Early Modern

Coda: Converting Art — Literature During Political Repression

I went to the Early Modern Conversions Symposium at the Folger Shakespeare Library with a hypothesis about the role of conversion in some of my own research. In the process of reading for my qualifying exams, I’ve noticed that Mary Magdalene keeps showing up in Early Modern literature — especially poetry or devotional prose written by men who had experienced some kind of religious conversion in their lives. Before they wrote about Mary Magdalene, some — like Henry Constable — converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, while others — like the Protestant Henry Vaughan and the Catholic Robert Southwell, S.J. — underwent intra-denominational conversion, wherein they reformed their professional and literary aspirations in order to sharpen their focus on the divine.

On the face of things, Mary Magdalene’s recurrence throughout decades of English literature is not an unexpected fact: biblical subjects were popular ones in Early Modern poetry on both sides of the Reformation. What renders this a curious fact is the history of Mary Magdalene’s representation in earlier English literature. Before the English Reformation, Mary Magdalene was the star of the famous and often-produced Digby mystery play fittingly called Mary Magdalene.

As I wrote earlier, Elizabeth banned the production of any religious subjects on stage, let alone mystery plays, which once had been one of the most essential ways of communicating Catholic religious principles and traditions to a mass, generally illiterate, audience. It’s not surprising that Mary Magdalene’s story had been a popular one to stage: in a conflation of a few gospel narratives, Mary Magdalen was a prostitute who extravagantly repented of her sexual sins by washing Christ’s feet with her tears and hair and anointing him with expensive perfume; having transferred her love for sex to love for Christ, she appears as one of the women who remains with Christ at his crucifixion, and she weeps at the tomb when she sees that her beloved’s corpse has gone missing. Her narrative is highly visual, full of erotic tension, and contains just the right amount of inspiration porn to urge a religious audience to convert their hearts like Mary.

Domenico Tintoretto’s The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1598, a painting depicting a half-naked woman praying amid reed mats, a skull, a crucifix, a book, and a bowl. Her brown curls are fabulous.]

“Thank you, God, for a good hair day today.”

Without the legal means to stage truly biblical conversion stories like these, Elizabethan and Jacobean literary artists necessarily had to find other media in which to work. A genre like poetry or devotional prose offered an interesting advantage over the essay or the sermon: they had connotations of intimacy, not publicity. Published collections, if they were published in the author’s lifetime, were often prefaced by long, exaggerated declamations of humility insisting that the author’s friends or a sense of duty had made them publish it against their own great reservations — not because they had designs on exposing the masses to a Catholic aesthetic. Even Southwell (who, as a Jesuit missionary, did have designs on converting the hearts of his audience) declared in the dedication of his devotional prose work “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears” that he wished to “alter the object” of men’s “[p]assions … and loves” — a perfectly nondenominational desire to reform (sexual) desire.

Political restrictions on public expression also impacted how writers conceived of their private faith, shifting their attention to the interior experience of spiritual self-reformation over its external manifestation — no sackcloth and ashes here, but rather serious reflection on what it means to have conformed one’s heart to God’s will, a thought process often articulated in literary words. The Mary Magdalene depicted in these converts’ writing is not the same Mary Magdalene of the mystery plays. Yes, she converts herself from sex worker to saint, and her desire for Christ supplants her lust for flesh, but as a convert her personality doesn’t really change: her affection for Christ is still highly eroticized as she longs for his resurrected body, and she still has a predilection for the sensory and sensual. Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s conversion is not dramatized precisely because, to these Early Modern converts concerned with what makes a convert, the elements of interest in her story do not reside in the spectacular outward gestures of her conversion — her tears and perfumes and kisses — but rather her interior motivation to make these gestures and to convert her soul.

Titian’s Noli me tangere, c. 1512, a painting depicting a bearded man, trying to hold his shroud on with one hand with a staff in his other, as a woman in red and white crawls toward him, her right hand raised; a village on a hill and farmland are in the background.]

