College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Encore Performances: Papers for Claire Sponsler by Her Students
Mary Hayes, “Preface: Saving Rough Drafts: The Miracle Plays of Claire Sponsler”
This preface introduces a volume of essays honoring Claire Sponsler (1954–2016), a preeminent scholar of medieval drama. During her illustrious career, Professor Sponsler attended to how dramatic performances were received and reinterpreted. She was less concerned with a later work’s fidelity to original sources—the question conventionally pursued in scholarship on medieval drama—than she was with the animating relationship between them. This volume compiled by her students reflects this critical methodology. Its units are organized by Professor Sponsler’s three monographs, yet individual essays do not reflect a mentor’s impact so much as refract her critical ideas.
Kathleen M. Ashley, “Introduction: Claire’s Key Phrases”
This article surveys the scholarship of Claire Sponsler across her career, focusing on its theoretical infrastructure. With assistance from Raymond Williams’s concept of “keywords,” the essay finds Sponsler’s interest in “embodied subjects” characterizes the beginning decade and her first book, Drama and Resistance: Bodies, Goods, and Theatricality in Later Medieval England (1997). In the next decade the idea of “cultural appropriation” structured the arguments of her second book, Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America (2004). In the final decade, her books on John Lydgate (2010 and 2014) concerned generic “boundary crossing” of many kinds. The essay shows Sponsler’s important influence in bringing cultural theory to medieval studies.
Amy C. Mulligan, “Poetry, Sinew, and the Irish Performance of Lament: Keening a Hero’s Body Back Together”
Using the critical lens of Claire Sponsler’s scholarship on subversive performance, this essay considers the warrior Cú Chulainn’s lament for his foster-brother in the medieval Irish Táin. This ritualized spectacle washes clean and revivifies the slain hero’s body: poetry’s incantatory alliterations and rhymes re-fuse the dismembered body and animate it with story. By considering the lament in terms of caoineadh (“keening”), a genre typically associated with women, we gain insights into the subversive potential of Cú Chulainn’s performance. A man’s transgressive performance of caoineadh provides a critique of gender and disempowerment: the surrounding narrative provides multiple examples of young warriors, noble daughters, and other figures whose bodies and lives are pawned to execute the wishes of morally bankrupt kings and queens. This lament thus participates in the caoineadh’s mode of protest, as a cry against the slaughter of youth in the wargames of the powerful.
Judith Coleman, “Performing Orthodox Heresy: Mary, Antinomianism, and the Transgressive Female Body in N-Town’s ‘The Trial of Mary and Joseph’”
To claim that the Virgin Mary as she appears in the medieval N-Town play cycle enacts heresy would seem startlingly misguided, blasphemous, or both. However, at the climax of “The Trial of Mary and Joseph,” as Mary is drinking a potion to prove that she is innocent of the charges of fornication and adultery lobbied at her, this article argues that Mary is an antinomian, or one who eschews civil and religious law in favor of guidance by an internalized Christ, and because Mary is the only figure who literally carries Christ inside of her, she is the only orthodox antinomian possible. Furthermore, while Christ’s influence on her body and behavior can ultimately be verified, after which the new law can be established, she briefly displays the dangerous potential of female bodies and the difficulties of unknowable interiority, complications that cannot be entirely resolved by the action of the play.
D. K. Smith, “Performing Failure in Petrarch’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta”
Critics have long looked to Francesco Petrarch as the source of a new level of complex literary subjectivity. It has become accepted to see the ongoing contradictions of feeling and position, the shifting awareness of oxymoronic representations in his fourteenth-century lyric sequence Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, as both the marker and the source of this new level of subjective representation. In this light, subjectivity is necessarily fragmented. No unified sense of the subject is possible. But I argue that Petrarch’s concerted use of failure actually binds together these fragmented shards of personality into a unified and coherent subject. Failures of love, of virtue, of understanding are all presented as crucial aspects of the poet/speaker from the very beginning, and this emphasis creates a rhetorical space within which a unified subjectivity can be perceived.
