During the Age of Renaissance, English drama undergoes enormous changes. At the beginning of the 16th century, we come across fairly simple Christian morality plays and interludes. At the end, we encounter the highly complex structures of Shakespeare's plays. The metamorphosis that takes place during this era concerns the form of English drama as well as its content. It also concerns the mentalities, epistemes, explanatory models or 'world pictures' which underlie the dramatic representation of reality.
The following observations are based on the assumption that the gradual turning-away from authority-centered explanatory models of reality and the shift towards experience-centred ones can be identified as one of the mainsprings of this change. As a result, the dramatists discover new worlds and new ways of dramatic representation. Dogmas and doctrines are increasingly subjected to critical inquiry and investigation, while empirical observation of reality and sense perception become more and more important. In this way, the initially 'closed world' of English drama with its stock characters, its doctrinal Christian beliefs, and its 'pre-scribed' themes and routines, begins to open, and drama breaks new ground.
(2) World Pictures
In his famous book about the Elizabethan Age, E. M. W. Tillyard (1943) attempts to describe the world picture characteristic of this period. Although the book has remained popular with scholars and students alike, there have also been serious objections. Especially, critics have pointed out that the assumption of a single, more or less static and homogeneous world picture for this age is a gross simplification. Also, people have shown that the idea of order is not a reflection of reality (what Tillyard seems to suggest) but rather an ideology which helped the ruling elites to maintain their position of power and prevent any attempts at social change.
'World pictures' are sets of explanatory patterns or models which consciously or unconsciously influence our thinking and structure our knowledge of what we term 'reality' (Bachorski/Röcke 1994: 10). They serve the purpose of orientation regarding the physical realities and mental structures of an otherwise contingent world. They concern the relation of the individual to society and to God, and the formation of individuality and identity. They also concern the dealing with otherness, or alterity, and the conception of power and rulership that dominates the thoughts of an era (Bachorski/Röcke 1994: 12). They are not simply passive reflections of the existing social, economic and political conditions but may play an active role in the formation of what an era deems its relevant knowledge.
A change of world pictures is indicated by shifts, contradictions, or reorganisations within these sets of explanatory patterns or models. They come about when the explanatory value of the old 'world pictures' has been exhausted, and reality has become too complex to be contained within the dated models or patterns.
Principally speaking, we gain our knowledge about reality in two different ways, namely, by way of authority and by way of experience. Authority and experience are two central categories that determine our perception of reality and structure our knowledge about it.
The idea that God is the subject and goal of history, and that the knowledge which mankind possesses is derived from him and leads back to him in the end, belongs to the most important doctrines relating to authority. In contrast to this, the knowledge relating to experience relies on the individual, on experiment, and on sense perception, which means that it has an entirely different quality. Its attitude towards doctrines is one of critical distance and skepticism. Since the two types of knowledge may be met side by side in one and the same era, they are rivals with regard to the truth. Their tension creates something like a force-field, and within this force-field, the formation of our explanatory models of reality takes place.
Historically speaking, the explanatory model relying basically on authority had its heyday in the Middle Ages, but it stays relevant far into the 17th or even 18th century. The experience- centred model developed more recently, but its beginnings can be
(3.1) The Model of Authority
The medieval world picture as it is described by Tillyard (1943), Cassirer (1974), Foucault (1974) and others is based on the idea of God as the centre of the universe. Everything proceeds from Him as the source of all being, and must return to Him in the end. The universe is ordered hierarchically, forming different worlds on descending steps or planes till we arrive at the world of inanimate matter. Everything is held together by the great chain of being which connects the periphery with the centre and which is also a kind of ladder by the help of which one can climb up and get closer to God. The hierarchy of the church is just a mirror image of this heavenly order, and the different worlds relate to each other by a system of more or less hidden affinities, homologies and sympathies.
For Foucault (1974: 61-63), the episteme of similarity structures our thinking and our knowledge up to the 17th century. For medieval man, Foucault claims, the world is covered by a net of signs which have to be deciphered. These signs, which reveal the secret order of the world, are themselves related to the
An explanatory model such as this, centred upon the idea of the absolute authority of God, leaves no room for the experience of otherness. When man encounters the unknown, he immediately investigates it for signs revealing its essential familiarity or affinity to the known. Although it would be wrong to claim that the concept of experience is unfamiliar to the Middle Ages, experience here has a different meaning and quality. Within the authority-centred view of the world, experience does not result in the widening of the individual's horizon, but leads to predictable results and to the affirmation of the existing order of things.
