Hornback, Robert, The English Clown Tradition: From the Middle Ages to Shakespeare.
Robert Hornback takes as his task here the 'unearthing' of 'Yoricks', by which he means the attempt to excavate the specific ways in which four particular clowning/fooling contexts in Renaissance English writing had actual ideological import. The book is therefore an admirable attempt to address the comic afresh as a rhetorically powerful force. In this respect, Hornback's work sits alongside recent sociological studies that have tried to take the comic seriously, such as Jerry Palmer's Taking Humour Seriously (Routledge, 1994) and Michael Billig's Laughter and Ridicule (Sage, 2005).
Hornback's study is explicitly distanced from new historicism, specifically from its 'sweepingly dismissive "subversion-containment" dynamic' (p. 6). Hornback treats ideology, refreshingly, as a moving rather than as a static structure that is simply reinforced within contexts of comic clowning.
The first neglected clowning context (Yorick) to be unearthed is the tradition of black-faced natural fools. Here Hornback reminds us of the long association in Augustinian theology between blackness and foolery (stultitia). Black was not merely symbolic of abstract 'evil' but also of the mental and moral degradation suffered by humanity after the fall. Hornback discusses evidence from the Mystery play cycles, the iconography of the black-masked fool (insipiens) in the historiated 'D' of the Dixit beginning Psalm 52 (The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God') in manuscripts of the psalter, and from the sixteenth-century 'Wit plays'. All tend to triangulate blackness, the Devil, and stupidity or moral insanity, a triangulation that, Hornback claims, will come to underpin ideological constructions of Africans as incorrigible natural fools all too easily. Othello is not much mentioned here, perhaps because it does not fit the focus on clowning. However, Hornbacks observations here surely enrich our sense of the ideological weight underlying accusations of 'devilry' both by Othello (iv. 2. 240) and by Emilia (v. 2. 142).
The book also engages with Robert Weimann and Douglas Bruster's work on the malleable Vice figure in Shakespeare and the Power of Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Hornback provides a convincing challenge, across Chapters 2 and 3, to the critical notion 'that Renaissance drama flourished because it left behind a presumably confining religious mode of "medieval" drama' (p. 19).
Chapter 2 excavates the tradition of 'Protestant misrule' appropriated from the medieval religious inversion rituals that once worked to reinforce Catholic norms and was now used, instead, in the service of Henrician and Edwardian state propaganda, to make Catholicism itself look ridiculous. However, subtle--and not so subtle--redeployments of the Lord of Misrule figure did not belong only to the iconoclastic early reformers who opposed Catholicism. As the investigation in Chapter 3 of the Puritan and anti-Puritan writing shows, the Marprelate tracts appropriate the clowning misrule figure to construct their own carnivalesque satiric vision of the ecclesiastical status quo. Moreover, the topos was invoked within the anti-Puritan backlash against the Puritan Martinists in order to construct their pretensions to wisdom as inveterate folly and a terrifying threat to the social order. The figure of the stage-Puritan, the 'very devout ass'--such as Shakespeare's Dogberry--is central here. Hornback concludes that religious ideology is actually a persistent feature of stage clownage at least until well beyond the end of Shakespeare's career despite the turn in taste to neoclassical decorum.
In keeping with the focus on identifying humorous clowning contexts as rationally (if ideologically) self-conscious critique, Chapter 4 pursues a discussion of the differences between the fools of the Quarto and Folio versions of King Lear. Hornback maps the Q- and F-fools onto the distinction between the artificial and natural fool respectively, identifying the specifics of the Q-fools bitter and comic rationality in contrast to F's less amusing but pathos-infused character.
In these ways, The English Clown Tradition is a compelling move in the important direction of breaking down the serious/non-serious dichotomy that has so far dogged critical accounts of humour's politics, prompting a great many fresh directions and questions for research on the ideological and rhetorical power of the early modern comic in the process.
DANIEL DERRIN, Macquarie University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2014|
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