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9-08-2015, 15:19

Vernacular literature and drama

Both the expansion of education and the religious controversies of the sixteenth century created a larger and more avid reading public for vernacular works, and enterprising authors and publishers responded. As discussed in the introduction, the best-selling works between the invention of the printing press and 1700 were religious; between 1518 and 1525, one-third of all books printed in German were by Luther. Printed religious works varied from expensive leather-bound Bibles to eight-page pamphlets or chapbooks with paper covers, or even single-sheet broadsides, usually illustrated and often scandalous, scurrilous, or gory. The same qualities could be found in other popular non-fi ction printed works, such as travel literature, accounts of recent events, or biographies, though how-to manuals also sold very well. Baldassar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1508–16), which sets out proper behavior for courtiers and court ladies (or those aspiring to such positions), sold very well in its original Italian, and was translated into Spanish, French, English, German, and Polish. The personal qualities Castiglione praises – reserve, discretion, good manners, solidity, and learning worn lightly for men, and purity, modesty, beauty, agreeableness, and affability for women – became ideals for people much further down the social scale than his original audience. Both middle-class people and courtiers read poetry and prose fi ction along with religious works and instruction manuals, and some of them tried their hand at writing these as well. A circle of poets grew up in Florence at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who patronized writing in Italian as well as humanist scholarship in Latin. Lorenzo himself wrote love lyrics, sonnets, pastorals, odes, and carnival songs, many of them meditations on nature or on the fl eetingness of human life: “Fair is youth and void of sorrow;/But it hourly fl ies away./Youths and maids, enjoy today;/Nought ye know about tomorrow.” His circle included the young artist Michelangelo and the humanist Poliziano, all of them infl uenced by Platonic concepts of beauty and love. Humanist sodalities or similar groups in other European cities offered people an opportunity to discuss and share works written in the vernacular as well as Latin; though most of these groups were made up only of men, because they were less formal than universities or academies, women sometimes participated. In Poitiers in France, for example, Madeleine and Catherine des Roches (1520–87 and 1542–87), a mother and daughter, shared their poetry with a humanist circle. Members of such groups read their works aloud or circulated them in manuscript, and often never published them. Thus even at this elite social and educational level, older forms of cultural transmission continued. Italian was the fi rst modern European language to be transformed into a literary language, a process that began with Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) decision to write the Divine Comedy in his northern Italian Tuscan dialect instead of Latin. The sonnets of Petrarch and the prose fi ction of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75) further solidifi ed this language as “Italian,” with authors from elsewhere in Italy, such as the Venetian poet and church offi cial Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), adopting and defending it. The epics, romances, and lyric poetry of medieval troubadours laid the foundations of modern French, and by the sixteenth century authors such as Marguerite d’Angoulême were combining chivalric themes with Platonic and Christian ideals; her Heptameron , a collection of seventy-three lively stories about people from all walks of life published shortly after her death, was extremely popular in France and was quickly translated into English. A circle of seven poets at the French court under the leadership of Pierre de Ronsard (1524?–85) defended the use of French as a literary medium, writing in what they saw as a new style that combined classical, Italian, and French forms. They dubbed themselves the Pléiade , taken from a Greek word for a group of seven, used to describe seven poets in ancient Alexandria, and the seven daughters of the mythical fi gure Atlas, who were said to have eventually become a constellation of seven stars. Other authors whose works were widely read frequently drew on medieval romances and epics as well as classical traditions. Several writers in sixteenth-century Italy, for example, retold the story of the Frankish knight Roland (Orlando in Italian), though Orlando furioso (1515) by Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), a poet at the court of the Este family in Ferrara, may have been mocking epics more than emulating them. Orlando goes mad when the young woman he is pursuing falls in love with someone else, but his wits are restored to him by another knight who travels to the moon to retrieve them. In France, the former friar and physician François Rabelais (1483–1553) adapted bawdy stories about the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel that had been told orally for centuries and printed in cheap chap-books. Rabelais’s novels – which eventually grew to fi ve volumes – show the two giants living life to its fullest, whether in terms of learning, drinking, eating, or sex; along with contemptuous satire and vulgar humor, they have serious discussions of politics, philosophy, religion, and education. This combination got Rabelais into trouble with theologians at the University of Paris, but he was shielded from serious consequences by the patronage of church offi cials and members of the royal family, including Marguerite d’Angoulême. Many of the scenes in Orlando furioso or Gargantua and Pantagruel would have fi tted very well into Don Quixote (1605; Part II, 1615), the major work of Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and often regarded as the greatest masterpiece in Spanish literature. Cervantes studied in Italy, fought and was wounded in the Battle of Lepanto, was captured by pirates, was sold as a slave, and was eventually ransomed at a price that would ruin his family. He wrote romances, more than twenty plays, only two of which survive, and toward the end of his life Don Quixote , which tells the story of the country gentleman Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza, whose encounters with every kind of person in Spanish society are shaped by Don Quixote’s often misguided idealism. Cervantes wrote in Castilian, the language of central Spain, which became literary “Spanish.” The era in which he wrote is often called the “Golden Age” by Spanish literary scholars, who base their judgment