Within this frame of thinking, individuality hardly counts. The individual is incorporated into the church by baptism, thus becoming a full member of the body of Christ. But this incorporation into the church also means that he is no longer a natural human being. By the grace of God, he has left his natural body behind and has been invested with divine qualities. Simultaneously, however, he has been obliged to keep faith with his church and his king and has become a subject (Ullmann 1967: 7 and passim).
The conception of power and rulership that complements the idea of incorporation is theocratic and descendant. God is the source of all power. The king, anointed by God himself, is
(3.2) The Model of Experience
The revival of the idea of natural man, the discovery of his individuality and the shift towards sense perception are usually thought to be an achievement of the Renaissance (cf. Burckhard 1962: 303ff.). Artists began to paint and to describe man's natural appearance. The observation of natural phenomena became fashionable, and experiment as a cognitive instrument replaced the method of deduction from the authorities. As a consequence, cognition assumed a new form and discovered a new object while knowledge changed its quality. Attention focused less on the divine aspects of nature but on the processes of nature as such. The reckless curiosity for knowledge became a distinctive feature of the new era (Blumenberg 1973: 187).
In England, it is Francis Bacon who, in his Novum Organum from the year 1620, defends the basic human right to knowledge. In The Advancement of Learning (1605), his predilection for empiricism leads him to history as a legitimate object of scientific research. In marked contrast to Aristotle, Bacon deems historiography more important than literature, because it deals with the real, whereas in the literary text reality is only invented or fictional (Dollimore 1984: 75). The turn towards history as a subject of drama, therefore, which begins tentatively
However, latest research about the Age of Renaissance has put back the beginnings of the process sketched above further and further into the Middle Ages. For Ullmann, the discovery of the individual is an achievement of the 13th century, and he mentions the Oxonian Roger Bacon as evidence (Ullmann 1967: 112-113). As soon as observation and experiment determined the ways of research, he opines, one could no longer rely on mere authority, principle, or dogma.
Who should be believed, then, Ullmann, who claims that the experience-centred model takes over as early as the 13th century, or Foucault, for whom the episteme of similarity stays valid up to the beginning of the 17th century?
I suspect that the discrepancy of opinion is caused by the fact that both critics refuse to admit the possibility of conflicting explanatory models of reality within one and the same age. Doubtless, the tendency towards empiricism left its traces in the works of individual scholars as early as the 13th century. Equally doubtless, the experience-centred model has freed itself from the shackles of authority by the beginning of the 17th century. This does not mean, however, that experience has been the dominant mode of thinking from the 13th century onward, or that authority lost its value when empiricism first raised its head. In the following, I will show that, as far as drama is concerned,
(4) The History of Jacob and Esau
The story of Jacob and Esau is reported in Genesis 25 and 27. Isaac's wife Rebecca is bearing twins. God tells her they will be the founding fathers of two different tribes, and that the older one will have to serve the younger. The hairy Esau is born first, followed immediately by the smooth Jacob who holds fast to his heel. Esau, who is loved by his father, becomes a hunter. Jacob, who is loved by his mother, stays close to the tents. One day Esau comes home hungry and tired out by hunting and sells his birthright to Jacob for a warm meal.
When Isaac is old and feels death approaching, he wants to bless his first-born and install him in his rights. He asks Esau to delight him once again with his favourite dish, which is venison. Esau goes out hunting. In the meantime Rebecca, who has been eavesdropping, advises Jacob to fetch two young kids from the fold. She prepares their meat as if it were venison. Out of their fur she sows a pair of gloves and a collar for Jacob to cover his smooth skin. Dressed in this apparel Jacob goes to his blind father, who does not notice the fraud, and is blessed in Esau's stead.
If the dramatist had shown the same kind of reticence, the interlude of Jacob and Esau would never have been written. By dramatising the biblical story, it is the intention of the author to probe the supposedly unfathomable decrees of God and explain them to his audience. For this purpose, the biblical text is of little help: it refuses to give explanations and reasons and demands the factual acceptance of things as they are, which ultimately provokes speechlessness.
