Aspects of the Early Modern Fantastic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. 1.

[This is the first part of a paper I gave this week at the University of St Andrews. It considers some general approaches to the early modern fantastic. The second part considers Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example of what might happen if we applied the modern concept of fantasy to an early modern work of art. My thanks to Professor Neil Rhodes for asking me to speak, and for getting me thinking along these lines!]

Fantasy has often been defined as the literature of the impossible;[1] but deciding what that means isn’t always easy. The term ‘impossible’ raises historical as well as cultural questions; what can’t be done in one period is perfectly feasible in another, and the magical technologies available in the sixteenth century (for instance) far outstripped the pathetically limited technical resources of the twenty-first. In any case, how could anything be described as impossible at a time when spirits walked the earth and the atmosphere of every room was alive with trickster devils, as Thomas Nashe suggests in The Terrors of the Night (1594)? Or when the English countryside swarmed with elves and fairies, mermaids preened themselves on beaches, monsters lolloped in the ocean depths, and the wildest imaginings of Ariosto, Shakespeare or Spenser (animated brass men, bridges in the sky, humans morphing into beasts, the transformation of base metal into gold) could be accomplished by any reasonably adept witch or conjurer or alchemist? The question has led many historians of the fantastic to trace its rise to a time two centuries later when the world began to be viewed as a material entity, whose dimensions, composition and contents could be catalogued and recorded in encyclopaedias, those multi-volume compendiums that aspired to include all that could ever be known about the physical universe. Only when what is possible has been properly categorized can the impossible be clearly distinguished from it. Fantasy could be said to have originated, then, in the Enlightenment, which gave birth to its irrational or monstrous antitheses Romanticism and Gothic fiction, which in turn gave birth to the fantastic, as exemplified in the fairy tales of George MacDonald, the romances of William Morris or the children’s fiction of Edith Nesbit.

Pirated first US edition of The Lord of the Rings

Except, of course, that this is not an accurate account of the rise of the genre. As Jamie Williamson (among others) has argued, fantasy did not really emerge as a recognized literary kind until the early 1960s, when the popularity of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the United States led to the foundation of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series under the editorship of Lin Carter[2]. The series served, among other things, to establish a genealogy for fantasy, reprinting a range of key texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which had inspired Tolkien and his circle or were in some way analogous to their works. Like the printed books and pamphlets of the early Reformation which sought to trace a genealogy for Protestantism running from the days of the primitive Church to the Tudor present – a genealogy which included Chaucer and Langland as proto-Protestant satirists of the Catholic clergy – Carter’s project deftly located a golden thread of narratives of the impossible that extended throughout the century or so before The Lord of the Rings made its first appearance in the 1950s. He didn’t reprint much from before the 1850s, and for the most part histories of fantasy have tended to accept his model of the genre’s emergence, despite the fact that it describes (like the history of Protestantism) a literary lineage that didn’t exist until he invented it.

Lin Carter took as his source for the series the various references to modern texts (MacDonald, Morris, Dunsany, Chesterton, Lindsay, Eddison, Peake) which are touched on by Lewis and Tolkien in their prefaces and essays, along with a number of texts he himself identified as similar to these. What united most of these texts was the kind of passion for the medieval and early modern periods that manifests itself on every page of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. George MacDonald’s Phantastes draws on Wolfram von Eschenbach and Edmund Spenser; William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End is deeply indebted to Malory; Lord Dunsany’s early fantasies use the style of the King James Bible, while two of his later novels are set in the Spanish Golden Age of Don Quixote; E. R. Eddison peppers his secondary world romances with quotations from Jacobean poets and playwrights; Hope Mirrlees evokes the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. For Carter, then, modern fantasy has its roots firmly embedded in English Literature of the late medieval and early modern periods – although some of them reach as far back as the early medieval period of Beowulf and the sagas, as represented by the works of Tolkien and the early romances of William Morris. What is it that links the hundred years between MacDonald’s first fairy tale and the publication of The Lord of the Rings with the turbulent world of the Wars of the Roses, the Tudor dynasty and the Jacobean succession? Can a case be made for the late medieval and early modern periods as having given birth to the fantasy genre – not just in the sense of having inspired it, but also perhaps of having invented an early form of fantastic discourse?

