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Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England.

Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England, by Adrian Streete. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. x + 298. Hardback $95.00.

For a long time now one line of thinking about "the modern subject" has wanted to trace its origins to the Reformation; for about as long, another has found in English Renaissance tragedy, Hamlet above all, a special venue for this new personage. Adrian Streete places his intricate and ambitious book in both traditions, with a few modifications. First, he wants to resist what he sees as the current trend toward a "plural, revisionist agenda," which stresses the "conceptual indeterminacy" (7) of any religious denomination to the point that "Protestant" and "Catholic" no longer have any irreducible essence but appear instead as contingent, hybrid categories. In that case, Streete worries, critics have done little more than assert the fact of hybridity before moving on, whereas he wants to contemplate seriously what "identity" means, notwithstanding the risk of essentialism. Second, he acknowledges the work of several medievalists, in particular the criticism of David Aers's "A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists" (13 n. 47), and so allows, at least in principle, for a complex medieval subjectivity that preceded modernity. By the same token, he tries to avoid a story of transition that would position the Reformation in "a narrative of subjective emancipation toward incipient rationality" (29).

Streete has done a large amount of reading in the primary and secondary literature, skillfully orients his reader in ongoing debates (e.g., over Calvinism, 98-101), and selects a rich array of quotations from which to construct his arguments. Whether one agrees with those arguments or not it is easy to learn a great deal from his tactics. He has an uncommon gift for taking theology on its own terms, no matter how arcane or fanciful. That gift is matched by a welcome appreciation for continental philosophy: Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan, Adorno, Althusser, Foucault, Levinas, and Zizek all make appearances, the latter in particular having left a deep mark.

The book falls into two parts--one dealing primarily with theology, the second with theater (mainly Doctor Faustus, Richard 11, and The Revenger's Tragedy "via Hamlet"), though doses of early modern religious lyric appear throughout to elucidate different points. Streete keeps several threads going through all these chapters, by far the most important his contention that the question of "interiority" or "subjectivity" entails a debate about mimesis. It is a tremendous strength of the book to have shown in the depths of the most abstract theology how Protestants' rejection of images made them all the more subject to the lure of simulacra. Lacking direct access to their archetypal, divine model, they finally "must acknowledge," Streete claims, "the precarious and fundamentally surrogate status of the figural" (218).

As with any book in multiple parts, uniting them poses a special challenge. More often than not, Streete expects his theological prelude to explain the drama because the Reformation changes everything first and the drama then illustrates: so for example theology describes "a tension between the ideal divine subject and its secular mimetic copy that provides one of the main sources of tragedy in the period" (26). The patterns of subject formation that Streete finds in theology are "repeated by" (79) or "deeply felt in the drama" (123), even where the drama manages "to make critical use" of the theological "model" that it borrows (79), as in Marlowe's "audacious parody" (160; also 145, 158). Only rarely does Streete entertain the possibility that the influence can work the other way round: namely, that Protestant theological writers might have "borrowed a trick or two from the theater, that arena of studied polyvocality" (116)--in which case I wondered if pluralist revisionism might not have a point. At any rate some people will be disappointed to see drama taking so passive a position with respect to theology, when (in my view at least) theatre has helped shape Christianity from the crown of thorns forward.

Here's a bigger problem. Streete's insistence on the novelty of Reformation-era interiority requires his readers to ignore a huge array of earlier language for the inner world. Once the Law has been written on the heart (e.g., Jer. 31.33; Heb. 8:10), I'm not convinced, psychologically speaking, that the Reformation marks an enormous advance. Everything Streete has to say about Augustine is ingenious, but it does not make sense to me to claim his "inward" theology exclusively for the sixteenth century while blanking out nearly everything else as a meaningful precursor--save, in this case, for Ockham's nominalism, which Streete puts to interesting use. Augustine forms a central pillar of medieval theology. And he is central to the Reformers. That, for me, is one of the more curious puzzles of Western intellectual history--but not one whose mystery Streete cares to plumb.

I was intrigued, but not entirely persuaded, by his argument for a shift, in Protestantism, "from the relatively fixed authority of imitatio to the much more fractured mimetic realm of representation" (25). Such a Reformation sounds to me suspiciously like the adoption of "theory," late last century, by departments of English--specifically, here, the University of Sussex. "The Protestant subject," writes Streete, for instance, "does not find plenitude in identification, but rather is located "in insufficiency' or in a kind of proto-Derridean lack" (63)--even though the "proto-Derridean shift" first takes place more than a millennium before, according to him, in Augustine's De Trinitate (48 n. 73). I am all for describing Lacan, too, as a "neo-Augustinian" (43) but taken together the Christian element of so much French theory does not speak very directly to the Reformation; on the contrary, as Bruce Holsinger has shown in no small detail, it usually demonstrates the extent to which that theory depends on, and elides, various strains of medieval Catholicism. (1)

I do not mean to deny any real or meaningful discontinuity at the time of the Reformation. But to my way of seeing, the easily documented and relatively sudden changes in drama over the course of the sixteenth century constitute a far more consequential development for the study of post-Reformation theater than anything that happened "inside." For all of Streete's intense engagement with the language of mimesis in Protestant theology, he does not dwell at much length on the astounding fact that, under pressure from Calvinist theology, mimetic representation as such changed wholly in England over the course of about sixty years; without these changes, a "secular" drama might not have been born. Instead, when Streete speaks of an "increasingly absent Christ" (141, 152, 222) he means absent from the heart and treats "Christ" almost exclusively at the level of theological debate. Why emphasize the "internalisation" (110, 121) of those debates rather than the external fact that Christ was increasingly, literally, absent from the stage?

That absence was, in certain respects, new to English drama--but not at all to theology. Christianity, as a systematic religion, originates in Christ's disappearance. From the beginning it has been "a cult focused on the fact of [its] leader's absence." (2) Many of the crises that Streete attributes to the Reformation, and refers to the Protestant subject, probably begin at the empty tomb, or with the hidden God of Judaism. I learned a lot from Streete's emphasis on the "Christocentrism" of Reformed theology but wish he had stressed somewhat more how anything centered on Christ orbits a cipher. Sixteenth-century iconoclasm massively strengthened the long kenotic tradition in which Faustus participates, but Protestants did not invent that tradition, and it had been applied to theatre before them.

Still, you have to forgive a book that is not about the Middle Ages for not being about the Middle Ages. Many readers, I'm sure, will be grateful for the omission, and what Streete does include is frequently great: the comparison of passages from Faustus with Calvin's commentary on 1 John (143-44, 156-57) breaks new ground in a well-plowed field, as does the discussion of Richard El's self-drawn analogies to Christ. I thought Streete gave new life to the worn connection between that play and late Elizabethan politics by pointing out Christ's parallel relation to Roman absolutism (176-77, 193). The final chapter forges a striking link, via Middleton, between iconoclasm and regicide: the former tries to destroy representations of the divine, the latter his political "representative." All this, I expect, should help invigorate future scholarship concerned with the complex relations between theater and theology.


(1.) See Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

(2.) James J. O'Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 171.

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Author:Parker, John
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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