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Steven Mullaney, The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare
by Richard McCabe

Mullaney, Steven. The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare. Chicago & London: U of Chicago P, 2015. x + 231 pp. ISBN: 978-0226547633. $35.00 cloth.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste …

The intensely private tone of Shakespeare’s thirtieth sonnet is inflected by disquietingly public diction. Remembrance is summoned to appear before a court enquiring into the loss of emotional property, tallying the “sad account” of dead friends, cancelled loves, vanished sights, and grievances foregone. Yet it is only when, and indeed “if,” the judge remembers to “think on” the “dear friend” of the concluding couplet that losses are restored and sorrows ended. To reread this sonnet in the light of Steven Mullaney’s highly original and eloquently argued Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare is to hear the speaker lend utterance to the nostalgia of a nation: “remembrance of things past” haunted the Elizabethan psyche, and it remained unclear who, if anyone, could put matters right. Among the nation’s dead friends, cancelled loves, vanished sights, and past grievances might be numbered the blood-drenched martyrs, lost but lingering causes, bare ruined choirs, and unrequited complaints that, like the ghost of Hamlet’s Purgatorial father, would not lie quiet in their graves. At the coming of dawn that revenant “started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons”—but its message is “remember me!” effectively “summon me!”

The English Reformation left in its wake a myriad of legal, social, political and emotional problems, and it is with the latter that Mullaney is primarily concerned. He is engaged, that is to say, with the ways in which “the Protestant Reformation sought to sever, redefine, and reconfigure the affective ties that bound the living to the affective landscapes they inhabited” (179). The resulting experience he compares to the Polish notion of “tęsknota,” “a deep, sometimes visceral longing for a person or persons who are missing and also for the place they are missing from, even though that place would seem to be where you are, where you have been, where you will remain” (31-2). He begins, appropriately enough, with the extraordinary events of 10 April 1549, when “one thousand cartloads” of bones from a famous charnel house at St Paul’s were unceremoniously dumped into the marshlands at Moorgate on the orders of Lord Protector Somerset. “His goal,” Mullaney argues, “was an evacuation in the most visceral sense of the word: a purging of the social body that could only be accomplished, it would seem, by the consignment of a significant remnant of the city’s past life, and, more importantly, its present affections, to the rudest of annihilations” (3). By the mere act of recording the incident in his Survay of London (1598), however, Stow ensured that the “annihilation” Somerset wished to accomplish would be frustrated. “The chapel and charnel,” he tells his readers somewhat ironically, “were converted into dwelling houses, warehouses, and sheds … for stationers, in the place of tombs.”[1] The very medium so often hailed as promoting the Reformation preserved what the Reformers would have their countrymen forget, and inscribed within their own polemic was the dogma it opposed. For the Elizabethans the problem was that the past was not another country but the same. Official attempts at damnatio memoriae had scattered the landscape with nostalgic monuments to what the Reformers had attempted to erase, ensuring that the “text” of Protestant England would never be more than a palimpsest.  

But print, as Mullaney points out, was not the only form of “publication.” John Foxe was hardly alone in noting the powerful impact of “Preachers, Printers, and Players” in forwarding the Reformation (26). As everyone recognized, theater provided a powerful medium for the dissemination of ideas—hence the deliberate suppression of the old Mystery plays which had annually enacted the “Eucharistic” mode of Roman Catholic thought. The message was so embedded in the play-texts that only suppression would suffice. Yet powerful as theater was in delivering dogma, its dialogical form afforded more complex possibilities. For societies dealing with the “trauma” of enforced change, Mullaney argues, it functioned as an “affective technology”—akin to modern social media—for exploring the ways in which collective “structures of feeling” (to use Raymond Williams’s term) fractured and healed under intense pressure (23). “To be effective,” he contends, “an ideology must also and simultaneously be affective” (30), and such ideologies cannot be abandoned with impunity. It was one thing to regard oneself as elect, quite another to contemplate, as did Lady Grace Mildmay, the damnation of one’s unregenerate parents (15-16). How then, Mullaney asks, did the Elizabethans “feel” in the wake of the Reformation? The analysis he provides is predominantly heuristic, exploring aspects of theatrical practice to offer provocative suggestions rather than definitive conclusions—while always allowing for inescapable problems of methodology, the most intractable of all being the complex relationship between emotions and ideas. It remains unclear, for example, whether the history of emotion can ever be included in the history of ideas without compounding a contradiction in terms (61). “Emotions” resist rational explanation at every level, and what theorists identify as “structures of emotion” may be little more than retrospective rationalizations. At the same time, there is much to suggest that emotions, like beliefs, are cultural or social artifacts (22)

The primary meaning of the word “emotion”—a word which never appears in the Shakespeare canon—in the Early Modern period was “commotion,” and in the public rather than the private sphere. When it came to “feelings” or “passions” Elizabethan commentators referenced the four humors or some version of geohumoral theory—or so modern commentators like Gail Paster and Mary Floyd-Wilson have concluded from examining texts such as Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Mind in General (1604). Mullaney, by contrast, contends that Wright’s concept of emotion was actually more social than humoral, and that he did not, pace Paster, simply equate humors and emotions. At one crucial point in his argument, for example, Wright turns his attention to the stage: “in the substance of external action,” he contends, “for most part orators and stage players agree: and only they differ in this, that these act fainedly, those really; these only to delight, those to stir up all sorts of passions according to the exigencie of the matter” (52).