Although the story from the Bible still provides the frame of meaning, there are many passages in the interlude that attempt to come to terms with reality by help of the experience-centred discourse. Since in biblical understanding the ways of God are
This conflict or tension already characterises the auctorial voice that speaks to us in the prologue and in the epilogue. In the prologue, it remarks: "But before Jacob and Esau yet born were,/ Or had either done good, or ill perpetrate:/ As the prophet Malachi and Paul witness bear,/ Jacob was chosen, and Esau reprobate: Jacob I love (saith God) and Esau I hate./ For it is not in man's renewing or will, / But in God's mercy, who chooseth whom he will" (188). In the epilogue, however, he holds a different opinion: "He [God] purposed to save mankind by his mercy,/ Whom he once had created unto his glory./ Yet not all flesh did he then predestinate, but only the adopted children of promise:/ For he foreknew that many would degenerate,/ And wilfully give cause to be put from that bliss" (263). In the prologue, man's good or bad deeds are irrelevant regarding the question of election or reprobation. The epilogue, however, emphasises their importance (see also Thomas 1969: 202-203).
Even in those parts of the dramatic text, then, which usually serve the function of auctorial commentary, there is an immanent contradiction. It is the contradiction between the affirmed inexplicability of divine predestination and the absolute authority of God on the one hand, which Calvin insisted upon, and the attempt to explain the fate of the individual by referring to
The contradiction between authority and experience permeates the whole play. It characterises the portrayal of its dramatis personae as well as its plot structure. Isaac and Rebecca, for example, represent different explanatory models of reality. While Isaac defends the rights of the first-born with the assistance of the authority-centred discourse, Rebecca takes her arguments from experience.
In a longer dialogue from the fourth scene of the first act, Isaac and Rebecca exchange their arguments in form of an altercatio. Isaac adheres to a patriarchal and authority-centred way of reasoning. For him, the right of the first-born has the character of a natural law, and this right is Esau's. With sentences such as "He is the head of the father's succession", "...he hath the chief title of inheritance", "[t]o the eldest son is due the father's blessing", "[b]y title of eldership he hath his birthright" (205) he defends his point of view. He sees clearly that Rebecca prefers Jacob, and that her actions are determined by emotional motives: "O wife, I perceive ye speak of affection;/ To Jacob ye bear love, and to his brother none" (204).
Regarding the patriarchal structures of her society, this is a revolutionary idea. Significantly, it is the woman who resorts to this alternative discourse. She uses arguments from the realm of experience and turns them against the petrified thinking of the patriarchal world. Doing this, she knows very well that she cannot win Isaac over with these arguments, and so she plays her strongest card: "Because that in my spirit I verily know,/ God will set up Jacob and Esau down throw./ I have showed you many a time ere this day,/ What the Lord of them being in my womb did say" (206). Her allusion to God's prophecy shows that, she, too, now uses the authority-centred pattern or model. Isaac, however, does not want to give in: "I doubt not his promise made to me and my seed,/ Leaving to his conveyance how it shall proceed./ The Lord after his way may change th'inheritance;/ But I may not wittingly break our ordinance" (206). Although Isaac does not doubt God's prophecy, he is not willing to contribute actively to its realisation.
Within the authority-centred explanatory model of reality, it is not necessary to justify Rebecca's success: God wills it so, and therefore it happens. For the dramatist, however, who is searching for convincing human explanations and motives, this is not enough. He tries to elucidate Esau's fate by making it appear 'deserved'.
One way of doing this is to blacken his character. Rebecca, for example, complains repeatedly about Esau's depravity. Two neighbours are invented expressly for the purpose of corroborating her opinion. They use a proverb to express their criticism of his character. "But Esau evermore from his young childhood/ Hath been like to prove ill, and never to be good./ Young it pricketh (folks do say), that will be a thorn./ Esau hath been naught, ever since he was born" (196). The proverb "Young it pricketh that will be a thorn" seems to express a popular, collective experience, but a
The anonymous author of our interlude makes much of this episode. Esau's sale of his birthright is carefully prepared, and here, too, the dramatist's intention is to find a plausible explanation for it. Esau is not a successful hunter. Consequently, he and his servant often suffer from hunger. On the day in question, Esau is so hungry that he could eat a cat raw - these are his words - and that he faints twice. In this scene, therefore, the hunger motif is very prominent.