on the works of many other authors besides Cervantes, especially the prolifi c playwright Félix Lope de Vega (1562–1635), whose roughly 1,800 plays – 500 of them extant – include tragedies, historical drama, romances, comic love intrigues, and plays that blend all of these. Lope de Vega’s plays were staged for all types of audiences; court performances could be very elaborate, with expensive costumes and complex stage settings, while public performances were much simpler. The same was true for drama elsewhere in Europe, which provided the best way for people who could not read to experience and create vernacular literature. All sorts of plays were put on as part of church holidays or city festivals, by local groups or traveling companies of players. Mystery plays depicted biblical episodes, miracle plays told stories from the lives of the saints, and morality plays presented religious and moral allegories, with comic or satiric interludes often interspersed between the acts of these more serious plays. Towns or groups within towns – either craft guilds or specifi cally organized dramatic societies called “abbeys” or “chambers of rhetoric” – competed with one another to write and put on the best play. Itinerant performers used puppets, trained animals, and acrobatic tricks to attract viewers, and sometimes included tooth-pulling and selling medicines as part of their entertainment. In the Ottoman Empire, artisans’ guilds and the sultan sponsored festivals that included acrobats, fi reworks, mock battles, and the staging of scenes of workshops, fortresses, and mosques. Humanist scholars rediscovered the works of Greek and Latin playwrights, and wrote tragedies in Latin and comedies in the vernacular based on these. One of the most popular of the latter was Machiavelli’s Mandragola (1524), in which he wove the themes of fortune and nature into a story involving a young woman, her young lover, her old husband, her scheming mother, her wily priest, and a love potion made out of a mandrake root. Most imitations of classical drama were tediously boring, however, and people preferred instead to attend performances of traveling Commedia dell’Arte troupes, in which actors and actresses dressed up as certain stock characters – Harlequin, the trickster servant, Pulchinello, the lecherous old hunchback, Scaramouche, the swaggering soldier, Columbine, the witty and mischievous maid, and Pantalone, the miserly merchant. Dialogue in Commedia dell’Arte plays was improvised, gestures were exaggerated, and comedy was slapstick – a word that comes from the stick or bat carried by Harlequin – all of which made the plays easy to understand and fun to watch. Playwrights such as Lope de Vega incorporated characters based on Commedia dell’Arte types into their plays as side characters, where they provided commentary and subplots that enhanced the central story. Plays of all types were also very popular in England, where writing in the vernacular had developed out of the dialect spoken in the City of London and the nearby royal court of Westminster. Before the Hundred Years War, English kings and nobles, many of them descendants of Normans, had spoken French, but the war made the use of English a matter of national pride. The writings of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400), a diplomat and royal offi cial, especially his Canterbury Tales , solidifi ed this language while still incorporating classical models, just as Petrarch and Boccaccio had done in Italian. Later English poets such as Edmund Spenser (1552–99) and Sir Philip Sidney (1554–86) built on this base, composing in English but blending in classical structures, conventions, and philosophical concerns, and often using verse forms derived from Italian, such as the sonnet. Christopher Marlowe (1564–93) began to use blank (unrhymed) verse for his plays as well as his poems, often centering the plot around a fi gure whose life is destroyed by an aspect of his own character, such as passion or ambition. Marlowe’s plays are fi lled with violence, bloodshed, and brutality, making them popular with London audiences, who regularly fi lled the increasing numbers of public theatres that staged plays. Those theatres also staged the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616), who is often simply described as “the greatest playwright who ever lived”; Shakespeare dominates English literature in a way that no single writer dominates any other European literature, not even Dante or Lope de Vega with his 1,800 plays. Shakespeare came from a middle-class background in a medium-sized town, probably attended a Latin grammar school, but had no further formal education. He married and had three children, then went to London, where he became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of professional actors. He later became the part-owner of several London theatres, and spent most of the rest of his life in London, writing plays and apparently taking minor roles in them. Shakespeare’s talent was so great that some people have doubted whether someone from such a middling background could actually have written the plays, but his use of classical and historical sources, and of both medieval and humanist forms of language, demonstrate how widely humanist education had spread. Literary critics generally approach Shakespeare’s plays as texts, but his contemporaries watched them as performances, so that their impact went far beyond London’s literate minority. In 1607, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was even performed by the sailors on an English ship bound for India and anchored off the coast of what is now Sierra Leone in West Africa; their audience included the rest of the crew, and also four Africans, one of whom was the offi cial translator of the area’s king, so, as the play was performed, Shakespeare’s words were most likely translated into Portuguese and perhaps Temne, the local African language. Assessing the impact of that performance on either the European crew or their African guests is diffi cult, but this is true for any play or literary work that was shared orally, as there are very few sources that provide evidence about the cultural life of people who could not read and write. We know from a variety of sources that people often told stories to one another while they were working, or in the evenings sitting in a tavern or at home around a fi re. They certainly talked about the day’s events, people they knew, and other aspects of village life, but they also told stories, recited poems, and sang ballads about famous people, mythological creatures, and amazing heroes. Such “fairy tales” were fi rst written down in the seventeenth century by the French poet Charles Perrault (1628–1703), and later by the Grimm brothers, but it is clear they circulated long before that.