If such a case is to be made it needs to rest, I think, on whether or not it was possible for something to be impossible in the period. Or perhaps we should put it another way: for fantasy to exist in early modern times it must have been necessary for people to claim that certain things were impossible. The latter formulation gets to the heart of what was happening between 1450 and 1650, when major political forces in Europe found themselves ranged against each other, each cleaving to a different sense of how the material and spiritual worlds were organized, each convinced that their political rivals were peddling untruths to their credulous subjects – pushing monstrous impossibilities in the interests of seizing or retaining power. I’d like to suggest that the Reformation lent an intensity to the debate over what was true and what was false – and increasingly, over what was and was not possible – which laid the foundations of what would become the fantasy genre.

Illustration from Reynard the Fox

Lurid imaginings were of course thoroughly familiar in pre-Reformation England – as was the notion that they were lurid imaginings, making no claim to truth. These included the extravagant stories known as ‘winter’s tales’ or ‘old wives’ tales’ – narratives in which astonishing events occurred with unusual frequency, such as encounters with dragons, elves, goblins, giants, ghosts and enchanters; travellers’ tales, which acquired a reputation for hyperbolic mendacity; animal fables, in which beasts spoke with human voices – the most popular and elaborate of which was the so-called ‘beast epic’ Reynard the Fox; and more literary forms of extravagance, such as the dialogues of the late Greek satirist Lucian so beloved of Thomas More and his friend Erasmus.

Illustration from Beware the Cat

With the advent of the Reformation in England, however, these over-the-top narratives got caught up in religious controversy. The Old Wives became proponents of the Old Faith, their willingness to tell extravagant tales an index to the superstition in their minds. The travellers with their lying anecdotes had become infected by continental Catholicism; the talking animals had been invented as a means of circumventing censorship, whether by the Catholic Church or the secular powers that worked hand in glove with the so-called ‘Bishop of Rome’; while the sceptic Lucian, who was a noted atheist in the days of the pagan gods, became a model for effective literary assault on all false religions[3]. Polemical writers who brought together these forms of extravagant fiction in their work included William Baldwin, author of the brilliant Lucianic fable Beware the Cat (c. 1553), and William Bullein, whose Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence (1568) ascribed the rise of plague in Europe to the sins of Catholics and wavering reformers and featured a lying Catholic traveller called Mendax.[4] Roger Ascham’s treatise, The Schoolmaster (1570), eloquently summarized the case against extravagant fictions, condemning chivalric romance as the invention of lewd monks who reveled in ‘open manslaughter and bold bawdry’ and dismissing the newly popular and erotically charged Italian novella as Catholic propaganda, unwelcome travellers’ tales come to infect the brains of the English with continental follies.[5]

Circe by Dosso Dossi

There came a time, though, when the extravagant stories associated with Catholicism began to lose their polemical punch and acquire instead an air of exoticism which links them, again, with modern fantasy. It’s tempting to suggest that this turning point came in 1570, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by papal bull, thus confirming England’s opposition to Catholic culture and paradoxically liberating English writers to treat aspects of that culture as a form of extravagant fiction. Certainly it was in the 1570s that English writers began to write prose fiction in a pseudo-continental Catholic style – ornate in diction and syntax, packed with mythological references, wordplay, and formal experiment, peppered with references to Italy – as if in deliberate emulation of the Italianized English travellers condemned by Ascham[6]. For Ascham these travellers underwent what he called a Circean metamorphosis, transformed into strange new shapes as though by the sorceress Circe in the Odyssey, who came to stand for continental Catholicism in general and Italian culture in particular. The papal bull could be said to have fictionalized the Catholic imaginary, opening it up to be treated with the same imaginative freedom as classical mythology, itself associated with Italy through its transmission by way of ancient Rome.

