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Rebecca Olson, Arras Hanging: The Textile that Determined Early Modern Literature and Drama
by Lisa Broome

Olson, Rebecca. Arras Hanging: The Textile that Determined Early Modern Literature and Drama. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2013. viii + 169 pp. ISBN: 978-1611494686. $44.95 cloth.

Rebecca Olson argues that the relationship between Early Modern texts and textiles, familiar in the metaphor of storytelling as weaving or spinning, is far richer than has been recognized, and that greater familiarity with the cultural significance of hanging arras as material and not simply visual objects helps us understand poets’ invocation of the textile medium as a conscious appeal to their audiences’ desire for dynamic, personal engagement with the narrative. She argues that the effectiveness of this appeal is premised on the writers’ and audiences’ shared appreciation of tapestries’ multidimensional, woven nature, as well as on their complex and often non-linear narrative aesthetic, which together make viewing and interpreting vibrant, large-scale textiles a demanding, rewarding, and ultimately subjective experience. Invoking tapestries in post-Reformation texts is thus understood as a conscious strategy by which writers such as Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, among others, address and manage anxieties about the unpredictability of audiences’ interpretations; to introduce a tapestry is to point up the kinship between text and textile, to remind the reader that the literary or dramatic text, like the hanging arras, requires and supports “hands-on” hermeneutics. Olson divides the book into two parts, establishing in the first three chapters the historical and cultural context for her argument in the final three more speculative chapters that the “blank arras device,” the reference to a tapestry without an ekphrastic description of its visual content, underscores the Early Modern literary works’ “debt to, and dependence on, a nontextual mode of representation” (13).

In the first half of Arras Hanging, Olson attends to the defining feature of arras hangings—their woven nature, distinct from embroidered or painted cloth—and argues that Early Modern writers were more attuned to the material properties of tapestries and the labor involved in their making than we ourselves are or have acknowledged, and that their drawing attention to the material similarities between their texts and textiles signals to audiences that they are experiencing texts that are ingeniously crafted of language that, like fiber, is comparably pliable and tactile. Selecting passages from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Chapman’s The Conspiracie of Charles Duke of Byron, and Lyly’s Euphues and His England, Olson demonstrates how writers in the period foregrounded the materiality of tapestry in explicit comparison with their own works. After a brief review of biographical criticism that suggests Spenser may have had first-hand knowledge of weaving (perhaps Spenser’s father was a weaver linked to the Merchant Taylor’s Company), Olson reasonably shifts emphasis to the claim that Spenser employed textile workers’ language to appeal to a readership familiar with the textile arts. Here, she counters Ann Rosalind Jones’ assessment in “Dematerializations: Textile and Textual Properties in Ovid, Sandys, and Spenser,” that Spenser’s allusions to weaving are a display of verbal skill rather than a “materialist focus,” arguing that Spenser’s language can be understood just so: a materialist focus on the tactile qualities of his own poem.

Olson’s analysis of verses immediately preceding Spenser’s famous description of the Ovidian tapestries in the Hall of Busirane helpfully situates her reading of his and other authors’ arras-allusive works as a materialist complement to the scholarship that focuses primarily on ekphrastic descriptions of arras hangings. It is also a deliberate turn from that scholarship, which weighs heavily in the critical balance. She demonstrates how Spenser’s comparison of a metallic arras thread to a “discolourd Snake” slipping between leaves of grass (III.xi.28) closely imitates the movement of weft threads through warp, a comparison Spenser would have valued as a way of underscoring the materiality of the tapestries, very like those displayed in Elizabethan courts, even as he introduces readers to the literary, Ovidian quality of the tapestries he describes in the next seventeen stanzas. In reminding readers of the tactility of the tapestries’ threads, Olson argues, Spenser highlights the skill of his own narrative weaving, the threading of his own shimmering language on the warp of a literary source. He also points up facets of the labor associated with weaving. Whereas historical European textile workshops were operated by men making arras, some of which were commissioned to support and propagandize national, patriarchal power, the tapestries drawn from Ovid represent Arachne’s subversive and expressive skill, which Olson understands as representative of an alternative female weaving tradition. The materialist focus thus allows Spenser to challenge his readers to shuttle between interpretations: “admire the ‘goodly arras of great majesty’” and consider models of subversive contest.

