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Shadow and Substance: Eucharistic Controversy and English Drama across the Reformation Divide.

Shadow and Substance: Eucharistic Controversy and English Drama across the Reformation Divide, by Jay Zysk. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2017. Pp. 424. Paperback. $45.00.

Jay Zysk's Shadow and Substance stands as an important contribution to recent efforts to reassess early English drama by questioning conventional narratives of periodization. In crossing the disciplinary boundaries that normally divide medievalists from early modernists, Zysk joins several other scholars in Notre Dame's important ReFormations series, including {Catherine C. Little and Ryan McDermott. Zysk's concise but detailed summary of Eucharistic debates from the ninth through the sixteenth centuries offers a welcome contribution to the many existing efforts to dismantle grand narratives of the Reformation as "progress from body to text and from corporeality to trope" (28). And the five chapters focused on drama offer refreshing and insightful analysis of plays that are too often separated by sharp divisions between "medieval" and "early modern" literature. Reading Coriolanus alongside biblical dramas of Christ's passion, or Faustus alongside Everyman, Zysk seeks to reveal new lines of continuity and change across the Reformation period. If the book's readings of these plays do not always succeed in escaping from a historical master narrative of subtraction that sets early modern "parodies" of Eucharistic ritual against the more unified religious drama of the middle ages, Shadow and Substance certainly displays the sensitivity and careful scholarship that are required in order to write across the polarizing divide of the Protestant Reformation.

In turning to religious debates about the signifying powers of the Eucharist as a way to think about dramatic representation, Zysk joins many other scholars who have shown how various kinds of signifying practices are shared across religious and theatrical contexts, from Shakespearean theater to the biblical civic drama of York. While Zysk's general argument that debates about religious signs in this period offer "a working vocabulary for thinking about language, interpretation, and the body in drama" (22) is not a new one, Shadow and Substance offers a welcome focus on a topic often alluded to in passing in literary criticism but rarely explored in depth: the ongoing debates across this period about the exact nature of relations among the ritual bread and wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ's Galilean or physical body, and the mystical body of faithful Christians. As Zysk notes, "The Eucharist produces many interpretive possibilities, all of them difficult" (20). The first chapter on "Eucharistic Semiotics" helps the reader to navigate these complexities by examining four sets of terms that often govern discussions of the Eucharist: body and sign; flesh and spirit; literal and figurative; and words and deeds. Zysk ably shows how these oppositions intersect while demonstrating the hazards of conflating them. For example, some literary scholars have seized on the semiotic implications of the "carnal/spiritual" opposition to suggest that mainstream Protestants viewed the sacraments as merely "metaphorical" or "figural" (36). As others have also done, Zysk shows through readings of Protestant writers such as Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker that arguments for a "spiritual" approach to the Eucharist did not "sweep corporeality away" (37) or "evacuate" the body from Eucharistic theology (36).

The first chapter's thorough and historically specific account of Eucharistic semiotics then affords a clear but flexible through-line for the book's discussion of a broad range of plays, from the Croxton Play of the Sacrament to The Winter's Tale. The chapters in Shadow and Substance are sequenced so as to avoid a grand narrative that moves from the medieval to the early modern; however, each chapter recapitulates this trajectory in miniature, moving in chronological order across several centuries. This repeated shuttling from the medieval to the early modern and back brings many rewards, such as the demonstration in chapter 2 that Shakespeare's Coriolanus, like biblical dramas of Christ's passion, pivots "on a wounded body situated at the center of a public gaze" (54). While Christ galvanizes public devotion by making his wounded body "available in the vernacular," Zysk argues, Coriolanus rejects the social process by which his wounds might "enter into language" (75). By placing two very different kinds of plays side by side while assessing in detail the Eucharistic dimensions of each one, Zysk shows powerful continuities in these seemingly incommensurate theatrical treatments of the wounded body, demonstrating especially well how social community becomes "contingent on the interpretability of that body" (82). In arguing for these strong connections between medieval and early modern drama, Zysk adds to exciting recent work by scholars such as Tom Bishop, Heather Hirschfeld, and Kurt Schreyer.

As we move through the chapters of Shadow and Substance, however, it becomes apparent that its accounts of relations between religious and dramatic practice frequently rely on very broad parallels and contrasts: "Drama exploits the instability of semiotic reference that characterizes the Eucharist" (3), we are told. The sacrament of the Eucharist, like drama, "confounds the categories of body and sign" (29). While Zysk's emphasis on referential "instability" has a certain capaciousness--it avoids pigeonholing the plays within particular doctrinal positions--it can also result in a lack of analytical traction. If plays such as The Duchess of Malfi and The Changeling locate the power of the relic not in "its divine agency but in its semiotic instability" (190), as Zysk argues in chapter 5, how are we to understand this "power"? Is it aesthetic, political, religious, or some combination of the three? Is referential instability an end in itself? In the end, this book does not offer an effective response to a critic such as Huston Diehl, who argues that Webster's metatheatrical attention to the deceptiveness of devotional objects serves a specifically Reformed iconoclastic agenda. If plays deploy both the language and the objects of theological controversy, and if Eucharistic discourse had a far greater reach than as merely "a series of esoteric debates" (51), as Zysk argues, what justifies the categorical claim that plays "do not themselves... intervene in theological controversies" (17)? Zysk's appeal to the inherently "multivalent" (17) semiotics of drama as disqualifying it from entry into "theological controversy" is not fully persuasive, especially in light of extensive work by historians such as Alexandra Walsham and Peter Lake, who have shown that popular cultural forms such as broadsides, murder pamphlets, and dramas of all kinds did quite frequently intervene in these debates. While the book's evenhanded and nuanced approach to doctrinal divisions is one of its great strengths, Shadow and Substance does not finally seem to answer the question it raises about the "end" to which devotional objects and Eucharistic language are actually "put in post-Reformation drama" (190). Can the extensive references to the Eucharist in Doctor Faustus, which Zysk documents extremely well in chapter 4, be explained by the diagnosis that Faustus suffers from "priest-envy" (130)? This psychological reading of the main character does not answer the larger questions about cultural change that the book sets out to address, and it indirectly contributes to a narrative of the Reformation as a loss of "the powers of a confecting priesthood" (148).

Zysk sets out to argue against a secularization narrative in which "sacramental energies are evacuated by metaphorical figures" (87). Yet the book's contrasts between medieval and early modern plays frequently proceed by negation: the medieval plays are shown to confirm various traditional approaches to the Eucharist, while many of the early modern plays turn out to be "Eucharistic parodies that undermine both sacramental and political foundations" (87). Zysk is right to argue that parody cannot be equated with desacralization. Yet the stark contrasts traced in these chapters between medieval and early modern approaches to staging the Eucharist seem to mark deeper changes than the book can account for with its capacious assertion that "the sacrament's semiotic richness never diminished" (15). In other words, if we need not agree with a critic such as Diehl that these plays parody the Eucharist as part of a "reforming" aesthetic project, neither does it seem plausible that they do so primarily in order to point back towards the same semiotic instabilities that have inhered in the Eucharist from the beginning.

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Author:Waldron, Jennifer
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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