Mary Hayes, “The Lazarus Effect: Translating Death in Medieval English Vernacular Drama”
While Lazarus does not talk in John’s gospel account of his resuscitation, he does in medieval English dramatic literature, where he serves as a metacritical agent for a hermeneutic paradox: despite and because of the epistemological uncertainty surrounding death, it is fundamental to literary semiosis. The “Raising of Lazarus” episode in the N-Town manuscript is significant to late medieval England’s burgeoning vernacular literary culture, in particular, its notion of “translation” as an exchange between ancient languages and the vernacular and, by extension, dead and living authors. This affiliation of linguistic and metaphysical translation transpires in the wealth of late medieval English texts in the ars moriendi tradition. N-Town’s “Raising of Lazarus” includes several key tropes from the ars moriendi, clear indication of the genre’s popularity and cultural valence. And as figure for literature’s basis in death, N-Town’s “Lazarus” represents the desire fundamental to vernacular-language ars moriendi: to translate death—the most cryptic of subjects—into legible matter.
Ann Pleiss Morris, “The Queen’s Masques: Rethinking Jacobean Masques and an English Feminine Theater”
This article questions common notions of the early modern English theater as an exclusively male pursuit. In particular, it examines Anna of Denmark’s contributions to English court masques. Using prefatory materials to printed texts, contemporary anecdotes, and Sir Francis Bacon’s essay on masques, it explores how Anna used this theatrical form to extend her influence on England’s cultural and political affairs. Ultimately, this article argues for a reinterpretation of early English theatrical evidence so as to broaden our understanding of the field and, in doing so, to reconsider the place of feminine bodies, voices, and artistic visions within it.
Richard Garrett, “The Politics of Beastly Language: John Lydgate as Fabulist and Translator”
This article closely examines two of John Lydgate’s beast fables, “The Cock and the Jacinth” from his Isopes Fabules collection and The Churl and the Bird. It explores these texts in the context of contemporary public culture, specifically in regard to translation and its complex, precarious position in the late Middle Ages. To rewrite a classic text, a text whose original author was considered an auctor, was not looked at askance, yet, perhaps paradoxically, writing in a vernacular language was. It was this snare, among others, in which medieval translators found themselves caught. Writing in the early-fifteenth century, Lydgate manifests his search for self-legitimacy as a vernacular poet through his beast fables. The article asserts that these tales reflect a conscious concern with contemporary social conditions and with Lydgate’s multiple and conflicting roles as a provincial monk, poet, and translator.
Vickie Larsen and John Pendell, “Thomas Hoccleve’s Series and English Verse in Early Fifteenth-Century London”
This essay argues that Thomas Hoccleve shapes his final work, The Series collection, as a comment on and critique of the function of English poetry and the role of the vernacular poet in early fifteenth-century public life in London. The prologue to The Series sets up a conflict between the poet and his editor that frames a collection at odds with itself: an author-driven serious contemplative treatise juxtaposed with a formulaic romance and a broad misogynistic fable demanded by courtly interests. Hoccleve’s put-upon eponymous narrator in the prologue critiques (and eventually accedes to) the frivolous social functions of banal English verse. Drawing on Anne Middleton’s description of the emergence of “public poetry” at the end of the fourteenth century, the authors see in The Series Hoccleve’s insistence upon the instructive and consoling, even transformative, possibilities for English verse among a broader serious-minded public.
Sonja Mayrhofer, “‘This sely jalous housbonde to bigyle’: Reading and Performance in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale”
This article explores Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, in light of Claire Sponsler’s scholarship on reading and performance. I specifically focus on the moment in which the well-read student Nicholas uses skillful rhetoric to convince the uneducated carpenter John of an impending second flood of Noetic proportions. I argue that Nicholas stages a carefully arranged performance in this moment, one that relies, among other things, on his performative knowledge of astrology and on his books and learning implements, which function as props to strengthen his credibility as a scholar. This moment in the text shows how Chaucer comments on the power of the educated over the uneducated, as has been shown by other scholars, but it is also a moment that shows the slippage between reading and performance during a time in which, as Sponsler shows, genre divisions were far more fluid than literary historians and theorists have carved them.
Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, “Epilogue: ‘Reinscription in new social contexts’: Claire Sponsler’s Legacy beyond Academia”
This Epilogue draws outward beyond the literary focus of the journal and suggests that Claire Sponsler’s influence is felt beyond academia as well. I consider how I found my own path in Claire’s classrooms at the University of Iowa and then detail my current work teaching Shakespeare in various correctional facilities.