The rest of the introductory chapter strengthens and advances Olson’s argument for the value of championing Early Modern authors’ materialist perspective through the examination of dramatic and prose works. She demonstrates that Chapman and Lyly conceived of their fictions as having been made of arras-like “stuffe”: the “pliant, and wel-colored threads” (Conspiracie 3.1.48) of language woven into whole cloth (“feined images of truth”) with exquisite skill requiring an interpretive attention equivalent to the intense labor of textile manufacture and maintenance. This intense attention, or “hands-on” interpretation, is also necessary, Olson explains, to pre-empt criticism from readers. She draws an example from Lyly’s dedication to Euphues, in which he compares his book to Arachne’s arras in order to remind hasty readers critical of the text’s one-sidedness or other faults that it, like an arras hanging, only displays one surface, behind which a more adept and active reader might find greater meaning. Olson’s readings throughout this chapter—like her treatment of additional passages from Spenser’s Faerie Queene and from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Cymbeline in the second half of her book—are careful, both of the texts themselves and of other scholars’ approaches to the works.

After establishing that recognizing the tactile/textile qualities of literature helps us understand how Early Modern authors charged their readers to handle texts with great care (to admire yet be wary of “discolourd Snakes” that, to patch texts, make up “feined images of truth”), Olson shifts her focus to authors’ interest in the conventions of tapestry displays. In the second chapter, she argues that textile medium itself should expand our understanding of how tapestry purchases and pageants engaged in visual rhetoric beyond the well-made case for tapestries’ imagery communicating the political aspirations or Protestant propaganda of the English monarchy. She posits that attending to the arras qua arras allows us to consider the function of a largely overlooked but prevalent feature of Early Modern literature, blank or unekphrastic tapestries. The mere mention of “royal arras hangings” in Spenser’s House of Pride episode is important because their very placement in Lucifera’s court creates a connection between the magnificence of royal display and the sin of pride, whether straightforward or complicated by the possibility of their being false signifiers of the relationship between beauty and virtue. Moreover their presence in a royal court, like other blank and described tapestries in The Faerie Queene, invokes associations with actual and literary tapestries and royal courts external to the poem. Because these associations include both the displays possible in Hampton Court during the Elizabethan period and the “Arayse of ryche aray” in Wolsey’s Hampton Court that Skelton describes in Collyn Clout, they ultimately underscore for Olson the complexity of the readers’ task in selecting from the range of interpretations made available by the poet (a complexity described by many Spenser scholars, the debt to whom Olson acknowledges throughout the chapter). For Olson it matters less what images the tapestries in the House of Pride depicted (and whether Spenser was alluding to actual Triumph of Petrarch hangings or Skelton’s ekphrasis), than that their presence in the courtly setting functioned to raise questions about the reliability of interpreting any text on its face, privileging instead meanings derived from the nature of the courts in which they were hung and the qualities of those courts’ principal inhabitants. Support for this argument comes from her reading of the presence of another undescribed royal arras in Orgoglio’s dungeon, a profane inversion of a royal court, the décor of which is described, in Spenser’s signature style, before the introduction of its presiding figure. Because tapestries circulated among owners and particular visual narratives were commissioned by different owners across Europe, the rhetorical value of those narratives was largely recognized as dependent on the tapestries’ physical context; Orgoglio’s tapestries thus signal to the reader the necessity of careful, even retrospective interpretation and, as the references to royal arras hangings multiply across The Faerie Queene, of readying oneself for the interpretive possibilities introduced as each bit of new information about the tapestries’ owners is revealed.

In the third chapter, Olson picks up a thread introduced earlier in her discussion of Lyly’s Euphues, the potential for multiple interpretations suggested by the “other side of the cloth” or the space “behind the arras.” Olson argues that, if the circulation of tapestries among courts established their meaning as dependent on the nature of the owner, another important and undervalued physical characteristic of tapestries—their having front and back sides—further established tapestries as symbolically ambiguous. Olson demonstrates that tapestries’ two-sidedness not only provided an analogy for Early Modern writers’ criticism of court life—with its resplendent image displayed to the world while the baser, unseemly elements of life at court remained unseen—but also facilitated private, duplicitous, or carnivalesque behaviors. Olson argues that because the “discovery space” behind the arras is infrequently revealed (with notable exceptions) in much Early Modern literature, but almost everywhere acknowledged to exist, Early Modern authors could use tapestries’ two-sidedness to suggest that something of import, indeed something “provocative” has been said or done, and thereby “entice individual [audience members] to fill in that gap for themselves” (65). By tracing a pattern of references to the space “between the tappet and the wall” in poetry and especially drama from Skelton to Fletcher, Olson demonstrates that Early Modern writers consciously used references to tapestries to invite audience speculation about meaning. Because many of the references to the space behind the arras are to amorous assignations—for example, Fletcher’s Don John calls his bastard child a “piece of evening arras work” (Chances 1.6.9)—the back side of the cloth can be read as the opposite of the ostensibly chaste “needlework” associated with a tapestry’s front side. Indeed, Olson asserts, tapestries’ back sides come to stand for “physical, intellectual, and aesthetic” desire itself, especially the audience’s desire to see or to know what transpired and between whom. Usefully scaffolding Dympna Callahan’s argument in Shakespeare without Women that plays “both demonstrate and complicate the paradox whereby theatrical representation depends for its functioning … on the absence of the thing it represents” (9), Olson argues that because back-side references, most often made by aristocratic male characters, raise only the specter of women’s unsanctioned sexuality without actually revealing or representing the women implicated, audiences are invited to participate in the making of their meaning, thereby imaginatively satisfying their desire to see the bodies or activities behind the arras. By means of a case study of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen, Olson raises questions about what happens when references to the discovery space are made by lower class, female characters such as the mad, fool-like Jailer’s Daughter, and concludes that, as suggestive symbols of obscure activities, through those back side references, “dramatists created moments in their courtly dramas that were both potentially critical of aristocratic behavior and tantalizingly provocative” (78).