Venus and Adonis by Titian

Meanwhile classical mythology underwent a modernization at these writers’ hands, becoming cross-contaminated with the Italian novella. The novella in turn picked up elements of the newly discovered ancient Greek and Roman prose romance, whose extravagance of incident furnished Elizabethan writers with the equivalent in plot of the elaborate prose styles (euphuism, Arcadianism and the rest) they delighted in.[7] Kidnappings by pirates, followed by an enthusiastic embracing of the pirate’s life; visits to pagan shrines and oracles, whose powers proved highly dependable; coincidental encounters, confirming the operation in the pagan world of a decidedly pagan fate or fortune, in competition with the more solemn operations of Christian Providence – these ingredients militated against the moral purpose of literature as promulgated by Saint Paul and the humanist education system, promoting a new culture of rebellious youth which was being celebrated in many inventive variations on the Prodigal Son story.[8] Classical myths, which had gained respectability through their use in Christianized versions in schools and universities, detached themselves from their contexts in the Metamorphoses and became excursions into bizarre alternative universes (Coleridge famously described Shakespeare’s mythical poem Venus and Adonis as having been written ‘as if he were of another planet’). Infested by the absurdities of Lucianic satire and seizing every opportunity to foreground the outrageous eroticism that had been sedulously glossed over by Elizabethan schoolteachers, the Ovidian epyllion or ‘minor epic’ reinvented itself as a fresh new form, like the novella, evading the familiar generic categories into which classical literature had traditionally segregated itself.

Northern European influences, too, fed into that highly spiced soup or gallimaufry, the literary melting pot of 1570s and 80s England. Chivalric romances took to the stage as well as the printed page, their association with the medieval church endowing them with a radical detachment from contemporary Protestant life that delighted audiences as greatly as it enraged religious hardliners. Supernatural biographies, such as the stories of Doctor Faustus and Friar Bacon, lost their polemical edge (although not always their anti-Catholic slant) and began to revel in the magic tricks of their protagonists, more concerned with the adventures and jokes made possible by the skills of their protagonists than with the damnable consequences of their necromantic dabblings. By the early 1590s, the jestbook describing the life of the medieval English magician Roger Bacon allowed him to evade any consequences at all by a timely repentance, while the condemned Doctor Faustus redeemed himself as a ghost in the Second Report of Doctor John Faustus (1593) by helping the combined armies of Christendom to lift the Turkish siege of Vienna.[9] By the early 1590s, even Purgatory had made itself available for imaginative exploitation. If the spirits of the dead couldn’t exist in the Purgatorial fires, since Protestant doctrine holds that the spirit dies with the body and is only resurrected at the Day of Judgment, then fictions could be stored there instead, merry tales or romances that laid no claim to historical accuracy. A series of anthologies sent the goblin Robin Goodfellow down to Purgatory to collect these fictions and presented them to readers with prefatory comments by the elvish editor.[10]

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon and Titania

By the time Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594), in fact, both Purgatory and fairies or goblins had become relatively acceptable material for literary or theatrical treatment – though Oberon still has to explain to Puck that they are ‘spirits of another sort’ than the damned beings who must return to Hell at cockcrow, like Old Hamlet’s ghost.[11] Shakespeare’s miniaturization of his supernatural beings was a declaration of their detoxification: no one could believe in, or at least be afraid of, a little person who could be overwhelmed by the bursting of a honey bee’s bag full of pollen. Romeo and Juliet consigns the fairies to the realm of dreams, while Thomas Nashe in The Terrors of the Night identifies a whole category of the dream state as the product of a poor digestion, their extravagant contents attributable to eating cheese at bedtime. Meanwhile the association of a belief in fairies with the Old Religion was confirmed by William Warner in his epic poem Albion’s England (1586), where a half-forgotten Robin Goodfellow laments the loss of that universal faith in the existence of fairies which obtained in the reign of Elizabeth’s Catholic sister, Mary I.[12] Reginald Scott’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) helped to spread the idea that the end of superstition should mean the end of other folk beliefs; and by the time William Corbet wrote the much-loved early seventeenth-century ballad ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ – whose first line, ‘Farewell rewards and fairies’, furnished Rudyard Kipling with the title of his fantasy of 1910 – the loss of faith in both fairies and Catholicism could be spoken of in the regretful terms that set the tone of so much modern fantasy literature. The same nostalgic note suffuses the various near-contemporary accounts of the loss of the old classical myths, such as Milton’s ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1629). This wistfulness is increasingly the tone of the religious moderate, as against the puritan or the militant Catholic, and their propensity for nostalgia is surely one of the chief reasons for the frequent invocation of early modern times in fantasies of the first half of the twentieth century.

