David L. Smith, Richard Strier, and David Bevington eds. The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London 1576-1649. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. xiv + 288 pp. + 22 illustrations.
Lawrence Manley.
Literature and Culture in Early Modern London. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. xvi + 603 pp. + 19 illustrations.
Review by,
Emma Smith
All Souls College, Oxford

Smith, Emma. "Review of The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London 1576-1649 and Literature and Culture in Early Modern London." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 14.1-7 <URL:

  1. London's growing pre-eminence in early modern England was noted by contemporary commentators with a mixture of pride and alarm. Two recent volumes from Cambridge University Press address the status and operation of metropolitan self-fashioning in the post-Reformation period, and offer their contribution to the ongoing debate about the relationship between literature and history.

  2. The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London 1576-1649, edited by David L. Smith, Richard Strier, and David Bevington, examines early modern London's theatricality through a refreshingly wide range of texts. The editors' broad definition of the term "theatrical" is evident in their choice of dates to enclose the project: 1576 marks the building of the Theatre, 1649 the dramatic spectacle of the execution of Charles I. The texts covered include five plays, by Shakespeare, Dekker, Marston, Jonson and Massinger, John Stow's Survey of London, Milton's Eikonoklastes and The Root and Branch Petition. There is a wealth of interesting historical and literary material, but the volume is most remarkable for its negotiation of the traditional construction of the disciplines of history and literature. The jacket asserts that the collection of essays "adopts a unique interdisciplinary approach," and in their introduction the editors describe how a collaborative pedagogical venture in the History Department of the University of Chicago developed into the dialogue format of the book. The volume consists of pairs of essays on each text, the first by an historian, the second by a literary critic. Predicating the possibility of true interdisciplinarity on the recognition of disciplinary difference, each contributor is identified as a member of a university History or English department, and was invited to "write within her or his discipline, whatever she or he took that to mean" (2). The result seems to be a rather conventional disciplinary hierarchy in which history provides the context which English uses to inform its literary analysis. In effect, this proposes a historicised approach to literary criticism, rather than a literary approach to history. Interdisciplinarity exists, in this volume, not as a methodological position but as a juxtaposition between two discrete and ranked fields of study.

  3. To take one example: the two essays on Dekker's The Shoemakers Holiday. In this pairing, Paul S. Seaver discusses "The Artisanal World," followed by David Bevington's "Theatre as Holiday." Seaver's footnote references to the Calender of State Papers, Acts of the Privy Council and to historians such as Paul Slack, Steve Rappaport, and Wallace MacCaffrey, establish his sense of his own discipline, as do Bevington's (many fewer) citations of Fredson Bowers on bibliographic matters and other literary critics on genre and character. Seaver's essay does indeed provide a fascinating context for Dekker's play. He studies the economic and social conditions of fin de siecle London, the structure of the guilds, and the historical figure of Simon Eyre to illuminate Dekker's representation of urban tensions and their resolution. Eyre's rise to the mayoralty, his relationship with his employees, and the muster which separates Ralph from Jane, all have their contemporary counterparts in a London weary of increased taxation and requisitioning to support military campaigns in Ireland and the Low Countries, buffeted by a decade of bad harvests and civic unrest, and ruled by an ageing and heirless queen. Seaver appears, however, to subscribe to the view that history offers the "truth" of the past, whereas literature can be misleading. He contrasts Dekker's play with the "real life" (98) which can be accessed through the documents he cites as his evidence. On matters such as Firk's position as a covenanted servant, or on Jane's entrepreneurship during her supposed widowhood, Seaver finds the data to corroborate Dekker's presentation. Other of the play's elements are not susceptible to this confirmation. Of Eyre's successful deal with the Dutch merchant, aided by Hans' money and the borrowed aldermanic robes, Seaver notes "such events do not happen in real life" (93).

