Michael Neill, Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. xvi+527pp. ISBN 0 231 11332 3 Cloth, 0 231 1133 1 Paper.
Christopher Ivic
SUNY Potsdam

Ivic, Christopher. "Review of Michael Neill, Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 15.1-6 <URL:

  1. Much of Michael Neill's Putting History to the Question will be familiar to its readers: only one of the book's fifteen chapters is published for the first time. The reader who returns to Neill's collected essays, however, will find in them a coherent and compelling vision of English Renaissance drama, a vision that comes across forcefully when one reads these essays as a whole. While Neill doesn't presume to present a totalizing vision of the "early modern stage," his comprehensive approach (including chapters on Fletcher, Massinger, and Middleton) offers his readers a fuller and richer portrait of the early modern stage as well as the social and cultural discourses that informed its playwrights, actors, and theatregoers.

  2. One of this book's many strengths is its attention to various writers and texts--both dramatic and non-dramatic, literary and non-literary. Shakespeare is definitely the centerpiece, but by no means do his plays dominate the discussion. In many of the essays, discussions of Shakespeare's plays are accompanied by references to many non-Shakespearean plays. If these references to numerous plays give the impression of underdeveloped analyses, it should be pointed out that Neill is less interested in readings of individual plays than the recovery of the social, political, and cultural milieu in which these plays were written and performed: his interest, then, lies in the ideas incorporated and interrogated on stage. Take, for example, the one unpublished chapter, "'The Exact Map or Discovery of Human Affairs': Shakespeare and the Plotting of History." In this chapter, Neill references Shakespeare's 1 and 2 Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, Henry V, Richard II, Richard III, and The Tempest (Marlowe's Tamburlaine also makes an appearance). He also discusses, among other texts, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Speed's Theater of the Empire of Great Britain, and Weever's Ancient Funerall Monuments. Guided by these texts, Neill displays a remarkable ability to immerse himself in Renaissance ways of thinking, and he does so to foreground the complexity of Renaissance thought. The central argument of this chapter is that the plotting of history, especially national history, bears witness to a "newly spatialized sense of the past that helped to make history the powerful ideological weapon it was to become" (379). In its concern with both the making of cultural narratives and their ideological legacies, this chapter exemplifies Neill's ability to read these plays in relation to early and post modern culture. This is most evident in the conclusion, where Neill turns to The Tempest: "Shakespeare's discovery play [. . .] an elaborate prophetic fantasy on colonial encounter and its imperial aftermath" (390). While the product of early coloniality, the imperial aftermath of The Tempest is no tale of colonial consolidation. Rather, the play, Neill notes, "contains within itself the seeds of the counternarrative that will become Aimé Césaire's reclamation of Calibanic history, Une Tempête (393).

  3. Putting History to the Question is divided into two sections: seven essays appear under the title "The Stage and Social Order"; eight appear under the title "Race, Nation, Empire." Central to the first section are social relations as they were enacted on the early modern stage. This is particularly evident in the opening chapter, which focuses on master-servant relations in a range of texts-Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean, late sixteenth century to early eighteenth century-which "were responding to shifts in the ideology and material conditions of service that were of some importance in the early modern transformation of social order" (14). Neill is particularly deft at tracing the ways in which the theatre (so dependent on a master's patronage) responded to these changes, and he does so in a manner that sheds light on a number of plays. Attending briefly to the centrality of servitude in The Tempest--a play, we are reminded, which is so often read as an allegory of colonial rebellion--Neill refreshingly invites his readers to reconsider this play as "the domestic treason of a servant monster" (21). That Neill elsewhere speaks of The Tempest as "Shakespeare's profoundly ambivalent drama of colonization" (135) should not be read as a contradiction. For Neill, Caliban is an overdetermined subject: at once slave, native, and bastard. This is just one of the many examples of Neill's treatment of a particular play in different, though not unrelated chapters, and it highlights the many productive intersections within the book.

  4. While thoroughly historicist in his analysis, Neill, as mentioned, also draws attention to the cultural and ideological legacies of early modern drama and the social discourses that constituted it. Throughout these essays, Neill profoundly looks back to medieval and classical culture and beyond the Renaissance to modernity. Consider his reading in chapter 5 of the bastard in English Renaissance drama. This chapter opens with a brief statement on the bastard in nineteenth-century English literature before raising the question "What exactly did it mean to be branded a bastard in Edmund's world?" (128). In order to respond to this question, Neill takes us back four hundred years. In the Middle Ages, the bastard, defined as filius nullius, was not necessarily a morally stained man; rather, as Neill puts it, the "filius nullius . . . was not so much the son of nobody as the heir of nobody" (130). Renaissance discourse on the bastard, though far from monolithic, undergoes a change, whereby the notion of bastardy is underpinned by a rhetoric of filth, stain, and pollution, which renders the bastard unnatural and corrupt. Of course, as any reader of Renaissance drama knows, bastards can also perform productive work: Shakespeare's Philip Faulconbridge is a prime example. Neill's ability to tease out the society's complex and contradictory thoughts on bastardy, especially as they are articulated in the plays, mark him as a brilliant reader of literature and culture. That this chapter is entitled "Imagining the Bastard in English Renaissance Drama" foregrounds the emphasis on imaginative work performed in these plays. In his Introduction, Neill dissociates himself from professional historians who view literature as a dubious source for the investigation of the past. Neill treats literary texts as rich historical repositories, "not because they often have much to tell us about the 'facts' of history but because they are unfailingly sensitive registers of social attitudes and assumptions, fears and desires" (3). While the dramatic representation of bastards, to be sure, sheds little light on the actual legal condition of illegitimacy, the stage, for the sensitive reader, bears ample witness to "the functioning of bastardy in the psychic economy of early modern society" (3). "In some ways," Neill astutely remarks, "it may actually be more important to understand what people thought was happening to their world than to gauge the accuracy of these beliefs, since what people believe to be true is typically what determines the way they act" (3-4).

  5. It is hard to say which parts of this book will be best known to literary critics: the three brilliant chapters on Othello (in total, seventy-seven pages) may have received the most photocopying. Since my own work focuses on national and cultural identities in early modern Britain and Ireland, I am, as are many Shakespeareans, well acquainted with his magisterial chapter on nationhood in Shakespeare's history plays. What makes this chapter (13) so striking, and so typical of Neill, is its ability to treat many plays (1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, Richard II, 1 Henry IV, and, especially, Henry V) in relation to both literary and non-literary texts, including Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland, Davies's True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued, Derricke's Image of Ireland, Tudor government documents, and the "Rainbow Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth, in an eloquent and tight prose style. Indeed, Neill has an uncanny ability to pull in diverse material without leaving the reader feeling lost among endnotes. Perhaps the ultimate compliment to this chapter is that in the wake of recent writing on early modern Ireland, including numerous books by literary scholars, Neill's essay remains one of the most concise and profound statements on the stage's role in the construction of cultural identities in early modern Britain and Ireland.

  6. It is difficult to find faults in this book. Perhaps one may contest particular readings, but it is hard to imagine readers not feeling rewarded having read these fifteen illuminating essays. Neill certainly made a name for himself by publishing these chapters as book and journal articles; with this collection, he emerges as one of the most brilliant readers of early modern theatre.

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

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).