The imaginative spaces made available by Purgatory and the dreams of incautious diners were lighthearted equivalents of the invented secondary worlds celebrated by Sir Philip Sidney in his Apology for Poetry (1595), which first appeared in print around the time when A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet were holding the stage. Sidney’s observations on the capacity for poetry to invent worlds anticipate Tolkien’s in his essay on Fairy Stories – especially his comments on the capacity of the storytelling imagination to activate ‘recovery’, the process of enabling its readers to see the world they live in with fresh, more-or-less unfallen vision. The passage in the Apology is deservedly celebrated:

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.[13]

Sidney’s well-known association of poetry with fiction – things that have been made up or imagined, as against history or philosophy – here gets extended to suggest that the most exalted form of fiction is what we would now call fantasy, the invention of hybrid ‘forms such as never were in Nature’: impossibly gifted heroes, pagan divinities and chimeras, as well as non-existent ‘golden’ worlds fit to contain them. Like Tolkien he is convinced that the justification of such escapist dreamscapes lies in their capacity to materially change the people who read about them – they are not ‘wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air’, but work ‘substantially’ by inspiring readers to emulate the impossible heroics and altruistic adventures they celebrate. Coming into print at the high point of the transition of the Catholic imaginary to fictional status, Sidney’s essay provided a theoretical basis for the widespread enjoyment of extravagant fictions over the preceding two-and-a-half decades.

Meanwhile his great work of prose fiction, the second draft of his Arcadia (1590), provided an example of the ‘golden’ secondary world he spoke of, stuffed as it is with evil enchantresses and high-minded cross-dressing heroes or heroines endowed with improbable eloquence, whose paths crisscross in a fictionalized Mediterranean which clearly bore little resemblance to the place itself. At the same time Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-6) provided readers with a fictionalized Britain where enchanters tangled with intelligent lions, book-spewing monsters, dragons, men made of brass, women made of flowers. I suggested at the beginning that none of these things were strictly impossible for an early modern readership, but the immeasurable distance between the golden world of Faerie and the squabbling, plague-ridden country it was based on, together with the sheer abundance of rare wonders with which it was stocked, precipitated Spenser’s inventions into the realm of impossibility described by Sidney. In the latter half of the 1590s, Richard Johnson’s Seven Champions of Christendom (1596) took Spenser’s appropriation of the Catholic saint’s life for fictional purposes (Saint George in the opening book of The Faerie Queene) several stages further, sending the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland and the rest in knightly form across a fantastical Europe whose geography bears no relation to the one you might find in contemporary maps.[14]

In his essay, Sidney gives as a key example of the poet’s capacity to invent models for good conduct Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which supplies its readers with the ideal rhetorical technique for describing a perfect commonwealth, even if Sidney has reservations about how that technique was used: ‘that way of patterning a commonwealth was most absolute’, he observes, ‘though he perchance hath not so absolutely performed it’. Sidney was a militant protestant, keen to see Elizabeth involve herself in the continental wars of religion in the 1580s, so his praise of More is striking; he puts the shortcomings of Utopia down to the failings of More the man (‘where Sir Thomas More erred, it was the fault of the man and not of the poet’), and this distinction between the writer with his erroneous convictions (More was of course a fierce defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the inroads of Lutheranism) and the secondary world he generated marks out the imagined island as a more-or-less neutral zone, tainted by its writer’s religious affiliations but by no means undermined by them in principle. The Apology itself declares its intention to steer clear from religious topics, ostensibly because these are too exalted to be brought into a discussion of imaginative literature, and so both theorizes and justifies the development of a field of fiction that embraces and expands upon the rich heritage of stories inherited from the pre-Protestant epoch.