But “Noli me tangere” brings new meaning to “No touch-y.”

Indeed, in contrast to the transfiguration fulfilled in the body of the risen Christ, Mary Magdalene undergoes an internal metamorphosis with no impact on her body. In his poem to her, Vaughan exclaims, “How art thou changed!”, before observing that “thy beauty doth still keep / Bloomy and fresh” (my emphasis). The idea that she can be changed, while still looking exactly the same, speaks to an understanding that profound conversions do not always have visible consequences. Instead, Mary Magdalene’s conversion changes her interiority: marveling at the profound effects that her love for Christ has on her character, Southwell asks, “Can it thus alter sex, change nature, and exceed all art?” — even the art of theatrical representation.

In a complex way, Early Modern political repression of certain artistic genres helped change not only which art was most useful to understanding one’s faith but also how artists used that art to understand their political and spiritual conditions. Elizabethan and Jacobean artists still did not have much choice about how they wrote, as not even poetry was completely safe: the Jesuit Henry Walpole was run out of England for writing a poem celebrating Edmund Campion, a Jesuit martyr, and the poem’s printer infamously had his ears cut off for publishing it. But even under repression, artists find ways to capture the changing world.


Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

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Legalizing Repression: “Muslim Registries” and English Recusants

On my last day at the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium — blissfully unaware that nazis were meeting just down the Washington Mall — I spent part of my lunch break with the Folger’s rare books and manuscript collections. I didn’t have long to submit my request the afternoon before, so I did a quick catalogue search and picked documents almost at random authored by the Surrey Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants, an organization I knew nothing about but whose name held promising keywords. Not until I sat down in the Paster Reading Room and pulled the manuscripts from their grey envelopes did I realize the history I was holding in my hands. These sixteenth-century documents contained lists of indicted recusants, sent to local and national English authorities for the purpose of tracking and condemning religious and political treason.

As the threat of “Muslim registries” continues to linger after American lawmakers announced their support for such a tracking database, a number of writers have traced the connection of this desire for legalized discrimination/preemptive criminalization to other moments in recent history: the Bush administration’s NSEERS program, the Japanese internment, and the Holocaust. Each of these campaigns relied heavily on information processing, especially the collection of personal data which the state then weaponized against a domestic population. Modern computerized data processing certainly facilitated repression in these cases, and still promise to in the case of “Muslim registries,” but the roots of counting and criminalizing a whole class of people stretch much further back in history.

The Post-Reformation English state expended a great deal of resources on identifying, harassing, and condemning those who had failed to convert to, or had converted from, the state religion — the Church of England. Attendance at Church of England services was mandatory, and tracking attendance was one of the chief means of tracking non-conformists, including Anabaptists, Arminianists, Familists, but chiefly Catholics. Failure to attend resulted in fines, and also raised suspicions (as did too-frequent refusal of communion). Other religious transgressions were considered high treason: harboring a priest, facilitating the celebration of mass, or simply being a priest within England’s borders. High treason carried the death penalty and the forfeiture of property which would have benefitted one’s living descendants. Authorities could conduct raids on a household at any time in search of priests, vestments, and nonconformist texts and paraphernalia; the household would have to pay the authorities for the cost of the search.

Because there was no difference between the English church and the English state, transgression against the Church of England was transgression against the whole nation. Catholics were vilified as devilish foreign agitators, automatic enemies of the English people determined to replace the English monarch with the Whore of Babylon (otherwise known as the pope); other non-conformists were similarly foreignized and othered, in spite of their being born in English territory.

welshman

Welshman who claimed he was Christ, tho.

 

The documents I looked at in the Folger’s collection show how the English state orchestrated the tracking and regulation of religious nonconformity at every level. In Surrey, the Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants recorded the indictments of local residents who failed to appear in church. One severely damaged handwritten document from 1572 describes the early days of the Commission, when it was formed at the express order of the Privy Council (Elizabeth’s inner circle, a kind of cabinet), and the bureaucratic tracking measures put in place in order to regulate and eliminate their impact on the security of the Protestant English state.

