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Ewald Mengel (Bayreuth)

Authority and Experience in the English Drama of the Sixteenth Century: The History of Jacob and Esau

(1) Introduction

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.

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In this essay, I shall first discuss the theoretical implications of this assumption and outline the concepts which are important to my analysis. I shall then turn to a single text, the fairly obscure and not very widely known interlude The History of Jacob and Esau, which is mentioned for the first time in the stationer's register of 1557/58. I want to show that the cracks or ruptures in the play's structure can be understood as manifestations of an unresolved conflict between the authority- centred model of reality, which is still dominant, and the experience-centred one by which it is challenged. In closing, I shall point out a number of conclusions that can be drawn from an analysis of a text of this kind.

(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.

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In accordance with this criticism, I shall assume that in every period of history several 'world pictures' co-exist (Berger/Kohl 1993: 8). They may vary with the social class to which I direct my attention, and with the type of discourse I am analysing. They may also be in different states of realisation - emergent, dominant, or residual, for example (Williams 1977: 121- 127).

'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.

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(3) Authority and Experience

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

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traced back to the 13th century. For heuristic reasons, I shall first describe these models in their ideal or typical form, which means that I will have to rely on abstraction. In a second step, however, I shall draw a more complex - and complicated - picture of their relationship.

(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

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things they signify by way of similarity. Cognition equals recognition and is therefore identical with interpretation, and all interpretation ends up with the idea of the authority of God as the source and goal of creation.

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

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supposed to act as God's representative on earth. As such, he must use the power lent to him by God for the good of the Commonwealth.

(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

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in the first half of the 16th century and becomes increasingly confident towards its close, may also be considered a result of the increased importance of experience.

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,

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both may exist side by side, even in one and the same text, namely, in The History of Jacob and Esau (Hazlitt 1974-76: 185- 264).

(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.

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In the first phase of its history, English drama is closely related to authority: the Latin drama of the Middle Ages to liturgy, the mystery and miracle plays of the 14th and 15th century to biblical stories and saints' legends, the morality plays to the Christian teachings of the church. The plot structure of The History of Jacob and Esau is also 'pre-scribed' by the Bible. In so far as God himself plays an active part in this story, he must be considered the 'author' of the events represented. In the face of such an authority, complete submission to God's will seems to be the only possible attitude. In the Bible, this attitude is illustrated paradigmatically by Rebecca's father Betuel, when he remarks: "The thing proceedeth from the Lord: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good." (The Holy Bible, n. y., Genesis xxv, 50) The implication here is that man has no right to comment on God's ways, and that it is futile to do so.

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

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beyond all attempts to explain them psychologically, or in a moralising manner, the experience-centred discourse, to which the dramatist frequently resorts, must necessarily clash with the dominant authority-centred explanatory model of reality.

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

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his merits or shortcomings on the other, an explanation that resorts to an experience-centred model of reality. The interlude, so it seems, is not intended to illustrate religious doctrines but creates a dramatic reality of its own, which has to be explained in different terms.

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).

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Rebecca makes no attempt to hide her bias. She is very critical of Esau."Sir, ye know your son Esau, and see his life,/ How loose it is, and how stiff he is and stubborn,/ How retchlessly he does himself misgovern:/ He giveth himself to hunting out of reason,/ And serveth the Lord and us at no time or season" (203). Not the first-born should enjoy the privileges granted by birthright, she argues, but "[t]hat the worthy should have it, I think much better" (205).

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.

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According to the proverb 'God helps them that help themselves', Rebecca takes this business into her hands. Under the roof of God's authority and considering herself God's tool, she lays a complicated and subtle plot with the purpose of undoing Esau. In contrast to the causality of predestination, which is an expression of authority, the causality of a plot of this kind belongs to the world of experience. The actions and events of which it consists relate to a specific place and a specific time, and its success depends on individual manoeuvring, on hypocrisy, lies, and on the psychologically correct evaluation of one's opponent. If God is left out of consideration, Rebecca's plot amounts to a highly immoral story, in which a shrewd wife deceives her ageing and blind husband with the help of her cunning younger son and deprives her first-born of his rights.

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

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closer look reveals its doctrinal character. In the biblical episode there is no real proof for Esau's depravity. The selling of his birthright, which the biblical text does not comment, is the only thing he can be blamed with. The sale throws a negative light on his character because to be the first-born is a present of God, and Esau throws it away.

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.

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The author's reliance on psychology also points towards his experience-oriented views, for psychology relates to individual drives and motives and implies an internal causation of events. From the point of view of psychology, the relationship between Esau, Jacob and Rebecca is especially interesting. Each character is portrayed in turn by one of the others, whereby hidden psychological motives come to the foreground.

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

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of the secrets her soul. She says: "Why did it not please God, that thou shouldest as well/ Tread upon his crown, as hold him fast by the heel?" (198). In the Bible, the image of Jacob clutching the heel of Esau finds no further explication, but of course a number of interpretations suggest themselves. Rebecca's wishful thinking reverses the order of birth, but it has also more sinister implications. The phrase 'to tread upon his crown' can also mean 'to smash his head': Rebecca - consciously or unconsciously - wishes him dead - to make room for Jacob. In this way, we get the psychological portrait of a triangular relationship characterised by love and hatred. In the gaps of the authority-centred biblical plot-structure a different story begins to grow. It is based on individualised characters, on love and hatred and on intrigue as the prime movens of the action.

(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

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hierarchic structures of the old church. However, Reformation thought also replaced one authority by another, namely that of the old church by the word of God, the Holy Bible. For the Puritans, the Ten Commandments, the doctrine of predestination, and the idea of original sin determine the new explanatory model of reality, so that dogmatic ideas relating to authority counteract the liberating powers of this movement. The exegesis of the Bible, which in England produced a flood of sermons and religious tracts, is also an attempt to come to terms with this new kind of authority.

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'

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language or style. They can only be discovered by way of interpretation, which is the adequate way of dealing with world pictures in literary texts.

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

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of the authority-centred view of the world. Shakespeare's Lancaster Tetralogy successively 'deconstructs' the theocratic and descendant conception of power and rulership. Richard II shows the impotence of the medieval idea of divine kingship in the face of the new political realities. When the freshly crowned King Henry V rejects his 'father' Falstaff, the 'Old Iniquity' and 'Father of Vice', and adopts the Lord Chief Justice as his new 'father' in a symbolic scene at end of Henry IV, Part Two, Shakespeare suggests a new conception of power and rulership. The figure of the Lord Chief Justice no longer represents an authority-centred idea of kingship but rather the empirically grounded idea of an 'ascendant' Common Law, which guarantees justice for everyone. From this moment onward, the use of the authority-centred explanatory model becomes ideological. In this way, it changes both its quality and its function.

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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Ewald Mengel
Englische Literaturwissenschaft
Universität Bayreuth
D-95440 Bayreuth