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Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance.

Michael Witmore. Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance.

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007. ix + 233 pp. index. illus. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4399-2.

Michael Witmore's Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance argues that prevailing post-Foucaldian analyses fail to account for the presence of an unacknowledged agency in the early modern era's recognition of the kinship between children and the faculty of the imagination. His study ranges over such cultural fictions as civic pageantry, theater, and witchcraft trials. Rather than merely replicating and supporting hierarchical structures, Witmore argues that these cultural productions of the imagination also manage to elude such a reductive dialectical paradigm of power and subversion. Witmore's goal is to illuminate this new territory of agency and to examine the cultural anxiety produced by the dynamic link between children and the imaginative fictions associated with them. He organizes his argument around the four modes that he applies to his analyses: animation, touch, impetus, and recursion.

Chapter 1, "Ut Pueritas Poesis: The Child and Fiction in the English Renaissance," is perhaps the most valuable of the book. It historically contextualizes Renaissance discussions of the nexus between children and imagination within the era's theoretical debates over issues in rhetoric, poetics, drama and theatricality, biblical exegesis, and post-Reformation liturgy. In pre-Enlightenment and pre-Romantic England, the philosophical valuation of the faculty of the imagination was indeed vexed. The consensus view recognized the imagination as mediating between the senses and the appetites, on the one hand, and between the senses and rationality on the other. There was controversy, however, over whether to regard the power of the imagination positively or negatively, whether it led one to or away from the truth. Beginning with Plato's denunciation of imagination as childishly irrational imitation, and moving from there to Aristotle's acceptance of mimesis in the Poetics as innately human and healthy, Witmore then traces the debate from Quintilian and Cicero to Luther and Calvin and through a range of English Renaissance authors such as Foxe, Munday, Cranmer, Whitgift, Hooker, and Thomas Wright. While Witmore notes a link between a Puritan rejection of the theatricality of both the stage and Roman Catholicism, he argues convincingly that Puritan thinking revealed ambivalence toward imaginative play by allowing for a distinction between self-conscious recognition of fiction as fiction and the "idolatrous self-absorption" (45) of traditional Church ritual.

Chapter 2 focuses on the role of the multitudes of child performers--singers, actors, orators, and dancers--impressed into service for the coronation pageant of Queen Elizabeth. Witmore begins by examining the Renaissance fascination with automata, mechanical clocks especially, to illustrate his first "mode" of the imagination, which he refers to as animation. While Witmore recognizes the argument that civic pageantry indeed employs its subjects to validate royal authority, he argues that Elizabeth's coronation cannot be reduced to "the creeping power of Foucaldian discipline" (90). The role of the children performing in the coronation display is not utterly mechanical in its service to monarchy. Instead, Witmore demonstrates that here the imagination operates by its own rules to create an "ontological space" (91) that withdraws, in its status as fantasy, from the highly pressurized political forces that set it in motion. The child performers, then, communicate "as representation, not through it" (68).

The English children's theater is the concern of chapter 3, where Witmore examines the role of child characters and child actors in the drama of Marston, Jonson, and Beaumont. Here he elaborates on the mode of touch, arguing that these three playwrights self-consciously employ the child actors' physical presence on stage metadramatically to articulate their ideas about the power of the imagination. The theatrical experience is itself rendered a childlike fiction, one that functions on a "phatic" level prior to and concurrently with any "deliberate exchange of messages or narratives and serves as the ground for such an exchange" (106).

Chapter 4, on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, develops Witmore's mode of impetus. Drawn from an analogy to medieval mechanics, this conception of the imagination sees in fiction its capability to assume a life and momentum exterior to the contingencies of the world in which it is initially launched and how the creations of fiction "continue their motion through space beyond the reach of a guiding hand" (17). In the character of Mamillius, Shakespeare explores the possibilities of an ontological space fostered by the power of dramatic illusion. In chapter 5 Witmore examines the most "disturbing" (175) mode of fiction, recursion, through his discussion of the literature surrounding various witchcraft trials. Here the early modern concern involved the dangerous possibility that mimesis--children counterfeiting demonic possession--could actually produce the state being counterfeited. Whether the symptoms of the possessed children were truly satanic, or whether they were "human fictions" (188) implanted by manipulative adults, the disruptive threats of fictionalizing remained. Witmore's epilogue concludes by examining the role of imagination in the new epistemologies being fashioned in the seventeenth century. Even though a fundamental anxiety over the fantastic idols produced by the imagination lingered, Witmore shows how both Bacon and Newton celebrated a redemptive, childlike curiosity driving the new methodologies behind the search for truth.

Building upon and moving beyond New Historical paradigms, Witmore's insights should reinvigorate critical discussions of early modern culture studies. In his investigation of the affiliation of the childlike and the imaginative productions of the adult, Pretty Creatures succeeds admirably in isolating an often unacknowledged agency whose power continues to tempt, enthrall, and bewilder.


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Author:Mischo, John Brett
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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