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Another handwritten document (L.b. 241), on a sheet of parchment folded into its own envelope, was a 1581 arrest warrant for Jane Honyall, who had been a recusant for four years and was a suspected Catholic. This was one of a series of three documents pertaining to Hornyall; the other two (L.b. 199 and L.b. 208, respectively) concern the vicar and churchwardens of Egham, who were compelled to be witnesses to her years-long absence and also confirm that there were “no other recusants, massing priests or Jesuits in the parish” — lest the queen’s authorities suspect a cell of rebel Catholics was growing under the churchmen’s noses. Hornyall’s warrant includes three signed seals, quite literally officially sealing her fate.

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Later, in a 1582 document (L.b. 219), the fully-fledged Commission listed in handwritten columns of indictments who had been convicted or released through the intercession of the Privy Council, and who had been imprisoned or “conformed” (officially repented and returned to church).

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Other documents in the More Family of Losely Park, Surrey, collection — from which the above documents come — include official descriptions of the finances of different recusants and their ability to pay the fines levied against them.

That’s because this kind of tracking and regulating of minorities is never really about “domestic security” — hardly so. “Domestic security” uses an imaginary threat of foreign (or foreignized) “others” to mask policies that socially and financially benefit an elite few — usually, the financially and ethnically elite, although in England’s case religion came to operate as a kind of ethnic identity which conversion never truly erased. By inventing an overwhelmingly generalized set of policies, the elite secure the participation of the majority of the population in executing and sustaining those policies, even if only the elite continue to benefit from them. Before Nazi Germany legislatively stole property from Jews, the US from the First Nations and Japanese-Americans, and Israel from Palestinians, Elizabethan England systematically deprived English Catholics of their stake in England. Serial fines could slowly drain Catholic families of their financial resources, and a family member convicted of treason could deplete a family of everything all at once. John Gerard, an English Jesuit who survived to write about his mission work in England, described how many poor Catholics were dependent on the charity of the remaining property-owning Catholics who had so far escaped retribution. The property of persecuted Catholics of course would have gone back to the use of the Crown, not the people.

US Muslim-tracking policies — whether their targets are new immigrants who have to periodically check in with federal authorities or lifetime citizens covertly observed at their local university or place of worship — troublingly echo the technological and ideological systems of repression that supported the imprisonment, impoverishment, and death of minorities in our national and global history. Though the medium may have been different — handwriting instead of digital text, personal witness rather than metadata tracking — the method is nothing new.

Photos of manuscripts appear courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

A row of stage crew and actors in eighteenth-century-style costumes stands on a stage; an actor stands in front of them reading from a small piece of paper; the shadowed heads of audience members are visible in the foreground.]

Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” — Brandon Victor Dixen

On the Friday night after our first full day of the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium, I did quite possibly the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done: from my hotel room near the Capitol Building, I spent an hour calling my representatives in support of the Affordable Care Act and against Jeff Sessions, and turned on the original cast recording of Hamilton.

At the same time, in our nation’s original capital, New York City, a very special performance of Hamilton was underway — the performance attended by the recently-declared Vice-President Elect Mike Pence. There, in the Richard Rodgers Theater, was everybody’s least favorite advocate of gay “conversion” therapy. Theater, and conversion.

The coincidence wasn’t lost on any of us attending the symposium. I spent the night constantly refreshing my Twitter feed, watching the NYC audience react emotionally — applauding when Rory O’Malley’s King George sang “Do you know how hard it is to rule?” in Pence’s direction, chanting “Immigrants: we get the job done” with the cast, and cheering when Brandon Victor Dixon’s Aaron Burr implored Pence to “uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.” Other colleagues watched the outraged and troubling reaction from Trump and Pence (respectively) on loop in the morning news in the hotel exercise room. Back at the Folger, we started the next day with the Conversion Project’s Stephen Wittek (McGill) reminding us of the increasing importance and timeliness of our research on the peculiar power of theater — its ability to bind together strangers in a common visceral experience and convert their hearts.

