Early Modern Literary Studies 11.2 (September, 2005)


This essay unfolds three, interlinked arguments. First, on the basis of several intriguing possible parallels between the drama and current events, it challenges the uneasy, guesswork dating of the play hitherto to 1595. Richard II, it suggests, probably derives from 1596, or possibly even 1597.

Second, the essay argues that, irrespective of the question of exact dating and of whether the parallels derived from design or subsequent historical coincidence, these topical 'echoes' are of importance in reconstructing the play's received meaning, since they must have powerfully impacted the political responses of early audiences (1596-97). The drama could not but have been decoded through the 'popular optic' of such apparent allusions, which generated crucial dimensions of contemporary political significance lost on moderns, concerning the figure of Essex-in-Bullingbrooke.

Finally, resituating Richard II primarily in the year or so that it first was staged (circa 1596) rather than in the very different conjuncture of the Essex revolt (February 1601), the article suggests that while the drama's apparent allusions in act one to certain current events help establish a seemingly celebrative evocation of the wildly popular Essex -- a figure so frequently posited by critics as an object of Shakespearean admiration -- that subsequently, the drama effects, with characteristically sardonic Shakespearean reversal (and in a strategy not dissimilar to that of Parsons' 'Conference about the Next Succession' of 1594) a calculated assault on the controversial earl's standing. The paper thus contests the widely credited view that since the followers of Essex procured performance by Shakespeare's company of Richard II on the night before the rebellion, a favorable assessment of Essex must have been written into the play by Shakespeare. This view is dismantled on the basis of strict historical reasoning: the contextually established meaning of the Essex-Bullingbroke figure had indeed become favorable by 1601, given a number of historical developments of 1599-1601; but back in the mid-1590s, when the drama was first performed, the political conjuncture was such that Richard II must have comprised an assault on the character and ambitions of Essex, as scheming, insatiable machiavel. That an anti-Essex play of circa 1596 should so have metamorphosed as to have become, in effect, a weapon in the arsenal of the Essex rebels, is one of the major ironies of the late Elizabethan period, and of Shakespeare's career.

In an England where wolves were effectively extinct - except for a few tired specimens kept for the occasional Royal viewing in the Tower Menagerie - and where reports of werewolves had to be imported from the Continent, John Webster penned the lycanthrope Ferdinand into The Duchess of Malfi. This article explores the theological, philosophical, and medical perceptions of lycanthropy in early modern European thought in an effort to reconcile Webster's unique choice with the wider concerns of his time, namely: the precarious boundaries between animal and human, male and female, body and soul, sanity and madness, good and evil. This paper suggests that by doing so we may shed some light on the reasons behind Webster's construction of the only werewolf realized on the Jacobean stage, as well as demonstrating how an understanding of the liminal figure of the werewolf enriches our appreciation of the play.

The only known collaborative female dramatists of the seventeenth century, Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley have been the subject of scholarly interest recently: critics such as Margaret Ezell, Marion Wynne-Davies, Alison Findlay, and others have begun to unpack some of the crucial contexts and resonances of the sisters' manuscript materials (held at Oxford's Bodleian Library). However, until very recently the existence of a second contemporary manuscript copy of many of their writings (held at Yale's Beinecke Library) has gone unnoticed. This paper examines the Oxford and Yale manuscripts side by side in order to uncover several fascinating elements about their work. I argue here that the handwriting, contents, and presentation of the Yale volume suggest that Jane Cavendish wrote most of the verse attributed to both sisters, and that the Yale text predates the Oxford. Moreover, the Yale text contains several corrections to both poems and the text of A Pastorall that the Oxford MS does not - a careful deciphering of the original versions of these works tells us a great deal about what and how the sisters wrote. The Yale MS also leaves us with a mystery, for it concludes with a previously unexamined hidden poem that raises questions about who might have seen, and responded to, these works composed during the Civil War years.

This essay, in line with attempts (as in a discussion by Heather Dubrow) to examine the country house poem from a new-formalist perspective, considers how speakers in some of the major, Stuart (or Interregnum) country house poems revision the Jonsonian paradigm established in To Penshurst. In particular it considers how they appropriate and attribute the supernatural. The essay suggests that the syncretic spirituality of To Penshurst seems to have offered possibilities to Jonson's successors that elicited quite different responses. For example, Carew attributed a supernatural to Saxham which simultaneously blasphemes Christian orthodoxy, diminishes Roman myth to an idiosyncratically Lucretian materialism, and bypasses both. Herrick submerged the Christian in the Roman, seeming preoccupied with bringing together the idea of caritas and the portrayal of unlimited food/ingestion. Marvell submerged the Roman in the hyperbolically protestant, apparently trying to create a slyly divine comedy: a ludic epiphany in the fashioning of which he remade the country house poem itself.

In these pages I present a previously unnoticed referent for Milton's phoenix simile in Samson Agonistes: namely, Job 29:18 and the line of of interpretation of that verse which emerged most vividly in Juan de Pineda's two volume Commentariorum in Iob, first published in 1598-1602 in Seville and very frequently reprinted in the first third of the seventeenth century. It is surprising that this referent has not been identified before by Milton's editors since Joban parallelisms have a prominent role in Samson Agonistes and since well into the eighteenth century the Joban phoenix - located in Job 29:18 - was still being presented as a Christological center of attention in the symbolism of the book of Job as a whole. In fact, right from the beginning of the seventeenth century Pineda's Commentariorum in Iob made the Joban phoenix unforgettable with a striking hermeneutic illustration.
Placed within its line of interpretation, Pineda's intellectually rich, visually spectacular, and widely available representation of the Joban phoenix suggests that Milton would have expected his readers to understand the placement of the phoenix simile as the climax of Samson's personal redemption in Samson Agonistes. This is to say that Milton's Joban phoenix is his logical continuation and crowning of the parallelism between Job and Samson, as well as between Christ and Samson, not only in Samson Agonistes but in the 1671 volume as a whole.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).