Thomas P. Anderson. Performing Early Modern Trauma from Shakespeare to Milton.
There are at least three ways to think about what happens when we describe the past in narrative. One view, associated with Hayden White and Roland Barthes, holds that we inevitably understand the past in narrative terms, and that what seems like an independent "event" is in fact comprehensible only in relation to a sequence of events. Without narrative, no past. A second view, articulated by a range of writers from Thomas Carlisle to Michele de Certeau, holds that the past is tragically lost to us, and that the stories we create about it inevitably suffer from gaps and breaks: narrative never quite recaptures the past. A third view, loosely based on a psychoanalytic model, holds that the past is traumatic, and that we attenuate this trauma by telling orderly stories about it. Yet the past resists repression, sometimes erupting dramatically in the narrative intended to manage it; narrative tries, without full success, to forget the past by tidying it up.
Thomas P. Anderson has written a book that offers this third view, with occasional doses of the second. He argues that the early modern historical imagination in England dreaded certain traumatic aspects of the past, including (among other things) regicide, the relation of the dead to the living, and the interpretation of the sacrament. According to Anderson, English drama of the period, especially Shakespeare and Marlowe, as well as the work of Milton and Marvell, enacts the attempt to diffuse and integrate these historical traumas within orderly narratives while at the same time revealing the failure of this attempt: the past takes its revenge on the present. This is an ambitious book in the sense that Anderson wants not only to describe the literary effects of repressed trauma but also to advocate an ethical attitude toward history, one in which citizens refuse to think of their culture's past as completed, separate from the present. In this advocacy, he relies on the recent work of the philosopher Gregg Horowitz, who writes about the perils that modernity poses to the historical imagination. To what degree these post-Kantian concerns can be persuasively translated to a pre-Enlightenment context remains a question for me. Yet when Performing Early Modern Trauma is at its best, it delivers striking examples of past traumatic moments refusing assimilation into narrative mediation: the rape and maiming of Lavinia (in Titus Andronicus), the beheading of King Charles (in An Horatian Ode), and King Edward's death cry (in Edward II).
The two chapters on Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and on Milton's and Marvell's responses to the execution of Charles I both advance highly complex arguments, which occasionally lead to obscurity but also to the best insights of the book. In the case of Titus, Anderson juxtaposes the play's language of vow, promise, and warrant with the shifting status of the sacrament and of contract law. Protestant theology tried to replace real presence--where the wafer simultaneously represents and enacts Christ's dispensation--with a figurative interpretation that imposed a gap between sign and divine referent. Likewise, legal theorists were in the process of replacing debt-based contract--in which the act of agreement constitutes a finished bond--with assumpsit-based contract that remains incomplete at the moment of agreement, unfulfilled until that future time when settlement occurs. Anderson takes the theological and legal tension between immediacy and deferral and applies it to the character of Titus, who appears torn between the two models. On the one hand, Titus almost believes that his vows constitute acts themselves, with no gap between intention and completion ("A ... lively warrant ... / For me, most wretched, to perform the like./Die, die, Lavinia!" [5.3.43-45]). On the other hand, this sense of immediate warrant brings about shockingly violent consequences, not all of which are intended by the vows that precede them. Titus thus finds himself, despite his wishes, subject to "the uncertainty that is part of the temporal interval in assumpsit obligation" (42). Anderson sees within this tension an analogue to Renaissance England's understanding of its own religious and imperial inheritance from Rome. Is this inheritance a "thing" that can be passed on once and for all, or is it an uneven process in which the present cannot entirely control the influence of the past?