Theater is a powerful phenomenon, both for the Early Moderns and for us today. It combines words and flesh live on the stage to lead an audience through a physically unmediated and very immediate communal experience. Because of its power to affect and effect, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theater was heavily regulated. Anti-theatrical commentators like William Prynne and Philip Stubbes argued that theater’s ability to create lifelike verisimilitude in representing the murder of kings and the seduction of maidens helped stir audience members to wrath and lust, leading them to commit acts of treason and to join after-show orgies. Elizabeth I wasn’t quite as suspicious of theater as these writers, but she still ensured that a limited number of performances licenses were distributed to cautiously censored texts, preventing audiences from getting too many ideas about regicide or, crucially, schismatic beliefs.

Representation of Christianity — whether of biblical narratives or of wedding rites — was outright forbidden on the Early Modern English stage. Partly, this was meant to suppress the performance of mystery plays: once involving entire towns in their production as an act of worship, they were made illegal as too idolatrous or just too Catholic to allow lest they facilitate communities’ ideological schism from the Church of England. Partly, representation of the thing on the stage was thought to make possible the thing itself in the real world. If Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was reported to conjure real demons at one of its performances, performing England’s Catholic past threatened to make that ideological past the reality of the present. As religious-studies scholar Torrance Kirby (McGill) observed in his paper on the rhetorical theater of St. Paul’s Cathedral sermons, by the turn of the seventeenth century, one’s religion was no longer determined by “sacrament” or heritage, but rather one’s susceptibility to a “culture of persuasion.” The theater was too powerful a persuader to remain unregulated if the crown wanted the Church of England to remain the church of state.

Perhaps, when Trump demanded that addresses like the Hamilton cast’s “not happen” and Pence intimated that the theater wasn’t an “appropriate venue” for Dixon’s speech, their subconsciouses understood that theatrical power to persuade; perhaps that’s why they would have theater censored in their respective ways. But for those of us who value free speech and the powerful world of (in Dixon’s words) “different colors, creeds and orientations” that the production of Hamilton imagines, the theater is one especially important setting that will still endeavor to convert hearts in the new administration.


Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

“Report Me and My Cause Aright:” Hamlet and the Political Power of Dramatic Narrative

During the final scene of Hamlet, the titular prince makes use of his dying breaths to command two things of Horatio.  First, he commands Horatio to affirm that Fortinbras “has his dying voice” (5.2.393) thus giving him legitimacy to take the throne of Denmark.  Second, he orders Horatio to tell Fortinbras the story of Hamlet’s actions that have led up to this point in the play.  Horatio obliges and the final fifty lines serve to wrap up the political loose ends of the text and casually confirm that Fortinbras will be the new king of Denmark, signaling the cleansing of Danish politics in the wake of Claudius’s death.

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Hamlet is far from unique in the way that it concludes with a significant regime change signifying the exorcizing of a dangerous political force that has brought ruin upon the state.  Richard III, King Lear, and Macbeth all end with the destruction of a familial line and the flourishing possibility that something better will take its place.[1]  These plays, despite their tragic conclusions, at the very least offer up the possibility of a hopeful future, one in which a new regime can cleanse the state of the problems created by that which was there previously.  However, in Hamlet this requires the figure of Horatio to dramatize the events of the play to Fortinbras, both to validate Hamlet’s actions as well as affirm the legitimacy of the new monarchy.  While Horatio may be commanded to speak the truth, the language of his final speech is decidedly a language which seeks to paint Hamlet in a positive light and affirm the moral and political validity of his act of regicide, suggesting that the full version of his recollection will emphasis Claudius’s schemes and the moral punishment that he has justifiably received.  It is, in part, Horatio’s story and its valorization of Hamlet’s actions which will assist in smoothing the transition from a Danish monarch to a Norwegian monarch.

