors to real agents.

What is the use of literature, then, in the face of the blank nothing that is death? Of Shakespeare's plays, Watson writes that "all they can do is keep us momentarily dear of a psychological hell" (149). This book offers a powerful and humane understanding of the necessity of fiction. It is a major contribution to English Renaissance studies, and should be read and discussed by literary scholars and by historians, as well as by those interested in theory.

SHARON ACHINSTEIN Northwestern University
COPYRIGHT 1997 Renaissance Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Achinstein, Sharon
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
Previous Article:The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello.
Next Article:The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance.

Related Articles
A Rural Society After the Black Death: Essex, 1350-1535.
Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity.
Images of the Educational Traveller in Early Modern England.
The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance.
Mapping Mortality: The Persistence of Memory and Melancholy in Early Modern England.
The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century.
Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period. .

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters