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George Washington University

Merlin's Disciples: Prophecy, Poetry, and Power in Renaissance England. by Howard Dobin
Review by: Rebecca W. Bushnell
Source: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 248-250
Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University
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soliloquyshould not be cut onstage;"Would not Shakespeare,exultingin his craft,

have designed a Hamlet mountingnow purposefullytowarda peak atop the long
slope climbedsince 11.2?"(752) Well,some would respondwitha resounding"No,"
in the beliefthatthe soliloquywas omittedfromthe Folio forgood reason,because
it is "redundant"and "anticlimactic," as G. R. Hibbard argues in his 1987 Oxford
edition(109), or because itmerelyduplicatesthemood of self-laceration expressedin
"O what a rogue and peasant slave am I"; but Rosenbergdoes not considerthese
Underlyinghistreatment hereis Rosenberg'sidentificationwithHamlet,whomhe
sees verymuchas a teacherand moralist.Thus, in his treatment of theclosetscene,
Rosenbergtells'us thatHamlet pursues"thereformation of his motherso intensely
that both he and she-and the Ghost and we-forget about [the slain] Polonius.
Neithermentionshimuntilnear theend-ofthescene"(660). (His bodymaybe visible
onstage,so perhapsthereis no need to mentionhim.)The killingof Polonius,"who
almostasks forsome kindof retribution" (649-for beinga busybody?),accordingly
getsno moralattentionfromRosenberg,who assertsthatmostspectatorsare happy
with"Hamlet'spursuitof 'frontier justice'" (662), and thathis "I'll lug the gutsinto
the neighbourroom" sounds "callous" only if we ignore the subtext.By contrast
Hamlet's rebuke to his mother,"Confessyourselfto heaven/Repent what'spast,
avoidwhatis to come" is "generousand positive"(706). It is at leastworthcountering
thatHamlet'srightto takethemoralhighgroundhereis dubious,consideringhe has
just stabbed(murdered?)Polonius,and the wordsquoted mightapplyjust as wellif
Gertrudesaid themto Hamlet.
These examplesillustratethepervasiveunstatedauthorialpresencein TheMasksof
Hamlet.Rosenbergsometimescomesacrossas readingin a veryliteralway,takingas
simplytruestatementsmade by charactershe likes.He sees a politicaltreatmentof
Hamletonlyin productionsin EasternEurope. He likesbinaryoppositions,as in the
basiccontrasthe setsup between"sweet"and "powerful"Hamletsand Claudiuses.In
spiteof his concernfor"polyphony," he presentssome determinatereadingsof his
own. He is cavalierin his treatmentof the textsof Hamlet,and does not consider
possibletheatricalreasonsforchangesin theFolio.And yetTheMasksofHamletworks
as an encyclopedicsurveyof the wonderfuland bizarre thingsactors do when
bringingthe play to life,and Rosenbergis alwaysgenerousand enthusiasticin his
writing.Above all he bringsout theemotionalresponseof theplayers,theirshaping
of the "beat" in performance,and theirvariedsense of the innerlifeof the major
figures;so itwouldbe churlishnotto end on a positivenoteand congratulatehimon
a grand projectwell accomplished.

Merlin's Disciples: Prophecy,Poetry,and Power in Renaissance

England. By HOWARD DOBIN. Stanford,California: Stanford
UniversityPress, 1990. Pp. 257. $32.50 cloth.


NancyReagan's relianceon her astrologerwhenadvisingher husbandon matters

of statemayhave alarmed manypeople in the 1980s,but thiseventmay also have
remindedRenaissancescholarsofElizabethI's turningto thecontroversialastrologer
JohnDee, whomshe asked to predictthebestday forhercoronation.In 1555 rumor
suggestedthatElizabethhad hired Dee to cast MaryTudor's horoscope: Dee was
brieflyimprisonedon thissuspicion,sincesuch a chargeamountedto treason.
Such eventsmark the troublingties betweenprophecyand politicsthatare the
whichdepictsa time
subjectof Howard Dobin's impressivestudy,Merlin'sDisciples,
disruptedbyriddlingpoliticalpropheciesand darkvisions.These outbreaksremind
us that the-practiceof politicshas never been a rationalenterprise.While both

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modern and earlymodern academicsand ecclesiasticsmay condemndivinersand

ecstaticprophets,in doingso theseauthorities implicitly
giverecognition to thepower
ofthesemarginalfigures(functioning evenat thehighestlevelsofstate).Dobin'sbook
rightlylocates the controversyabout prophecyat the heart of the early modern
Englishstruggleto controla politicaldiscoursethatcould neverbe mastered.Merlin's
Disciplessuccinctlyreconstructsthe tangled and often astonishingchroniclesof
politicalprophecyin Tudor and StuartEngland,whileoffering a sensitiveanalysisof
such prophecy'sliterarymanifestations. But Dobin also uses chroniclesand literary
textsto unfolda theoryof the politicalinstability of language,a theoryeffectively
linkingdeconstruction witha lucid understandingof earlymodernhistory.
To maketheargumentthatlanguageis politically unstable,Merlin'sDisciplesworks
self-consciouslywiththe modelsof new historicism currentin the late 1980s. Dobin
beginswithan introduction"in defenseof anecdotes,"comparingthe "disruptive"
functionof anecdotesin new-historicist criticism withthedestabilizing effect of early
modernprophecies.The latter,he argues,"themselvesstandforthe quintessential
deconstructable and self-bewraying textsof late Tudor and earlyStuartideological
discourse"(18). Dobin locates his own divergencefromthe new-historicist main-
streamin his turnto deconstruction, a move designed to escape the containment-
and-subversiondebate by replacingit withthe prophetand the priest'sstrugglefor
legitimation.These antagonistshe sees as "more alike than not," because both
ultimately"derivetheirpowerfroma logocentricand theocraticfaithin divinetexts,
a faithbetrayedand undone ... bythetextsthemselves"(17). The containment/sub-
versionbinarycollapsesin thislikeness.
The centralpartof Merlin'sDisciplesfocuseson the fascinating historyof political
prophecy'sthreatto thesixteenth-century Englishstateand theconsequentefforts to
containit. Dobin illustratesthishistorywithexamplesdrawnfrommanydifferent
kindsof texts,includingchronicles,polemics,poems, and plays.He describesthe
assaultthatprophecylaunchedagainstthestatusquo and thevainattemptsofchurch
and stateto channel the power of prophecythroughthe institutionally sanctioned
priestor poet. In Greekculture(and in particularin Greektragedy)prophecywas
mostlylinked to the implacableauthorityof the invisiblegods, but in Renaissance
Europe thechurchviewedprophecyas inspiredmorebytheDevil thanbyGod, and
mainstreamsocietysaw prophetsas people on themargins:lunatics,women,fanatics,
and frauds.At the same time,prophecyflourishedand exerciseda considerable
influenceover popular politicalconsciousness.In England the ambiguousfigureof
Merlinsymbolizedthisculturalconflict: he wasthemagicianwitha darkpastwhowas
also privilegedto foreseethelineageof Englishmonarchy.Dobin tracestheefforts to
suppress or "convert"such powerfulimages and theirwords. But ultimately, he
argues,such efforts failed,because of theverynatureof propheticlanguage,which
cannotbe controlledsinceitsmeaningis alwaysdeferredand can neverbe fixed.
Dobin deftlyhandles the complextheological,sociological,literary,and political
dimensionsof thiscomplex phenomenon,whiledrawingwithadmirableeconomy
and authorityon a wide arrayof scholarsrangingfromWeber to Bakhtin.The
strongestchapteris the first,titled"Prophetand Priestin Sixteenth-Century En-
gland," which offersa fine displayof eruditionand theoreticalsophisticationin
settingup theconflict betweenprophetand priestin theTudor period.The materials
on "Textual Strategies:Merlinand theJacobeanDisplayof Power"in chapter5 are
presentedwithless depthand complexity, perhapsbecause,as Dobin argues,under
the Stuartsthe culturalpowerof politicalprophecybegan to disintegrate.
Merlin'sDiscipleswill be an enlighteningresource for the English Renaissance
scholar,bothforitsreadable,up-to-dateaccountof politicalprophecyin theperiod,
and foritspersuasiveuse of prophecyas a model forRenaissancetexts'politicaland
referential Whilethebook has quite a bitto sayabout Spenser,itis also a
usefultextfortheShakespearean,sinceitoffers insightintothosekeymomentsin the
historyplaysthathingeon a cruxof propheticinterpretation: notably,HenryIV Parts
I and2, HenryVI Part2, RichardII, RichardIII, and HenryVIII. In generalDobin shows

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us how "all of Shakespeare'shistoriesdeviatefromthe unmistakableand consistent

ideologicaltreatmentof prophecyin the sources"(161) because in Shakespeareall
prophecies-notjust theroyalistones-come true.This strategy, drivenbytheneed
for narrativeclosure,effectively stripsprophecyof its "subversiveindeterminacy"
(165). Dobin also has illuminatingthingsto sayaboutKingLearand Macbeth, though
he offersno extendedanalysisof how prophecyworksin thoseplays.One wonders
what he mightdo withthe propheticmomentsin playsnot set in England (Julius
Caesar,forexample),buthisargumentallowsthereaderto extrapolate.In all,Dobin
givesa wide range of readers an enlightening viewof how prophecy,the formof
language thatforevereludes politicaland authorialcontrol,could in Shakespeare's
time-and maystill-destabilizeall formsof authority.

The Politicsof Tragicomedy: and After.Edited by GOR-
DON MCMULLAN and JONATHAN HOPE. London and New York:
Routledge, 1992. Pp. x + 212. $54.95 cloth.

Reviewed by LEE BLISS

This selectionof papers originallypresentedat a conferenceat Wadham College,
Oxford,in 1988comesas a welcomeadditiontotherecentturnin thecriticalfortunes
of Renaissancetragicomedy. politicalstancecomplementsother,more
Its revisionist
formalistrevaluationsand should help direct fresh attentionto this frequently
undervalued(or dismissed)genre. Taken together,the essays'demonstrationof a
richvarietyin the kindsof tragicomedywrittenduringthe firsthalf of the seven-
teenthcenturyhighlightsthe genre'sopennessand, hence,attractiveness to drama-
tistswithverydifferent temperaments and agendas. In theirintroduction theeditors
explicitly,and rightly,questionthe commonuse of Fletcher'sdefensive,Guarinian
definition in theprefatory epistleto TheFaithfulShepherdess as thoughitpredictedand
explainedlaterseventeenth-century tragicomedy or even Fletcher'sown subsequent
efforts.They note thatwhilethe contributors to ThePoliticsofTragicomedy seek "to
reassertthepossibility productivepoliticsof Renaissancetragicomedy,"
of a critically
thereis "no consensuson an ideology-of-form," no one kindof"politics"determined
bya tragicomicdramaticstructure(7). Althoughtheessaysare broadlyhistoricist in
approach, their authors distrustthe "exclusivefocus upon the court and court
culture"associatedwithnew historicism, as well as its severelylimitedsense of the
possibilityof "individualpoliticalagencywithinliterarytexts"(9). As a resultthis
collectionnot onlydirectsour attentionto a neglectedgenrebut also in manycases
"tothecountry,to thefemaleaudience and thefemaleparticipant, to popularrather
thancourtlytraditionsin the drama" (9).
The volume'sfirsttwoessaysfocuson Shakespeare'slate romances,contestingthe
currently dominantassumptionof theplays'complicity withthepoliticsas wellas the
aestheticsof court culture.In one of the most theoretically challengingchapters,
"'What cares these roarers for the name of king?': language and utopia in The
Tempest," David Norbrookobservesthatmostrecentdevelopmentsin literarytheory
have tended to reinforcedistopianinterpretations, settinglanguage and naturein
oppositionand so ratifying the ideologyof Westerncolonization.Instead Norbrook
seeks "a reading that would remain open to utopian perspectivesin a way that
poststructuralistmethodologiescannotallow,takingaccountof thecogentcriticisms
of blandlytranscendental viewsof the subjectwhichrecenttheoryhas been able to
make, but withoutsurrenderingsome notion of the possibilityof the subject as
rationalagent"(24). In thisreadingRenaissancehumanism'slinguisticcuriosityand
theoreticalsophisticationprovide the contextin whichShakespeareexplores "the
effectof politicalstructures (25). Analyzingthearistocratic
on linguisticpossibilities"

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