What is remarkable about this passage is the way in which theoretically distinct lines of comparison and contrast blur into one another. What exactly does it mean to “act” “really”? It was a theme to which Shakespeare repeatedly returned. “Would you have me / False to my nature?” asks Coriolanus, “Rather say / I play the man I am” (III.ii.14-16). And therein lies the rub: all social roles involve acting—as, perhaps, does all human agency if Jacques’s assessment in As You Like It is correct. Initially Wright seems to be saying that stage-players imitate the emotions of “real” life merely to “delight” their audience, while orators “really” suffer passion in order to “stir up” equivalent emotions in their listeners and so promote another form of “mimesis.” Yet such oratorical “passions” are craftily calibrated to the “exigencie of the matter,” and the orator “feels” emotion “in order to” achieve an ulterior motive. In what sense, then, can the orator’s perceived emotions be his “real” ones? And what happens when an actor performs the role of an orator? As Hamlet reacts to the increasing passion of the player performing the role of Pyrrhus, he confronts all such possibilities (II.ii). What, after all, is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba? Is the player feigning or feeling and why, in any case, should anyone care? Hamlet has a greater “cue for passion” than the player, but struggles to “feel” the part he is called upon to play. Shakespeare’s use of theatrical tropes to explore the nature of emotion in this famous scene provides Mullaney’s cue for using drama to explore not so much the Elizabethans’ passions per se, as their efforts to engage with those emotions through theater. “When a culture’s sense of collective identity is unsettled in more than customary ways,” he argues, “its cultural performances take on new forms. In England in the second half of the sixteenth century, the Elizabethan stage was one of those emergent forms: one that profoundly complicates Wright’s confidence in affective mimesis, just as his own brief consideration of Elizabethan actors complicated his faith in the sincerity of real tears” (62).

So what, then, can Elizabethan theater tell us about the “reformation of emotions” in the age of Elizabeth? Mullaney looks for clues in unexpected places: not dramas specifically dealing with religious change but The Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and the First Tetralogy. In the case of “revenge” tragedy, Mullaney supports Michael Neill’s contention that the theater was less concerned with the “ethics of vendetta” than the newly conflicted relationship between the living and the dead following the sweeping away of so many traditional rituals of remembrance (85). As Natalie Zemon Davis put it, “the living were left with their memories, unimpeded and untransformed by any ritual communication with their dead … Paradoxically, in trying to lay all ghosts forever, the Protestants may have raised new ones” (86). In the light of these theories, Mullaney sees revenge drama working as a sort of “affective laboratory” (49) in which the anxieties of the day could be tested,  “a place where players, playwrights, and their audiences could explore the social imaginary they shared … could probe and feel and even touch some of the crucial integuments and sinews of the social body that had become disarticulated in the upheavals of ‘embodied thought’ that constituted the reformation of emotions in early modern England” (93).

Yet while the theater can certainly function to explore fault-lines in the social imaginary, the problem with Neill’s viewpoint is that the genre of revenge tragedy was equally popular in contemporary Italy, where no rupture with the Catholic past had occurred—and many, if not most, of the plays now commonly designated as “English” revenge tragedies are based on Italian sources.  It might, of course, be argued that the genre operated differently in the two cultures, but in the almost total absence of recorded audience responses, that would need to be closely demonstrated from divergent emphases in the relevant texts. While Hamlet’s “questionable” ghost raises obvious issues related to the Reformation, it is less clear that any of the other plays mentioned do so to the same extent. Mullaney is here more successful in demonstrating the more general point—particularly in relation to the aestheticizing of violence in Titus Andronicus, and the presentation of anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice—that “the audience’s affective reactions are often catalysed … most effectively when they are alienated from the emotions expressed or represented on stage” (49).