The chapter on Milton and Marvell is similarly invigorating. Anderson describes, in persuasive detail, the degree to which royalists and antiroyalists alike usually wanted to place the 1649 execution of Charles I in the past, to prevent the trauma from impinging on the present. Yet texts such as Eikon Basilike, a sentimental portrait of Charles ostensibly written by the king himself before his death, refused to let this trauma disappear. Most commentators have assumed that John Milton's critical remarks (in his Eikonoklastes) about the book's false theatricality reveal his antitheatrical bias. Yet Anderson argues that Eikon Basilike in fact invoked the king's presence in order to make it exceed theatrical representation, as if the image of the king amounted to his return. Rather than attacking theater, Anderson intriguingly suggests, Milton tries to reveal the theatricality of the book so as to defuse its status as a sovereign speech act: "Once the metaphorical nature of the king's book is established, Milton can become a critic and dismantle the text as mere propaganda.... [T]he real danger that Milton seems to be addressing is a world without the theatrical, figurative, or metaphorical" (186-87).Yet where Milton fails, the poet Marvell achieves some measure of success: he recognizes that simply denying the trauma of regicide will only make that trauma return more painfully. Thus, in his "Horatian Ode," he allows the execution scene pointedly to interrupt Cromwell's triumphant march, sustaining the sense of loss, but at the same time he presents the scene as a monumental event subject to interpretation, and thus to attenuation. Anderson sees this double effect as characteristic of Marvell's poetry, "the melancholic realization that art sustains loss as much as it attenuates a traumatic past experience" (199). Both this chapter and the one on Titus make substantial contributions to the subjects and texts they engage.
The chapters on Shakespeare's Richard II (the trauma of Gloucester's death) and Marlowe's Edward II (the trauma of regicide), as well as the chapter on assorted revenge tragedy and post-Reformation burial practices, demonstrate the book's argument less effectively. Certainly, there are fine moments. Anderson nicely reads Richard II's melancholy desire to "tell sad stories of the deaths of kings" (RII 3.2.156) as reflecting his fear that future generations will not inherit his memory, that he will be subsumed into Bolingbroke's narrative of history (68-69). Yet sometimes these chapters seem too eager to read any detail as confirmation of their theses. Surely the slyly humorous gage-throwing scene in Richard II (4.1) does not so much represent the power of "ritual displays" to make "the memory of the crime [Gloucester's murder] ... vanish" (75) as it represents ritual out of control, the collapse of court decorum under the weight of self-interest. Likewise, I am unconvinced that Holinshed's passing remark that people in Berkeley who heard Edward II's death cry "prayed heartily to God to receive his soul" imposes a "Christian narrative" intimating "that royal death is part of a larger order, and the cry acquires meaning only within this framework" (109). Claims such as these risk making the larger argument less rather than more persuasive.
These claims seem to derive from Anderson's overarching sense that Elizabethan chronicles and plays tried to mediate historical trauma by functioning as "narratives of historical progress" (57), representing past events within a "linear perspective that views them as part of a seamless grand narrative" (109). Granting that a book like Acts and Monuments operates within an eschatological framework, we should nonetheless recognize that most Tudor chronicles by writers such as Stow and Holinshed reveal little appetite for the modern notion of "progress," often conceding contingency over grand narrative. They admit that they do not always know the truth; they routinely leave issues up to the judgment of their readers. In other words, Anderson tends to make these chronicles too Hegelian. The same is true in his treatment of the chronicle plays, even though he later approvingly cites Jonathan Goldberg's celebration of the contingency within Renaissance literature (175). Anderson misses an opportunity, it seems to me, to use his thesis to differentiate a play such as Richard III--a play he does not discuss but one that tries to manage the traumatic past through an elaborate structure of prophecy--from the plays of the second tetralogy, which delay prophetic fulfillment or deny it altogether. Not a single prophecy made in Richard II comes true in the course of the play itself. And in 2 Henry IV, for example, Warwick responds to the suggestion of Richard II's prophetic power by reinterpreting prophecy as educated guesswork: given sufficient evidence, "a man may prophesy, / With a near aim, of the main chance of things" (3.1.82-83). The play reinscribes inevitability as likelihood, the local exfoliation of cause and effect. Can we find examples of grand narrative in Richard II and Edward II? Certainly. Yet Anderson's interpretation would be more convincing in these chapters had he confronted the plays' sustained recognition of contingency.
This book will be of potential interest to a wide range of readers since it covers so many topics: trauma theory, models of history, narratology, theater criticism, Reformation theology, burial ritual, representations of kingship, and others. There is a comprehensive bibliography, though the index contains only names, no subjects. The Ashgate production staff (presumably) opted to place the notes at the end of each chapter rather than setting them as footnotes or final endnotes.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||John Tulloch. Shakespeare and Chekhov in Production and Reception: Theatrical Events and their Audiences.|
|Next Article:||Max Harris. Theater and Incarnation.|