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Devil Theatre: Demonic Possession and Exorcism in English Renaissance Drama, 1558-1642.

Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen. Devil Theatre: Demonic Possession and Exorcism in English Renaissance Drama, 1558-1642.

Studies in Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007. x + 220 pp. index. bibl. $85. ISBN: 978-1-84384-114-2.

This book follows a recent trend in scholarship on early modern religion. It is divided into three main chapters, centered around the themes of selfhood, politics, and the theater, respectively. Arriving closely upon the heels of such provocative works as Sarah Ferber's Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France and Philip Almond's Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (both appearing in 2004 and reviewed in this journal, although neither is cited by this author), it would be a welcome addition to the critical literature if only it situated itself more explicitly within current scholarly debates. Indeed, Doctor van Dijkhuizen's language skills are impeccable, and he brings fresh primary material to his analysis, incorporating discussions of obscure plays along with all the standard classics (primarily works by Shakespeare and Jonson). He navigates comfortably the murky waters of Shakespeare criticism, moving easily from one text to another and back again. This advantage of flexible organization can become, at times, a liability in the sense that he does not consolidate discussion of a single play into one section, but instead returns to it over and over throughout the book. But overall, it is a thorough treatment, well researched and well written, couched within an ample theoretical framework. I appreciate in particular how it contextualizes the exorcism controversy within the larger debate over miracles and their cessation.

The real problem with this book is that it is already outdated. It originated as a doctoral dissertation (Leiden, 2002) but was not published until 2007. The secondary sources are antiquated, with the author drawing at times upon studies from the 1930s and 1950s (not to mention relics from the turn of the last century) when post-2000 studies of the same topics are available. I am sympathetic to the fact that it can be difficult at times for Europeans to gain immediate access to North American scholarship. But here we find no mention of Armando Maggi's Satan's Rhetoric (2001), Gaetano Paxia's The Devil's Scourge (2002), Walter Stephens's Demon Lovers (2002), Nancy Caciola's Discerning Spirits (2003), Stephanie Moss and Kaara Peterson's Disease, Diagnosis, and Cure on the Early Modern Stage (2004), Erik Midelfort's Exorcism and Enlightenment (2005), or Robert Lima's Stages of Evil: Occultism in Western Theater and Drama (2005). In fact, I can find only four entries in the bibliography of sources published after the year 2000. This lack of awareness of recent studies leads the author to make such naive statements as the following: "Stage images of demonic possession and exorcism have received little scholarly attention" (8).

This failure to stay current on relevant bibliography would in itself constitute a problem, particularly in a fast-growing field such as this one. But unfortunately, it seems that there might be some further issue here: this author only appears to be unaware of recent scholarship. His review of my book Exorcism and Its Texts: Subjectivity in Early Modern Literature of England and Spain (2003; based on my Princeton dissertation, 2000) in Modern Language Review (101, no. 1 [2006]: 307-08) proves that this cannot be the case. The many synergies between our work--readily apparent even to the most cursory reader--make his omission of any reference to my book rather puzzling. We certainly do not arrive at all the same conclusions; for instance, he emphasizes the allegedly "demonic" forces of unruly female sexuality. Now, it is unclear to me why female sexuality should necessarily prove any more unruly than male, especially when in other sources from the period, it is the male figure of the demon lover whom the female attempts to exorcize. But perhaps this is the necessary (and, I would add, salutary) result of viewing the same material from a masculine, instead of feminine, perspective. In my opinion, at least, this is what is supposed to happen in scholarship: the diverse backgrounds we bring to the scholarly enterprise naturally produce a rich variety of contrasting approaches.

Likewise, there are some other themes I would have touched on a little differently. His allusion to Lady Macbeth's "murder demons" is a bit confusing. Certain demons were thought to corrupt human beings, influencing them to commit specific sins; but this is a complex notion which begs for explanation. Similarly, in the same passage, the author refers to Lady Macbeth's "voluntary possession"; I would actually agree with this designation, but since possession is usually involuntary, some clarification might be in order. At one point, he uses the terms exorcism and conjuration interchangeably; technically, this is inaccurate, since these are actually opposite processes--casting a demon out as opposed to requesting a demonic visitation. While it is true that the two words were often interchanged by early moderns, still it is imprecise for scholars to do so without an explanatory footnote. Doctor van Dijkhuizen also engages in a type of psychological criticism I have always found suspect, as when he claims that "Jonson's treatment of the demonic expresses an unease about his own theatrical art" (168). I think it's always a little dangerous to psychoanalyze authors who have been dead for several centuries. Finally, I am puzzled by the statement that "the failure of exorcism in the play is caused by the fact that it is directed solely at the human body, and by its inability to cure, or account for, non-physical traumas" (57-58). What is exorcism, by any definition, if not a spiritual (as opposed to "strictly" medical) cure?

In sum, Doctor van Dijkhuizen's failure to take into account recent scholarship mars an otherwise valuable study. The problems with it are probably due, however, not only to the author's belatedness, but also to lack of communication across the pond. It is perhaps an index of how quickly this field is moving to see that work which seemed fresh even five years ago has already gone somewhat stale. Nevertheless, the book contains valuable insights which should not be overlooked.


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Author:Kallendorf, Hilaire
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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