Having established how actual tapestries inform the aesthetic of Early Modern literary and dramatic narratives, Olson turns her attention again to literary “blank” arras hangings, a dramatic device she suggests is carried over from poetry. Like the arras hangings in Spenser’s House of Temperance, on which nothing is “pourtrahed, nor wrought,” the dramatic blank arras is referred to by characters, and may actually be seen on stage, but in the absence of an ekphrastic description, it serves as a surface onto which audience members are invited to project meaning. In the final three chapters, Olson examines Spenser’s use of the blank arras device in The Faerie Queene II and Shakespeare’s use of it in Hamlet and Cymbeline. In the chapter on Spenser, Olson first refines the arguments made earlier in the book. Added emphasis is given to the concept of the blank arras as a device, which Olson points out has the double meaning of imagery and craftsmanship. When Spenser introduces blank arras hangings, he is fully aware that they lack the device associated with ekphrastic tapestries, but he also values their use as a strategy for enlisting readers to fill in the gap imaginatively, to adopt some creative responsibility for the text itself. It is here that Olson makes her adherence to an Iserian reader response approach most palpable, yet perhaps least palatable, when she asserts that the unekphrastic “arras hangings in works like The Faerie Queene are, in short, blank screens, what we might think of as lush ‘choose your own adventure’ moments designed to actively involve the reader in the creation of a complex poetic landscape” (85). This is no “discovery” moment for readers, however, as Olson signals as early as the introduction to the book that her interest in the relationship between Renaissance texts and textiles is shaped generally by her understanding that “recent technology … has somewhat paradoxically made us more interested than ever in the palpable aspects of reading, and of the materiality of the text itself,” which also indicates a nostalgia for the pleasure of older formats (4-5). These range, readers gather, from Early Modern printed texts through the analog literary phenomenon of second-person adventure narratives popularized by Bantam Books in the last quarter of the 20th century.   

Readers’ patience is rewarded as Olson produces a reading of the passage that begins with special attention to Spenser’s “verbally awkward” presentation of the royal arras “In which nothing pourtrahed nor wrought / Not wrought, nor pourtrahed, but easie to be thought” (II.ix.33.8-9), a poetic “unraveling” which she asserts stokes readers’ desires to ravel their meaning themselves. Building on the analyses of Hamilton, MacCafrey, and Berger, Olson analyzes the setting wherein Arthur and Guyon encounter the blank arras hangings—the parlor of Alma’s dwelling, the seat of the affections—to show the difference between the knights’ experience of the tapestries, which “do not bear interpretation, but instead are ‘easie to be thought,’” (96) and the readers’ experience of them, which by contrast, requires imagination and interpretation. This requirement, Olson contends, goes to the heart of  The Faerie Queene itself: “In a poem famous for its stated objective to ‘fashion’ readers, Alma’s arras hangings provide a key example of the way Spenser’s readers are also invited—and perhaps expected—to ‘fashion’ elements of the fiction for themselves” (98).

