The Sacrament and the Stage: Eucharistic Representations in English Theater

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Zimmerman, Daniel, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Parker, John, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Maus, Katharine, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Kinney, James, AS-English (ENGL, University of Virginia
Hart, Kevin, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia

This dissertation takes up secularization theses, genealogies of modernity, and periodization schemes that bracket, enable, or disallow disciplinary narratives concerning the transition from late medieval to early modern drama. I argue that segregating drama into sacred and secular camps has been critically disabling; this move prevents us from effectively analyzing religious content in these plays. Frequently, these dramatists comment upon contemporary issues—matters of justice, economics, law, social hierarchies, epistemologies, and metaphysical enigmas—by repurposing earlier dramas and ancient scripture. To be fair, no critic may avoid the obligation to periodize, and it is inevitable that the heuristics we create will include disadvantages. Still, I am concerned that many early modernists understand the movement from the church pulpit to the secular stage in terms of evacuation and replacement, where disenchanted drama fills the role that sacramental liturgy used to play. I argue instead that the late medieval and early modern dramatists I address are keenly aware of the social implications for sacramental theology, for which reason they contend for certain theological positions through plots, characterization, dialogue, and imagery that is laden with religious significance.

My first chapter explores the mythology of the “Wakefield Master,” purported (perhaps invented) author of the supposedly modern, racy, secular pageants in the Towneley play. I demonstrate that whoever composed the play wrote and read Latin. There are various indications that he had extensive clerical training: his deep understanding of Pauline theology, for one thing, and his apparent familiarity with the Latin liturgical festivities surrounding Christmas; he may well have read Terence and medieval Latin comedy. Furthermore, I show his indebtedness to Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, wherein the apostle explicates eucharistic doctrine as the centerpiece of his ideology of the body and the social formations proper to Christian community. I argue that Corinthian themes supply the elusive unity to both Towneley Shepherds’ plays; their author applies ancient eucharistic doctrine to condemn fifteenth-century economic injustices through medieval Latin comedic forms.

My second chapter examines the Protestant satire Jack Juggler, commonly attributed to tutor, translator, and rector Nicholas Udall. I offer a more robust case for Udall’s authorship based upon the theology, metaphysical presuppositions, and diction his satire shares with Peter Martyr Vermigli’s Treatise on the Eucharist, which Udall translated into English. Vermigli defined proper eucharistic doctrine with reference to the concepts of plainness, parsimony, possibility, and passibility, all of which he takes from nominalist theologians of the fourteenth century. Udall embeds these terms in his retelling of Plautus’s comedy Amphitryon, which Thomas Cranmer and Stephen Gardiner cited as they argued whether one body could simultaneously inhabit distinct locations—the exact issue at the heart of Protestant objections to transubstantiation. I show that Vermigli and Udall felt deeply ambivalent about plain theology, given that Catholic theologians had already staked a claim to a literalist hermeneutic, and the plot of Amphitryon foregrounds the fact that sensory data is vulnerable to deceptive manipulation.

My concluding chapter extends the argument that Shakespeare’s history tetralogies are modeled upon a medieval cycle drama; I document that extensive eucharistic references and imagery—most notably, blood-drinking—stitch the individual dramas together into a coherent whole. These internal connections suggest that the histories form a Corpus Christi cycle, and they suggest that the fortunes of English community are inextricably linked to the viability of true participation in the Eucharist. In other words, the English civil war is a crisis of Communion. I also build upon Margreta de Grazia’s recent critique of how recent Shakespeareans depend upon a suspect compositional order to make global claims about the playwright, his corpus, and his artistic maturation. I suggest that medieval cycle dramas were properly history dramas performed in context with the celebration of the Eucharist; Shakespeare emulates this form and offers a comprehensive, teleological creation-to-judgment history of England. Taken together, I hope these chapters chart a path for more fruitful engagements that may arise if critics examine how late medieval and early modern dramas interweave the sacred and the secular.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Eucharist, sacrament, early modern drama, medieval drama, modernity, secularization, periodization
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