The language of these final fifty lines has a decidedly meta-theatrical tone, treating the bloody court as a stage that must be cleared for a new audience of nobles who will hear Horatio’s tale.  In the conclusion of Hamlet, the power of theatrical narrative is deeply connected to the authorization of a new political regime in Denmark.  A bloody and chaotic act of revenge and regicide, concluding with the destruction of the former Danish monarchy, can be understood by the surviving nobles and their anxiety surrounding the future of Danish politics can be eased with the power of Horatio’s telling of Hamlet’s narrative, which will ideally give the nobles cause to welcome Fortinbras and acknowledge his “rights of memory in this kingdom” (5.2.433).  It is not a triumphant ending, yet it is one which leverages the capacity of storytelling to make sense of what appears to be a senseless shift in political power, occurring almost at random.

I bring up this commentary on the role of narrative story telling at the conclusion of Hamlet as it seems to speak to the main thrust of my commentary during this month of blog posts.   While we may not be as explicit as Shakespeare makes Horatio, I have been examining ways in which we utilize and manipulate the form of dramatic narrative as a way of understanding the political reality in which we live.  Horatio does this rather transparently, using his privileged voice as a recorder of the events of Hamlet to justify and validate the actions of Hamlet, thus soothing the anxiety of a foreign takeover that would be felt by the fictional audience of nobles as well as the literal London audience watching the fictional state of Denmark’s fall.  Further, Horatio has the luxury of an actual audience having witnessed the events that preceded the final moments of the play.  However, the examples I have looked at this month seem to function in a similar capacity, interpreting and rewriting Shakespeare’s texts in order to make sense of the text and provide a clear and understandable narrative which will ease, or at the very least explain, an anxiety that the audience is feeling about their political moment.   We may never see Horatio explain Hamlet to Fortinbras, but his final lines imply that he will be both figuratively and literally reinterpreting the text of Hamlet in order to make sense of a moment of political disorder and potential unrest.  In this way, Horatio becomes a representative of the kinds of narrative reinterpretations that I have been looking at this month, as he seems to literalize the act of using a theatrical text to understand and justify a particular political problem (here, the question of what will become of the Danish monarchy).

My work as a scholar primarily focuses upon these moments in which the theater served as a site for negotiating political anxieties and it is fascinating to see the early modern theater still being mobilized as a site that affords audiences a space to work through their concerns regarding the state of the political landscape.  In pieces such as the Stephen Greenblatt op-ed that inspired this topic, there remains a sense that dramatic narrative offers up the possibility for easing political anxiety.  If we are worried about how a tyrant might come to power, we need only read Richard III to understand how to arm ourselves against him.  While this is neither unique to Shakespeare, nor is it as powerful of a site as it once was, the idea that a careful enough examination of theatrical texts can lead to a deeper understanding of political problems and their solutions seems to remain strong.

Owing to his privileged place within our cultural imaginations, there seems to be a conscious desire to make Shakespeare relevant to our contemporary political tribulations.[2]  As an educator who plans on having to teach the political elements of Shakespeare’s works, this desire carries with it a sense that narrative offers something unique for teaching students about thinking through current anxieties.  Many universities still require some level of exposure to Shakespeare’s works, so there is a strong impulse to communicate a sense of contemporary relevance for the cluster of students who might not be particularly interested in the political affairs of 16th century monarchs; one of the ways in which we do this is precisely through the constant reimagining of Shakespeare’s works in order to make them more immediately relevant to our own political moment, and this is not an impulse that I would imagine will become less relevant as time passes.  Ideally, this series of blog posts has shed some new light on the difficulties that must be overcome if we are to utilize Shakespeare and other writers to understand contemporary political problems without completely abandoning the idea that there is some merit to turning towards past narrative to help us understand present day politics.

