Difference Between New Historists' Viewpoints on Renaissance Drama and Cultural Materialists Term Paper

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¶ … New Historicists' Viewpoints on Renaissance Drama and Cultural Materialists' Viewpoints

In recent years, two related and overlapping schools of literary theory have emerged that have offered competing responses to the relationship between Renaissance drama and the political power of Tudor and Stuart Britain (Mcguire 443). On the one hand, where new historicists have tended to see plays of the period reinforcing the prevailing ideology of the early modern court, civic authorities, church and government, on the other hand, the mostly British cultural materialists have used the same plays to identify various forms of political and cultural subversion against these forces. To determine the differences in these perspectives, this paper provides an analysis of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist," Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy," and Heywood's "A Woman Killed with Kindness" from the perspective of these two modes of criticism/theory, with various criticisms from the new historicist camp and cultural materialist camp being reviewed. An assessment of the complexities of these modes is also provided, taking into account the social, theoretical, and critical movements that informed them. A summary of the research and salient findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors." In his book, Literary Theory, Bertens reports that the constructedness of culture and its analysis through various literary studies are fundamental aspects of two major modes within contemporary criticism: (a) the new historicism, which was American in origin and has remained largely American, and cultural materialism, which was, and is, primarily British (176). A cultural materialist perspective focuses on ideology, on the role of institutions, and on the possibilities for subversion (or dissidence, as some cultural materialists term it); such analyses can provide some revealing insights about the period in history in which it was penned.

For example, an analysis of house and home in "The Comedy of Errors" provides modern researchers provide with "particularly rich examples of both cultural and cognitive patterns" (Crane 26). Likewise, "In the Comedy of Errors," Hunter advises, "we begin not with the society but with the intruder and victim, old Aegeon, and in the light of his experience we see the traveller less in terms of his adaptability than his disorientation, his loneliness, his despair of ever finding his family. From his point-of-view the only reason for not returning home is if they are going to be making up a story" (119). A cultural materialist examination of "The Comedy of Errors" also reveals that the audiences of Shakespeare's day recognized the techniques being used to develop the action, just as television viewers today know when a commercial is about to take place, but this might be overlooked by a new historicist analysis. In this regard, Greer (2002) reports that the play is based on the Menaechmi of Plautus, but the primary action involved is developed through the plot concerning how Egeon was separated from his wife when their ship split and "Her part was carried with more speed before the wind.' Unless he can find money to redeem his life, he will have to die at the end of the day. To an audience familiar with Terentian comedy, this means that he has the play time in which to find and reconstitute his broken family" (emphasis added) (Greer 125).

Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist." According to Bertens (2001), "The new historicism and cultural materialism reject both the autonomy and individual genius of the author and the autonomy of the literary work and see literary texts as absolutely inseparable from their historical context. The role of the author is not completely negated, but it is a role that the author is at best only partially in command of" (176), and this literary work is fertile ground for either type of analysis. (for example, in his book, Ben Jonson: Studies in the Plays, Thayer 1963) reports that, "The Alchemist is a play not only about vice, London confidence games, and an upside-down society but also about the relationship between art and nature, a relationship specified metaphorically in Subtle's speech" (Thayer 102). On a symbolic level, then, Subtle's speech advises audiences concerning the issues addressed by the play, and this exposition is strategically placed. For instance, Thayer points out that, "Gulls (Dapper, Drugger and Mammon) have been balanced off against rogues (Dol, Face, and Subtle); the general pattern of cheater and cheated has been introduced; and alchemy as the general means of cheating and reforming has been established" (102). One cultural materialist describes Jonson's farce in "The Alchemist" in terms of it being "the poet's attempt to examine the dystopic effects of a capitalist society whose injustice results from the lack of a basic foundation in the realm of truth and being. Thus the play shows the realization of Utopia to be itself a dystopian moment within the larger economy of expenditure and death" (Low 464).

Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy." One aspect of this work that might be overlooked from a strictly new historicist analysis would be how people - then and now - tend to appreciate how circumstances can sometimes result in unexpected consequences that result in suffering. According to one observer, the popularity of "The Spanish Tragedy" "testifies to the Elizabethan audience's enjoyment of psychic health in the face of suffering. The popularity of such works may, however, just as well document the responsiveness of audiences to plays that traffic in devils, ghosts, and the violent effects of revenge" (Cartelli 45). Notwithstanding the potential benefit to be gained from an analysis of the textual elements that exist concerning life during this period, the fact remains that such analyses may fall short of providing a "big picture" of the forces at play during this period in history. In this regard, Cartelli argues that, "In short, the most formidable challenge is to see whether something substantive can be added to informed opinion regarding the psychic disposition of Elizabethan playgoers" (45). In this regard, McEvoy (2000) reports that Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy" combines action and spectacle with a timely analysis of both philosophical and political ideas, which:

hardly indicates an ignorant, sensation-seeking audience. There is no evidence that audiences were particularly badly behaved, or that they booed and hissed the villains. There were occasional disturbances, but it would appear that audiences on the whole listened carefully, applauding or laughing appropriately, though individuals would perhaps have been more talkative than a modern audience. Writers complain about them not appreciating their plays, not about them throwing fruit or storming the stage. (12)

Thomas Heywood's "A Woman Killed with Kindness. New historicists are in their element when it comes to the life of this playwright. Although in "A Woman Killed with Kindness," Heywood provides modern audiences with one of the finest example of "Elizabethan 'domestic' tragedy," "Little is known of the author except what he tells us himself and what may be surmised from his writings" (Fossen xv). According to the play's editor, the first reference to the play was found in a series of entries in the diary of Philip Henslowe, the famous theatre manager under whose direction Worcester's the play was first produced in March 1603, most likely at the Rose, a popular public theatre that was constructed around 1587 and refurbished in 1592 (Fossen xvi). By contrast, cultural materialists would likely argue, like Orlin (1994) that:

Woman Killed with Kindness' recognizes the obsolescence, for the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, of the received moral philosophy of the classical authors. It is not unique in doing so; many other works of the period record a disenchantment with inherited ideals. but, again, Woman Killed is a document of sufficient richness that it allows us to discover a principal cause of the falling off, which is the irreconcilability of the classical ethic to contemporary political theory and emerging economic reality -- to, in other words, the motive agencies of householding purveyed in the philosophy of domestic patriarchalism. (Orlin 141)

This relationship between social contract and means of production becomes even clearer when its importance in the community was taken into account, with marriage representing both a socially acceptable framework in which people could live together and have children, it was inextricably related to how people earned their livings and what roles they played in this society. In this regard, Orlin emphasizes that although marriage ceremonies feature prominently in the opening and conclusion of the play, there is a difference between the celebratory nature of the occasion today and the implications the institution had during this period in history. There is no romantic comedy involved in the marriage of John and Anne Frankford, for example, and the opening scene "dramatizes the initial celebration of their nuptials [and] presents us with a compact confirmed, a courtship implicitly concluded antecedently, a ritual stripped of romantic illusion, and a ceremony revealed to be a strenuous, often conflicted social, psychological, and economic process" (Orlin 141).


New historicists try to seek out the same types of documents that social historians typically use… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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