Kent Cartwright, Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). x+321 pp. ISBN 0 521 64075 X. 37.50 (cloth).


In Theatre and Humanism, Kent Cartwright argues forcefully for the significance of English humanism's impact on the evolution of Tudor drama. Discussing plays from the early Fulgens and Lucres (c. 1490) through Shakespeare's immediate predecessors, Marlowe and Greene, Cartwright suggests that the effects on sixteenth-century drama of new ways of thinking about the world and about human potential have not been fully appreciated. This fascinating reassessment of Tudor theatre, which masterfully combines strong close readings with persuasive broad strokes, forces us to reconsider the relationship between elite and popular drama and the significance of humanist learning in understanding the theatre that became Shakespeare's stage.

At the heart of Cartwright's investigation of Tudor theatre is his effort to explain the transformation of sixteenth-century English drama from purely moralistic and didactic into an affective, lively, and often enigmatic theatre, a drama that could be experienced for its own sake. He concludes that English humanism, especially as it adapted elements of indigenous theatrical practice, had a profound impact on the direction of Tudor drama. The author challenges the binaries of previous generations of critics who have seen the roots of late Tudor dramatic greatness either in the classical formalism of a slavishly imitative English humanism or in the popular dramatic tradition of the medieval morality plays. Seeking to nuance the drama's relationship to these antecedents, Cartwright argues that a more productive way to understand its development would take in both humanism's emphasis on the affective power of drama and its appropriation of native dramatic concerns. He argues that rather than reasserting the dominance of one tradition or the other, a focus on "humanist dramaturgy," with particular regard for the movement's exploration of the tension between knowledge gained through experience or from classical authority, will reveal "qualities of performance, structure, characterization, and auditorial experience that parallel or complement the theatrical virtuosities prized by the morality theory" (7). The argument that these traditions might actually complement each other, which Cartwright admits amounts to a paradoxical claim for both "a certain repetition and a certain newness" (247), is finally very persuasive. His excellent discussion of 1560s political drama, for instance, makes a convincing case for cross-fertilization of these two strands of dramatic practice.

In surveying a century's drama, Cartwright necessarily takes up many issues over the course of his study's eight chapters, most of which consider one play in great depth. He begins with a chapter concerning John Heywood's The Four PP (1520s). In this play he finds its author making the case for the importance of ambiguity and play as means to draw in the audience and ultimately make them more amenable to the humanist educational programme. This enigmaticness -- in particular the question of how the audience is to understand whether the Palmer is telling the truth or participating in the game of lies when he claims never to have seen a woman out of patience -- is instantiated in the acting itself. In numerous instances, the actor has a choice of whether to deliver his lines in a more or less plausible tone, and those choices would then affect how the rest of the play is to be interpreted. Such openness, Cartwright argues, exemplifies the approach of the humanists to learning and education, allowing for an Erasmian playfulness that makes the search for knowledge a desirable goal.

The author offers several additional chapters that focus primarily on one play and explore its relationship to emergent English humanism and to other dramatic traditions. Chapters on Wit and Science, on Gallathea, on Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and on Tamburlaine, Part I consider the humanist project, its connection to theatrical practice, and, in these later plays, its near-subversion by the drama it had created. While these chapters focus on one play or another, Cartwright enhances his interpretation with brief readings of other contemporary plays that highlight his points. In his engaging analysis of Tamburlaine, Part I, for example, Cartwright's attention to Richard Legge's Richardus Tertius firmly links Marlowe's work to the humanist drama of the university, while considering the play's appeal to a popular audience in the permanent public theatres. Cartwright argues that Marlowe adapts the classical functions of the chorus in much the same manner as Legge had done, creating a secondary character as a kind of choric witness, but with the added effect of drawing the audience of the public theatres more fully into the "poetics of spectacle," the Marlovian hallmark. By manipulating these characters and the point of view, Cartwright argues, Marlowe makes the audience complicit in the theatrical spectacle and erodes the spectatorial distance necessary for the audience to exercise its ethical judgment. Marlowe thus negotiates a fine line between the humanist theory of drama's ability to inspire virtue and the antitheatrical condemnations of plays' ability to exhort its audience to vice. It is a masterful reading of the play.

In addition to chapters that focus on a particular play, Cartwright also considers broad thematic or historical developments. While gender concerns appear throughout this study, Cartwright devotes one chapter to a broad survey of a half dozen plays from the 1490s through the 1580s that demonstrate a "profeminism" derived from More and other English humanists. Perhaps the study's most impressive chapter is Cartwright's discussion of political plays of the 1560s. Here the author examines Cambises, Gorboduc, and Damon and Pithias in relation to each other. In juxtaposing these plays, he contends that plays from each of the dramatic traditions -- the popular, morality-influenced Cambises, the humanist Gorboduc, and the hybrid Damon and Pithias -- respond to political events in similar ways. In each, Cartwright claims, the playwrights seek to create a sense of suspense by manipulating aspects of time in their works. From Cambises, where the vice-like Ambidexter suddenly moves from one emotional response to its opposite, "render[ing] feelings unstable and meaning diachronic" (107), through the episodic Gorboduc's emphasis on sequence which allows for only a "provisional clarity followed by retrospective revision" (115), and concluding with the melodramatic suspense created by the absent Damon in the final half of Damon and Pithias, Cartwright detects a new emphasis on contingency as a response to the uncertainty created by the transition from Marian tyranny to the as yet unsettled reign of Elizabeth.

If there are any weaknesses to Theatre and Humanism, they derive in part from the author's effort to arrange his ideas over the course of an entire century of drama, an effort that sometimes creates tenuous explanations for the effects he seeks. For instance, the reading of The Four PP relies on the possibility that its author intended the Palmer's few lines during the lying contest to be left open to the actor's performative whim, that "the script as a blueprint to performance leaves the issue suspended in doubt" (41). While such an assertion fits nicely with Cartwright's argument that humanist emphasis on ambiguity and play informs this drama on a very deep level, it requires a reader's leap of faith that Heywood would leave this choice so open. Similarly, the chapter on the political plays of the 1560s is an excellent reading of the manipulation of linearity and time to create suspense (the "dramaturgy by chronology") and has no need for the faltering explanation that it "darkly mirror[s] England's religious and political changes in the 1550s and 1560s" (108).

Such objections are ultimately minor, however, given the many strengths of Theatre and Humanism. Cartwright's bold project, a reassessment of humanism's influence on the dramatic development of the Tudor stage before Shakespeare, is splendid criticism, offering numerous insightful gems. In reconsidering the minor and major dramatists of the Tudor age, Cartwright turns in a virtuoso performance of his own.

Andrew Fleck, San José State University

 

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