[1] In Macbeth and Richard III that something new takes the form of a family line which legitimized the then ruling monarch.  Another example of how difficult it can be to disconnect Shakespeare’s plays from his own political reality.

[2] This is by no means only true of political concerns, as Shakespeare is often mobilized in this vein to help us understand any number of contemporary issues.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

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Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

Recuperation as Resistance: The Icons of LGBT History

 

As I mentioned last week, the original premise of LGBT history month was to spend some time each day in October learning about a new LGBT “icon,” some from current LGBT history and some from the past (and some who are quite problematic, but more on that next week). “Icon,” to me, is a curious word choice. We use it colloquially to describe media “icons” like Ellen Degeneres or George Takei. We also sometimes talk about “icons” of literature, like Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, or everybody’s favorite flamboyant Victorian, Oscar Wilde.

Where I’m coming from as a researcher of Early Modern Catholicism, however, “icon” carries a lot more political weight. Intended as representations of holiness, artistic icons of saints offered their venerators a means of more immediate connection with someone from Christian history with whom they could identify. Icons were also instrumental for educating the masses about their faith heritage. These were especially important qualities of Early Modern iconography for English Catholics during the Reformation, when the dominant ideology was bent on either converting or persecuting all the Catholics out of England — literally destroying their icons in the process. Icons thus also served as a cause around which the community rallied.

We can see reflections of this kind of political iconology (so to speak) in the icons of LGBT history. Looking to figures in which one sees oneself, especially famous figures, is a way of seeking support in a hostile setting where one is “different” or unwelcome. A significant purpose of the “It Gets Better” project (conveyed through that modern iconographic medium, YouTube) has been to offer  words of encouragement and affirmation to troubled LGBT youth from people just like them who have suffered for their sexuality but have finally arrived at a “better” place. Likewise, especially during times of persecution, to seek out icons of all orientations from the past and share them with others inside the community builds connections among individuals in the community, and between the community and its past.

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A key goal of LGBT history month is thus recuperation — locating where heteronormativity has obscured queerness and bringing queer icons back into the light, to resist the status quo which delegitimizes gender and sexual minorities by declaring them modern “corruptions” with no historical precedent. Although visibility in recent decades has actually made things better for LGBT Americans, it’s still not better enough for many, perhaps especially (ironically) in religious communities.

Thus queer religious studies is a growing field with both academic and activist investment. Frederick Roden writes about the Catholic aesthetics of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a Victorian couple who wrote together as Michael Field. Leslie Feinberg names Joan of Arc as one of hir transgender icons for preferring execution over suppressing her desire to wear men’s clothing.1 And many gay Christians will point to David and Jonathan from the Book of Samuel as models for the Christian same-sex married life. This is the process of identification with historical figures that guides much of the everyday practice of LGBT history. David Halperin, who literally wrote the book on How to Do the History of Homosexuality, describes the process by saying, “Identification gets at something, something important: it picks out resemblances, connections, echo effects. Identification is a form of cognition,” requiring “the ability to set aside historical differences in order to focus on historical continuities.”2

Would Michael Field have described themselves as homosexual? Possibly—the word was coming into use towards the end of their career. Would Joan of Arc have considered herself to be trans*? Not likely, at least not in fifteenth-century France—she had different words for describing why it was her God-given prerogative to dress like a man. Were David and Jonathan the original same-sex couple? In a way, maybe, but that’s not really the point. What is important is the possibility of recognizing the queer aspects of these figures and applying them to modern settings. Like Early Modern Catholics saw themselves in the icons of historical saints, we can bridge past and present to make one long LGBT history by seeing ourselves in these queer icons.

Next week: The problems of writing over history


Notes

  1. Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 31.
  2. David Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (Bristol: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 15.

 

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Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”