If readers’ imaginations were engaged in the service of constructing meaning by poets’ use of the blank arras hanging device, they were likewise employed by dramatists such as Shakespeare, and in chapters five and six, Olson investigates how the device functions when, in the cases of Hamlet and Cymbeline, respectively, actual tapestries (or their cloth surrogates) are present onstage. In both plays, the tapestries seen by the audience are simultaneously court objects and stage properties. A review of Elizabethan anecdotes about the use of arras hangings’ discovery space for the dark purpose of espionage alongside a consideration of their similar use in Hamlet encourages speculation about the extent to which theatrical performance reflected court behavior or vice versa, and provides historical context for Olson’s examination of metatheatrical moments within the play. Olson’s chief contribution in “Hamlet’s Dramatic Arras” is an elaboration on her argument that Early Modern audiences would have been expected to imagine the surface of the arras in Gertrude’s closet that conceals Polonius from raging Hamlet. Olson explains that, although the stage property might well have been a plain or even painted curtain, the audience would have understood that it stood in for a high-quality arras appropriate for Gertrude’s bedchamber, and they would imaginatively and dynamically conjure its surface as the scene unfolded. Olson demonstrates that when Hamlet, having discovered Polonius’ corpse behind the arras, turns to his mother to force a comparison between his father and Claudius—“Look her upon this picture, and on this / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers” (3.4.52-3)—he may be gesturing to the arras itself; rather than displaying other stage properties such as miniatures or painted portraits, he may gesture to the curtain as if it contained “counterfeits,” figures woven into or embroidered onto an arras. These figures need not suggest actual portraits of an Old Hamlet and Claudius, she explains; Hamlet may point to figures on the curtain that are either mythological (Olson considers the possibility of a Titanomachia scene) or historical (Olson posits a Danish royal portrait tapestry woven for the banqueting hall at Kronborg between 1581 and 1585) or both, depending on what the audience sees or thinks they see. Either surface would resonate with an audience familiar with the conventional use of tapestries to represent the power and virtues of their owners, and the historical tapestry would would call to mind—to the minds of those knowledgeable of the Kronborg arras hangings—issues of succession that, while being unproblematic in the court of the tapestries’ owner Christian IV, were a matter of concern in Shakespeare’s England. Similar to the way in which the actual content of the tapestries in Spenser’s House of Pride matters less than what their presence in a courtly setting says, it matters less what is on the stage property, or blank hanging, that is Gertrude’s arras than what audiences imagine to be on Gertrude’s arras; the arras remains “unfixed” and evocative of dynamic interpretation.

Despite her emphasis on blank arras hangings’ prevalence and significance in Early Modern literature, Olson acknowledges in her final chapter that textile ekphrases in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are hard to ignore, and thus she examines the figured surface of princess Innogen’s bedchamber arras as described by the villain Giacomo in the second act of Cymbeline. As Olson suggested was the case in Hamlet, it is likely that Early Modern audiences’ attention was drawn to an actual stage property in the act’s second scene, when Giacomo enters the bed chamber and catalogues its contents for the purpose of presenting intimate knowledge of Innogen to her banished husband Posthumus two scenes later. Olson demonstrates why it is important to note that at this moment, the hanging is referred to as an arras, whereas later, it is described as a tapestry: in the Early Modern period, arras was used almost exclusively to refer to stage properties, while tapestry, a much rarer term in Early Modern drama, was used to refer to off-stage textiles, art objects that characters describe. In drawing attention to the as-yet blank arras hanging, Shakespeare activates his audiences’ imaginative faculties, only to soon overwrite their projections with an ekphrastic description of the images in Innogen’s Cleopatra tapestry, provided along with a description of Innogen’s body. In referring to the textile at this point as a tapestry, Olson asserts, the actor playing Giacomo would be reminded not to gesture toward the stage arras, which might not have included images of Cleopatra; in keeping the audience’s imagination trained on the idea of Cleopatra, Shakespeare aligns the audience’s perspective on the textile with Giacomo’s, highlighting the uncomfortable nature of believing a fiction and the danger of accepting an ekphrasis designed to undo Posthumus’s belief in Innogen’s fidelity. Olson echoes Susan Frye’s reading of the play in showing how it is only through Innogen’s “translation” of herself from calumniated wife (“a garment out of fashion” [3.450]) to faithful page—by reworking her costume into male-gendered stage dress—that she can unravel the effects of Giacomo’s ekphrasis. Because “translation” refers to the Early Modern theatrical practice of cutting down garments and refashioning them for future use, Innogen’s self-translation points up the value of textile representation as a corrective to ekphrastic description. Ultimately, Olson argues, Cymbeline keeps mimetic and diegetic modes of narrative in productive tension, and it is the blank arras hanging that serves as constant reminder to audience members that they are co-weavers and revisers of the play’s meaning.

Arras Hanging: The Textile that Determined Early Modern Drama makes valuable contributions to the large body of scholarship that examines the relationship between weaving and writing. Olson’s argument that major English literary and dramatic works aspire to the aesthetic of tapestries is persuasive on account of her painstaking analysis of foundational texts, her compilation of evidence for Early Modern literature’s indebtedness to the textile tradition from a large number of works across genres, and especially her considerable knowledge of tapestries’ creation, circulation, and maintenance, drawn from historical sources and first-hand experience with weaving and textile conservation. Her attention to the blank arras hanging device as an Early Modern literary innovation brings to light and helps us make sense of how a seemingly vast number of unekphrastic arras hangings function in poetry and drama.


Lisa Broome
University of Kentucky



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Cite as:

Lisa Broome, "Rebecca Olson, Arras Hanging: The Textile that Determined Early Modern Literature and Drama," Spenser Review 44.1.20 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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