Bob Godfrey: Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium and the Politics of Religion in Sixteenth-Century England and Europe

Theta X, Centre d’ Etudes Superieures de la Renaissance, Avril 2013

godfrey era“Folly and Politics” in sixteenth-century theatre is a wide and conceptually challenging theme. Folly itself has multiple meanings, ranging from a want of good sense to derangement of mind, from error to mischief, from lewdness to insanity. There aas soone as I camere multiple theatrical examples of these differing kinds of folly throughout the Tudor period. The narratives within which they occur are equally varied. A popular version of political folly centres upon tyrannical behaviours in which a ruler foolishly abuses the power with which he or she is endowed. But the personal is also seen as political within the framework of the family, the community or the state. Nor can the role of an actual clownish person, identified by costume and disposition as a fool, and whether natural or artificial, be ignored. Tudor playwrights sought to tease out the implications of each and all of these personifications of folly in their own contexts and discover the effects of the foolish actions wrought upon the commonwealth of the people. It was a deep and continuing concern.

On this occasion, however, I have chosen, somewhat uncharacteristically, to shift attention from the theatre itself and matters of theatrical performance to embark on a more oblique approach to the theme of Folly and Politics. I wish to broaden the topic to include the notion of the “performative” as applied to texts that operate within a culture and which produce sometimes incidental and sometimes intended effects. For this I will begin with an assertion regarding the novelty of print in the early sixteenth century. At the time it produced a kind of publishing fervour. It was suddenly possible to achieve a distribution of ideas to a wide range of people in a relatively short time. In a way rather similar to our own experience of the expansion of public exchange through the internet, the impact of printing on a manuscript world produced a flurry of monographs and pamphlets, as well as books, that flooded the market and were read widely and avidly. This was particularly the case in matters of reform and change in religion, subjects that often carried with them criticism of monarchy and the exercise of power.

One of the genres that was thought to be effective within this environment was that of the dialogue. While it is true that some plays of the period contained what was in effect a dialogue—notably, for instance, Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucres, with its debate around the politically controversial issue of Gentleness and Nobility—nevertheless, the formal dialogue, rooted in a Socratic or, rather, a Platonic method, was recognised and practised and published in many cases with a direct political aim. Such dialogues were presented in quasi-dramatic form, of course, and often given a fictional location, as they took on the characteristics of a forensic exploration of contemporary issues. Sir Thomas Elyot’s Of the Knowledge which Maketh a Wise Man and Thomas Starkey’s Dialogue Between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset are two eminent examples. Elyot’s work is specifically aimed at the king and contains some outspoken advice on good monarchy, while Starkey’s is more generally directed at the correction of abuses in government and the development of good and just policy with regard to the commonwealth. While neither dialogue was intended for performance, they can, nevertheless, in two ways be described as performative. In the one sense, and straightforwardly, they may be said to mimic a dramatic action, with two, sometimes more, people talking to each other. But in another and more significant way, their function was to provoke a response in their target readership, either the king himself or his councillors. Although it may be difficult to measure any response at this distance from events, the dialogue can be seen, nevertheless, as both a public display and a provocation within the context of the contemporary culture. It may have had, or failed to have, an effect, much as one might expect a play or any other similar event—a sermon, for instance—to have had.

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