In the 1590s Shakespeare was at the centre of the fictionalizing of Catholic culture – a process that remained tinged with an air of real danger, treading as it did on ideological ground that was being fought over with unprecedented savagery. His most fantastic inventions of that decade – Venus and Adonis (1593), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594-5), the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597-8), the god- and lion-infested forest of As You Like It (c. 1598-1600) – draw their energy from a passionate union of Catholic art and literature with the Protestant repudiation of Catholicism and other forms of superstition, including native folklore as well as classical mythology – producing a hybrid literary-theatrical child of a kind that hadn’t been seen before. I’d like to proceed, though, by skipping a decade and looking at the point when Shakespeare seems to have gone back to the white-hot period of literary fusion that helped to generate his early writings. The series of plays known as the late romances rode on a wave of Jacobean nostalgia for the Elizabethan period which may well have gained impetus from a certain discontent with the reign of James I. Shakespeare returned to the genre of Greek romance, of the kind popularized by Robert Greene in the 1580s, with Pericles (c. 1607-8), Cymbeline (c. 1609-10), and The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609-11), which introduced impossible wonders, astonishing coincidences and spectacular special effects into his oeuvre, while reminding audiences of the giddy time of Greene’s prolific fiction-writing heyday. The Tempest (c. 1610-11) seems to me (as to many others) most richly to reimagine the liberation of the imagination in which Shakespeare had participated; and in harking back as it does, the play also seems to me most vividly to anticipate fantasy fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, summarized by Rosemary Jackson as a ‘literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss’.[15] What might happen, then, if we were to read it through the lens provided by modern fantasy? That’s the question I’ll try to answer in the second of these two posts.

 

Notes

[1] For fantasy as literature of the impossible, see Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s summary of the broad consensus among its theorists and commentators: ‘The major theorists in the field – Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, Kathryn Hume, W. R. Irwin and Colin Manlike – all agree that fantasy is about the construction of the impossible whereas science fiction ay be about the unlikely, but is grounded in the scientifically possible.’ The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 1.

[2] See Jamie Williamson, The Evolution of Modern Fantasy: From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2015), Introduction, and Edward James and Farah Mandlesohn, A Short History of Fantasy (Farringdon: Libri Publishing, 2012), p. 76.

[3] On early modern travellers’ tales and magical journeys see R. W. Maslen, ‘Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1 (2011), pp. 35-50.

[4] For more on Baldwin and Bullein see R. W. Maslen, ‘The Cat Got your Tongue: Pseudo-Translation, Conversion and Control in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat’, Translation and Literature, vol. 8, Part 1 (1999), 3-27, and ‘The Healing Dialogues of Dr Bullein’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 38, nos. 1 and 2 (2008), ed. Andrew Hiscock, pp. 119-35.

[5] For Roger Ascham’s views on Italian fiction see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997),pp. 41-51.

[6] See Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions, Introduction.

[7] For the English imitation of Greek and Latin prose romance see Robert H. F. Carver, ‘English Fiction and the Ancient Novel’, in Thomas Keymer (ed.), Prose Fiction in English from the Origins of Print to 1750, The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, Chapter 8, pp. 123-45.

[8] The classic work on representations of the Prodigal Son in Elizabethan fiction is Richard Helgesson, The Elizabethan Prodigals (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1976).

[9] For a detailed account of this little-known work of early modern prose fiction see R. W. Maslen, ‘Marlowe’s Ghost: The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus’, Airy Nothings: Imagining the Otherworld of Faerie from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason: Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald, eds. Karin E. Olsen and Jan R. Veenstra (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 1-24.

[10] For Robin Goodfellow in the early 1590s see R. W. Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44.

[11] See R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London: International Thomson Publishing, 2005), pp. 141-54.

[12] See Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, 3.

[13] Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, with Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 85, lines 17-27.

[14] See Richard Johnson, The Seven Champions of Christendom (1596/7), ed. Jennifer Fellowes, Non-canonical Early Modern Popular Texts (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003).

[15] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Rutledge, 1981), p. 3.

This entry was posted in Early Modern, Theatre. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *