Richard Hillman. Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama: Subjectivity, Discourse and the Stage. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. 309 pp. ISBN 0333 62899 3/ 0312-17552-3.

Roger Starling
University of Warwick

Starling, Roger. "Review of Richard Hillman, Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 16.1-8 <URL:>.


  1. Richard Hillman’s Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama: Subjectivity, Discourse and the Stage is a signal contribution to a debate whose time has passed. Although published almost twenty years after Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, and more than a decade after seminal studies by critics such as Catherine Belsey, Jonathan Dollimore, and others on the relation between early modern theatre and subjectivity, Hillman’s investigation of the discursive practices of what he calls "self-speaking" on the medieval and early modern English stage appears, at least initially, like a ghost from the early to mid-eighties ("Remember me!"), when the once-animated debate over the so-called "early modern subject" made many a critical reputation and helped put such self-consciously nouveau critical approaches as cultural materialism and the new historicism firmly on the agenda [1]. Henceforth, some combination of text and/as history (never mind that neither of these entities, much less their conflation, ever came in for anything but the most cursory, and often perfectly traditional, analysis) was virtually compulsory in what was then the burgeoning and highly visible field of early modern studies. Hillman, however, knows better than to simply rehearse past struggles, and his study, while referencing some of the most seminal scholarship of the past two decades, not only breaks new ground, but does so with considerable critical and theoretical acumen.

  2. The strength of Hillman’s study lies primarily in its deft and theoretically informed reading of the discursive construction(s) of subjectivity from the medieval Corpus Christi cycles to Jacobean tragedy. One of a relatively few studies to address both Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean drama from a perspective that is as much concerned with dissonance (heterogeneity) as it is with development (homogeneity), Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama is, despite its limitations, an impressive and wide-ranging study that, like all ghosts, arguably points more to the future than to the repetition of past conflicts.

  3. Rejecting the widespread tendency to conflate (or confuse) textual and historical evidence, Hillman’s approach is informed by two principal theoretical commitments: first, and as Hillman puts it, "fundamentally," to "intertextual analysis of the kind theorized and applied in [his] 1992 book, Intertextuality and Romance in Renaissance Drama; and second, to "the subject-formation theory of Jacques Lacan" (9), most notably his writings on the mirror-stage and on the aphanisis or fading of the subject.[2] Such a move allows Hillman to sidestep debates concerning the relationship between the construction of subjectivity on stage and its (doubtlessly allied) historical and material counterparts, and to focus his attention specifically on the effects and strategies of "self-speaking." Indeed, Hillman argues, in "setting the current controversies regarding subjectivity against the stage-techniques of Renaissance drama, I have consistently found the soliloquy (together with various allied modes of discourse) presenting itself as in need of rethinking in its own right, but in terms that frankly acknowledge the status of all ‘subjectivity effects’ in drama as linguistic or, more broadly, semiotic constructs" (5).

  4. Paradoxically, however, the strength of Hillman’s approach is to be found less in his dexterous, albeit fragmentary, readings of play-texts than in his deployment of Lacanian theory. Unlike his more historically-minded predecessors (whose work he nonetheless recuperates for the purposes of textual analysis), Hillman traces an over-arching theory of theatrical subjectivity that commences with the staging (and discursive mirroring) of a transcendent deity in the cycle-drama which, as the disavowed projection of human imaginings, both proscribes and precipitates the emergence on stage of a self-mirroring subject whose identification (in Beneviste’s terms) with the "I" of enunciation (le sujet de l’énoncé or the subject of speech) initiates its aphanisis or fading as the speaking subject (le sujet de l’énonciation). Thus, as Kaja Silverman points out, since the speaking subject "can attain subjectivity or self-apprehension only through the intervention of signification," and "[s]ince signification results in an aphanisis of the real, the speaking subject and its discursive representative—i.e. the subject of speech—remain perpetually dissimultaneous, at odds." [3] According to Hillman, "[s]uch a view remarkably intersects with those Renaissance theoreticians of language who problematized the mirror—the traditional (ultimately Platonic) emblem of the truthfulness of signification—by way of individual intentionality" (43). The result, according to Marie-Luc Demonet, is that "the mirror turns itself to show less what is spoken than the ‘will’ of the speaker, as distinct from the thélémie of the first inventor of names that cannot lie." [4]

  5. Ultimately, however, the difference between the medieval staging of the divine thélémie or will ("the eternal divine presence within temporality" [Hillman 35]), as in the opening lines of the N-town Revelation, and its secular usurpation by the ensuing host of theatrical self-speakers, proves only as stable as the artifice of enunciation itself. Hence the staging of a self-knowing, self-mirroring deity whose Creation serves as the architectural or symbolic frame that houses (in Lacanian terms) a pre-symbolic or imaginary mode of identification, gives way eventually to the very heterogeneity—linguistic and "subjective"—it both proscribes and encrypts. Indeed as Hillman points out, such latent heterogeneity figures in not only textual sources such as the anomalous Everyman, whose disruptive and fragmentary self-speaking figures precisely the kind of linguistic disarray as represented by the biblical account of Babel, but also in terms of the co-presence of divine role and human actor which, while figuring from a doctrinal perspective the mode of signification through which temporal existence is enfolded within a transcendent economy, carries within itself the latent (and traumatic) insight that such ostensible transcendence is both a projection and a theatrical fiction. Hence while the Lacanian Nom du Père (the phallic name/no of the father) functions initially to proscribe identification with the position of a self-mirroring subject, the increasing secularization of theatre during the later sixteenth century serves precisely to unleash the Babel-like free-play of self- and mutual-mirroring through which, as Foucault puts it, the Other is revealed as the Same. [5]