As has long been realized, the plays classified by Heminges and Condell as “Histories” contain lots of unhistorical material. That in itself would have surprised few contemporary Humanists: in his Apology for Poesie, for example, Philip Sidney calls express attention to the resemblance between historiography and imaginative fiction. In order to be remembered, the past needs to be re-imagined, and with the coming of the Reformation England’s past needed to be reimagined as a centuries-old struggle for truth against heresy. This meant that a “history” of Protestant England had to be invented from the very documents that chronicled its Catholic past. Monarchs as diverse as King John and Henry VIII needed to be cast as religious reformers—a challenge to which Bale rose in King Johan (which features the former as a figure of the latter) and to which Shakespeare refused to rise in King John. Collective memory, as Mullaney demonstrates from an account of the oral traditions of the Gonja, is subject to constant re-vision precisely because history matters (97-8). The stories we tell about ourselves, whether personal or public, define our identities, and those identities owe as much to what we “forget” (accidentally or deliberately) as what we “remember.” What, Mullaney asks, does the First tetralogy “forget”? And once again he looks for answers in unexpected scenes. Focusing, for example, on Gloucester’s vilification of Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou as a catastrophic event “razing the characters of your renown, / Defacing monuments of conquered France, / Undoing all, as all had never been!” (2 Henry VI, I.i.97-9), he proffers it as an example of “constructed archaism”:

For the Elizabethan audience, however, or at least for some of its members, Gloucester remembers the future—the audience’s present and recent past—in his fears. For the Elizabethan audience, the book of memory has indeed been blotted. Gloucester recalls all of the names stripped from village cemeteries during the reign of Edward VI, all of the parish statuary that sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts “de-faced” in their own acts of damnatio memoriae, and all of the bonds that had been weakened or shattered in the audience’s own present time and place. (115)

Mullaney’s conclusion is that “the historical consciousness of these plays is no longer figural … incongruity takes the place of teleology” (113). Thus Talbot’s supper of bread and wine with his French countess “is precisely not a sacramental one and not to be related to the Last Supper it nonetheless recalls. It remembers what is an ostensibly forgotten affective experience—Catholic, transubstantial communion—but at the same time strips that experience of any incorporative effects beyond the physiological body itself” (125). Similarly Richard III’s attempts to dismiss the ghosts who haunt him as imaginary manifestations of “conscience”—“but a word that cowards use, / Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe” (V.iii.310-1)—recalls how “Protestantism attempted to demystify the old religion by ‘unmasking’ the sacramental as the merely theatrical, the miraculous as simply a fake,” “hoc est corpus meum” as hocus pocus (139). Wisely, Mullaney steers clear of the issue of Shakespeare’s own religious outlook, concentrating instead on how the dramatist used “history” to capture his audience’s fractured historical “conscience.” We possess no record of how many, like Claudius, were frighted with false fire.

The matter is significant for Mullaney because it raises the theoretical issue of how theater functions in the public domain. “The relationship of art to society,” he notes, “has always been difficult to articulate in terms that can acknowledge relation without reflection, production without mimesis” (142). For this reason his final chapter considers the question “What’s Hamlet to Habermas,” focusing on the analysis of Wilhelm Meister’s attempt to enact Hamlet in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. For Habermas, Mullaney claims, Hamlet is “a sixteenth-century dramatic character played by a misguided late eighteen-century novelistic character” (152). According to this view the very “theatricality” of Early Modern drama impeded the production of a “public sphere”: it was only the drama of a Congreve or a Beaumarchais, heavily influenced by the emergence of the “novel” in the erection of an invisible “fourth wall,” that could contribute to that (153). Mullaney replies by calling attention to the inherent theatricality of the “novel” itself, and arguing that the very limited print-runs of Early Modern texts rendered theater a more effective means of “publication” than the pamphlets identified by Alexandra Halasz as generating an Elizabethan “public sphere” (161).

However that problematic term is understood, theater certainly generates an “audience” and, although Mullaney does not make the point expressly, theatrical censorship shows a keen awareness on the part of the authorities of how an audience may become an all too active “public.” Theater, Mullaney suggests, “has served as one of the social tools available to Western cultures when they want to think about how they feel, or feel about what they think, and to do so in actual, experiential, and felt spaces, as well as virtual or imagined worlds. This seems to have been especially the case in a period like the early modern, when theater could still be part rival, part complement or ally, part alternative to other forms of publication like script and print and proclamation” (173). The great value of Mullaney’s own intelligent and thought-provoking contribution is that, whether or not one accepts his interpretation of particular plays or scenes, it directs our attention to how drama functioned in post-Reformation England where the theater of state was constantly re-scripted and its roles redefined. It was indeed the audience’s thoughts that decked Shakespeare’s kings, and what they thought was conditioned by their intellectual and emotional contexts. But the power of Early Modern drama endures precisely because contexts change. In Bucharest in 1989, just before the fall of the Ceausescu regime, the hottest ticket in town was for Hamlet, a play seen to depict the downfall of a corrupt, tyrannical couple who had usurped the state and turned Romania into a prison. The actor who played Hamlet was summoned to announce their deaths on television.[2] Emotional re-formation, in all its various senses, is an ongoing effect of performance.


Richard McCabe
Merton College, University of Oxford

[1] Stow’s Survey of London, H.B. Wheatley, ed., rev. ed. (London: Dent, 1956), 295.

[2] Tom Mattheson, “Hamlet’s Last Words,” Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995): 113-21, at 120.


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Cite as:

Richard McCabe, "Steven Mullaney, The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare," Spenser Review 45.3.11 (Winter 2016). Accessed March 19th, 2018.
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