  4. Bevington's essay begins with a reminder that the play is just that, a play. Running through an extensive list of the issues explored in The Shoemakers Holiday and discussed by Seaver, he wonders how "Dekker managed to include so much in a lucid, cheery, fast-moving, five-act entertainment" (101). His essay takes a close look at the play's structure and characterisation, referring occasionally to the preceding essay for validation, but more often to other dramatic productions of the period to provide a specifically theatrical context for elements such as Dekker's use of the stage Dutchman. Ultimately, Bevington describes the play as "utopian," and reverts to Seaver's distinction between the stage and the "real world" (116). It is disappointing that neither contributor makes any kind of reference to the reality of the early modern stage, and its capacity to shape as well as to reflect social categories as part of the discursive production of a theatricalised London. It is noteworthy that neither questions the validity of the historical context as an interpretative tool, or suggests that that context is itself susceptible to interpretation. The effect of the joint disciplinary approach seems to privilege the terrain of the historians as the knowable and factual "real world" of the past, to which literature adds its own frivolous decoration.

  5. Elsewhere, the volume seems to bear out this view of interdisciplinary study. Writing about the essays on the Root and Branch petition, the editorial choice of words sums up the perceived differences between the disciplines: the historian's approach is characterised as "external" while the literary critic is concerned with the "internal" (10). It would have been interesting for the editors to have made more of the book's pedagogical origins, for many of the issues it raises, both self-consciously and inadvertently, are institutional ones and have implications for practice in research and teaching. The introduction describes the Chicago course "London: The Theatrical City" as an intellectually rewarding experience combining the formal presentations with interventions by teaching assistants and students, but this productive vigour has not made the transition to print. While the individual contributions to the volume have much to offer, the overall framework conveys a traditional and limited view of the possibilities of interdisciplinary dialogue. The promise of the volume's range of concerns as indicated in its choice of period, from the building of the first London theatre to the execution of the king, the "royal actor," in Marvell's explicitly theatrical terms, is not fulfilled.

  6. Lawrence Manley's Literature and Culture in Early Modern London exceeds the boundaries of disciplinary difference crucial to the hermeneutics of The Theatrical City to which he is also a contributor. In his own book, he aims "to tell a large and complex story by clarifying the relations between a literature and its society" (2). The book is, indeed, large and complex, running to some 600 pages and moving between genres, authors and registers to map the dynamic culture of early modern London. Manley works within three overlapping conceptual frameworks: the transition from feudalism to capitalism, a concept of "behavioral urbanization" developed from the work of Max Weber and more recently Jan de Vries, and the conflict between order and reform. The greatest strength of Manley's investigation is his range of reference. As a historian of London as a geographical, historical, political, demographic, economic, and cultural locus, Manley reads across the disciplines with great confidence. He is alert to the ways in which the literature of the emerging metropolis both represents the expanding urban settlement and is its instrument in a process of urbanisation. His analysis of the popular Tudor-Stuart genre of topography combines an investigation of the gendered identity of the city with an awareness of the classical and continental antecedents of the paradigms invoked in descriptions of London. Other chapters also offer new perspectives in their consideration of pamphlet culture, civic ceremonies, satire, and Jacobean city comedy.

  7. Manley's style is episodic, stringing together sparkling and original passages of great interest, such as the analysis of the Ship of Fools topos in Chapter 2, but interspersing them with denser material which is often summarised from his extensive secondary reading. There is something rather indigestible about the book as a whole, and many readers may find those parts of the work previously published as articles more approachable in that tighter format. Manley's vocabulary is sometimes obscure--"theriomorphism," for example (89)--and this adds to the intermittent sense on reading the book of struggling to keep up with his arguments. The length and complexity of Manley's work attest to the difficulty of interdisciplinary research, and certainly, the self-imposed boundaries of The Theatrical City make for a much more accessible read. Literature and Culture in Early Modern London is, however, an ambitious and important addition to the research on the intricate interrelations between cultural production and society in the early modern period.
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(RGS, rev. 2 March 1998)