  6. Subsequent chapters take up the figures of the mirror and book, which in Hillman’s terms function respectively as tropes for self-mirroring or aphanitic subjectivity (in which the subject, seeking itself as presence, discovers itself as absence) and for the self-motivated calculation that succeeds in its designs by projecting its authority elsewhere. If Richard II provides Hillman with the paradigmatic instance of the former, and Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida with a prominent example of the latter, then it is Hamlet that brings both of them together in a play in which the possibility of "self-speaking" is poised between aphanitic or self-mirroring stasis and the self-repression or negation through which action becomes being (revenge as both self-forgetting and self-recovery). Indeed, while resisting its status as an "epistemological watershed" (107), Hillman nonetheless accords Hamlet its rightful centrality in the passage from the "mirror of divine truth, showing the individual’s true as well as false place," to the secularized spectacle of a " continual emptying and refilling of roles" (85).

  7. Such determined instability also provides Hillman with a provocative approach to the distinction between comedy and tragedy. Thus, he argues, while the drama of the late sixteenth century "begins to portray the field of human relations as a symbolic order in which subjectivity is continually negotiated" (126), it focuses increasingly on the production and control of discourse in ways that are explicitly socially and politically coded. Indeed, while comic conventions work to contain the threat of aphanitic subjectivity by presenting the community as Other in place of a transcendent deity, so tragedy most often focuses on an internalized Other, thus figuring political success as the ability to control the irreducible play of theatrical roles, and tragedy as precisely the loss of such ability. In tragedy, Hillman argues, "the world-as-stage conceit is often associated with self-speaking at points of existential crisis, usually when the protagonist is approaching death" (84). Such strategies, however, cannot only be present in the same text, but, like revenge drama, comedy also functions through negation. Hence denial, Hillman suggests, "constitutes an essential aspect of comic affirmation, surreptitiously proffering the assurance that human beings are in discursive control, even as their dependency on deceptive signification is paraded" (204).

  8. Such violent summarization only begins to trace the insights with which Hillman’s book veritably teems. However, this is not to say that it is entirely without fault. Too often the insights alluded to above are supported by the briefest and most fragmentary readings of actual plays, while what is required, in a book of this length and scope, is something more in the way of sustained demonstration. There is also the matter of Hillman’s theoretical apparatus. While he acknowledges at the outset that his commitment to historicized intertextual reading is perhaps violated by his reliance on Lacan (13), and while the results of his study more than justify his choice, nowhere does Hillman reflect on why a Lacanian framework should prove so seemingly productive, nor does he so much as cast his eye on studies such as Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s Lacan: The Absolute Master, which have done much to situate Lacan’s own writings in terms of their own irreducible theatricality. [6] Future readers may judge whether there is something to gain from the specular mirrorings of theory or whether, in the case of early modern drama, theory in fact reaches its limit in the aphanisis of its own performance.


[1] See Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Harvester: Hemel Hempstead, 1984), and Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980). Interestingly, while Hillman undoubtedly refers to more recent (and often refreshingly heterogeneous) scholarship, he significantly plays down or omits some of the more overtly deconstructive or textually focused studies of the same period. Among these are Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984), Joel Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986), and Jonathan Goldberg, Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts (London: Methuen, 1986).

[2] Richard Hillman, Intertextuality and Romance in Renaissance Drama: The Staging of Nostalgia (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s, 1992). On "aphanisis" and the "mirror-stage, " see Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1994), 216-29, and "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience," Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 1-7.

[3] Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford, 1983), 196-7; cited by Hillman, 43.

[4] Marie-Luc Demont, Les voix du signe: Nature et origine du language à la Renaissance (1480-1580) (Bibliothèque Littéraire de la Renaissance, Series 3, Vol. 29. Paris: Champion; Geneva: Skatkine, 1992), 274; cited by Hillman, 44.

[5] Michel Foucault, "La Prose d’Actéon," La nouvelle revue française 23 (1964): 444-59, 444; cited by Hillman, 37.

[6] Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Lacan: The Absolute Master, trans. Douglas Brick (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991), esp. pp.43-71. As Borch-Jacobsen maintains, for Lacan in general (and despite his interest in linguistics) "no type of relation with the world or the other—except the specular, spectacular, or scopic one, as it defines the subject of representation through and through, is ever taken into account. The Lacanian ego is the ego as it theorizes itself, never as it feels ‘itself’ or experiences ‘itself’" (57).

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© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)