The general tendency of the dramatist to provide experience- related explanations for the characters' actions seems to be accountable for this deviation from the biblical source text. The experience-related discourse is used to throw light upon an otherwise inexplicable event. In this case, however, the author's strategy is counter-productive. Because of Esau's great hunger, we feel a certain sympathy with him, for he appears human, whereas Jacob - unintentionally, so it seems - is drawn in a negative, calculating light. The dramatist's foregrounding of the experience-centred discourse brings him into conflict with the authority-centred biblical structures and threatens the aesthetic integrity of his play.
Esau's language is often reminiscent of that of the vice character from the moralities (which relates him to authority), but it is interesting to see that it is simultaneously infiltrated by psychological motives, especially by the motive of jealousy. This is illustrated by the following passage: "Nay, he must tarry and suck mother's dug at home:/ Jacob must keep home, I trow, under mother's wing;/ To be from the tents he loveth not of all thing./ Jacob loveth no hunting in the wild forest:/ And would fear, if he should there see any wild beast" (193). Whereas the biblical text refrains from any kind of evaluation, Esau's remarks about Jacob turn the latter into a coward and milk-sop who is afraid of the wilderness. In this way, the brothers' strained relationship is explained by substantial differences in character and by Jacob's emotional closeness to his mother, for which Esau - so it seems - envies him.
Hatred is characteristic of Rebecca's feelings for her elder son. In a conversation with Jacob, this hatred is clearly expressed. She wishes that Jacob had been her first-born. The image that she uses in this connection allows us to get a glimpse
(6) Summary and Conclusion
The History of Jacob and Esau was written in the time of the Reformation. Weimann (1988: 292ff. and passim) has pointed out that Reformation thought had liberating powers that supported the breaking with authority, the subversion of the established order, and Utopian thinking. It promoted written discourse through the translation of the Bible into the idiom of the people, and it increased the value of the individual by liberating him from the
Literature forms part of the cultural system of society. The literary discourse (which includes the theatrical) exists side by side with other discourses, for example, the political, the theological, or the historiographic discourse. It can adopt their sets of explanatory patterns, epistemes, mentalities, or world- views, but it can also undermine, criticise, or experiment with them, thus actively contributing towards the formation of new explanatory models of the world.
Plays, like other literary genres, express their world views in an indirect, mediated, and often fragmentary way. Since they are part of a play's structure, the sets of explanatory patterns or models that form our world pictures turn up in an indirect and 'disguised' form. They are contained, for example, in (reliable or unreliable) auctorial utterances of prologues and epilogues, in the characterisation of the dramatis personae, in the plot structures, in the settings, and, of course, in the plays'
In its 'naked', biblical form, the story of Jacob and Esau remains puzzling. St Paul pointed out in his Epistle to the Romans that its most crucial point is to illustrate the mysterious ways of God. As such, it is the narrative incarnation of an authority- centred explanatory model of reality.
The dramatist of our interlude feels the need for additional motivation and explanation. By filling in the 'blanks' left by his biblical source text, he attempts to explain what is left unexplained. In doing so, he resorts to an explanatory pattern that is closer to human experience and understanding and, therefore, makes more 'sense' to human beings. The attribution of psychological motives is a step towards the creation of Esau, Jacob, and Rebecca as more complex individuals. However, the explanations offered get into conflict with the authority-centred structure of the biblical story. The History of Jacob and Esau thus demonstrates the tenacity of the dominant world picture, while it simultaneously illustrates how a new, emergent one is preparing itself in its shadow.
The further development of English drama in the 16th century shows that the tension between authority and experience can also become a source of dramatic creativity. Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, for example, dramatises the tragic rebellion of the individual against the limitations of knowledge within the scope
The plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare partly gain their complexity through the tension created by conflicting explanatory models of reality. They differ from an interlude such as The History of Jacob and Esau because they consciously dramatise this tension, whereas in the interlude, the conflict remains unresolved. Texts that are characterised by unresolved conflicts and tensions nevertheless deserve our attention, because the polyphony of the voices with which they speak helps us to trace the change of world pictures and yields interesting insights into the development of English drama in the 16th century.
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