Staging the Middle Ages: History and Form in Early Modern English Drama

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Early modern conceptions of what it meant to be “medieval” continue to shape our own conception of what it means to be “modern.” Writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries claimed to separate historical fact from literary fiction more effectively than their medieval forebears. And yet, many widespread ideas about the Middle Ages that persist to this day—including the idea of a “Middle Ages” at all—are the fictional inventions of early modern writers, from chroniclers and antiquarians, to poets and playwrights. Focusing on the affordances and limitations of dramatic form, this dissertation examines how enduringly popular visions of the Middle Ages crafted by Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights (including John Bale, Thomas Hughes, and Elizabeth Cary) still inform our historical understanding. These writers shaped their revisionist historiographical narratives for the Renaissance stage in a host of generic guises, not only in Elizabethan chronicle history plays, but also in secularized morality plays, Senecan tragedies, and closet drama. These early modern depictions of the medieval past gave new life to older dramatic forms characteristic of both classical and medieval theatre, such as the chorus and various forms of theatrical spectacle, while also employing new formal strategies such as the soliloquy, the dumbshow, and the play-within-a-play. All the plays examined here—including John Bale’s Kynge Johan, Shakespeare’s King John and Richard II, Thomas Hughes’s The Misfortunes of Arthur, and Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam—engage in self-conscious medievalism. Remediating earlier chronicle accounts as well as contemporary historiographical controversies (or “battles-of-the-books”), these plays fashion new fictions of when the Middle Ages ended and when modernity began. The dissertation concludes with an analysis of modern dramatic medievalism in Tony Kushner’s twentieth-century stage epic, Angels in America, a play that witnesses the continuing power of premodern dramatic and historical models as tools for re imagining ideas of national and cultural identity. Examining the formal strategies employed by all these playwrights provides insight into the ways that readers and writers have understood the medieval past, the modern present, and the shape of history itself.