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 4 Cross-dressing and gender-blending on the Elizabethan stage

Many of the plays written for the early modern English stage feature cross-dressed characters, including nine of Shakespeare’s surviving thirty-eight plays. In many ways every professional production involved cross-dressing, however, because all the female characters on the English professional stage were played by male actors until 1660. Some of these were boys whose voices had not changed who were apprenticed to mature actors, while others were young men who specialized in women’s roles, playing them into their thirties. English playwrights added to the complexity by having the female characters dress as men, and then comment on their layered and ambiguous gender identity. At the end of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind (who has been dressed as a boy for much of the play) comes out in women’s clothing and says, “It is not the fashion to see the lady in the epilogue,” but only a few lines later says to the audience, “If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me.” Elizabethans delighted in extended dialogues fi lled with double-entendres about beards, swords, and other aspects of manhood. Shakespeare scholars and modern audiences accustomed to realism in theatre and fi lm have been puzzled about this practice, especially because women were common in theatre elsewhere in Europe, and even performed in England in guild and village plays, in traveling troupes of musicians and actors, and in masques, which were dramatic court entertainments with lavish costumes and special effects. So why did the English professional theatre companies not hire women? Recent explanations have included the strong anti-theatrical prejudice in England, cultural taboos about women’s public speech, the desire of the relatively new professional companies to distinguish themselves from amateur village productions, and the attempt to appeal to a range of sexual orientations in the audience by presenting attractive women who were actually boys. The latter explanation draws on queer theory, a contemporary theoretical perspective that asserts the centrality of sexuality to culture. Queer theorists note that concepts of sexual and gender difference vary across time and space, and are always socially constructed. Whatever the reasons – and Shakespeare scholars do not agree – Elizabethan theatre audiences appear to have accepted this practice easily. They did not expect realism in theatre, where all performers were pretending to be what they were not, a “counterfeiting” that was one of the main reasons moralists objected to theatre. Lower-class actors dressed as lords were also “cross-dressing,” blurring distinctions of social status that to early modern people were just as deep-seated and natural as gender differences. Some oral traditions, such as stories about Christian or Muslim saints or the knights of King Arthur, were widely shared among many types of people, but others were specifi c to certain population groups and served as markers of membership in that subculture. Sailors, for example, developed rituals blessing ships or marking a man’s fi rst passage across a particular geographic point, and rhythmic shanties that made certain tasks, such as raising the anchor, easier. Miners built chapels dedicated to their own patron saints – such as St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, who, like the earth the miners dug, held a treasure inside her – put on plays on the days honoring those saints, and told stories about the spirits of the mines who might reveal hidden riches. Journeymen who traveled in search of work took songs and poems with them, and developed naming rituals similar to baptisms for new members of their group. Village women gathered together to spin and tell stories in veillées in France or Spinnstuben in Germany, and women in Serbia and Galicia – and elsewhere – had their own work songs. Beggars, thieves, and other criminals developed their own slang terms and initiation rites, creating a “counter-culture” that writers often included – in embellished and romanticized form – in their plays and stories.

 

 

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