The more we learn about the physical environments and associated print culture of Paul's Cross Churchyard and the St. Paul's precinct of the City of London, the more we can understand how Shakespeare's plays were popularly received. It may seem that Shakespeare avoids direct reference to contemporary London—at least in comparison to Jonson, Middleton, and Marston, who satirize actual persons in their city comedies—but his references are more stealthy and intricate than theirs, and they are quite important in what they can tell us about the connections between drama and urban contexts during the Elizabethan period. Here I will focus on some colloquial banter between Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Of course this banter, which first saw print in quarto versions of the plays in 1597 and 1599, belongs to the streets of London, not distant to Verona. More specifically, it points to the attitudes of the young gallants who contemporary records tell us were common in the St. Paul's precinct during the 1590s.
Two competing but also mutually beneficial cultural forces met within Paul's Cross Churchyard. The first involved dramatic preaching events and public proclamations, which promoted and were promoted by religious print sold by the booksellers. In many cases these booksellers surrounded the pulpit, and the fronts of their shops physically echoed the sounds of sermons coming from the pulpit. The second force was the new market for pleasure reading that flourished in surprisingly close proximity to religious expression.
In act 4 of The Comedy of Errors, Adriana, in response to her husband's wildly erratic behaviour, recruits one Doctor Pinch to cure his apparent madness. Antipholus of Ephesus is of course not really mad at all, but understandably frustrated and confused with the events of the day, which have seen him locked out of his own house and accused of failing to pay for valuables that he actually never received, thanks to a series of misunderstandings involving his identical twin, Antipholus of Syracuse. When Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to cooperate with his wife's well-intentioned intervention, Doctor Pinch attempts an exorcism to drive away the demons which he supposes to possess him:
I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight:
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven!
Of course, Pinch's attempted exorcism fails, because there is no Satan to exorcise, and Antipholus becomes so angry that Adriana has him forcibly bound and taken away in Pinch's custody. In a later scene a messenger reports that Antipholus and his servant Dromio have gnawed through their bonds and escaped and then captured and tormented the hapless Doctor Pinch, burning off his beard “with brands of fire,” putting it out again with “Great pails of puddled mire,” and then preaching patience to him while cutting him with scissors and concludes that “unless you send some present help, / Between them they will kill the conjurer” (5.1.172, 74–76, 177–78).
In John Shawcross's book The Development of Milton's Thought: Law, Religion, and Government, he quotes that famous phrase from Milton, “fit audience, though few.” I was brought up short while reading because this quotation does not include an ellipsis. Can even Shawcross nod? I was reassured when I realized that he had not cited book and line numbers for the quotation; he was simply quoting an oft-used phrase rather than Paradise Lost itself. I thus felt better about John, but continued to be troubled by the broader implications of “fit audience … though few,” with or without the ellipsis. Here I shall argue that the ellipsis eliminates a central element, in the line and the poetic sentence and in terms of Milton's own concerns about the fate of his text. And what scholars so often omit by typifying Milton's audience using this phrase is the place of the ineffable Spirit of God in the communion or community of believers.
I shall dispense with the simple part first: how often is the ellipsis used, and what does it skate over? The phrase appears in the invocation to Book 7 of Paradise Lost:
Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole,
More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchang'd
To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers Nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East: still govern thou my Song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.
In the sticky, sweet, and sweaty world in which Shakespeare situates his Venus and Adonis, something has gone awry. According to Venus, “Nature” is “at strife” with herself for having made Adonis. By “Nature” Venus is, of course, referring to herself. Compared to the Venus of book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses—a goddess who makes men and women fall in love, who brings stone to life, and whose magical doves transport her anywhere she wishes to go—Shakespeare's Venus is, by comparison, a much more natural being. A creature of the senses, most especially smell, Shakespeare's Venus does not so much manipulate the natural world as bond with it. She experiences heightened, animal-like sensibilities that allow her to commune with Adonis's horse and to imagine herself as the earthbound and hunted Wat the Hare.
But why would Shakespeare strip Ovid's goddess of her supernatural powers and drive her so literally down to earth? The answer, I would suggest, is that Venus and Adonis traces its ancestry not only to Ovid's Metamorphoses but also to Lucretius's De Rerum Natura. Consider the powerful invocation to Venus with which Lucretius begins his great philosophical poem on “the nature of things”: “Venus, power of life, it is you who beneath the sky's sliding stars inspirit the ship-bearing sea, inspirit the productive land.
Erotic encounters between women appear with surprising frequency in the middle books of The Faerie Queene. Both Guyon's adventure in the Bower of Bliss and Britomart's encounters with Malecasta and Amoret reflect Renaissance beliefs about female-female desire. Spenser consistently associates heterosexual intercourse with sexual maturity: his treatment of homoerotic desire as an “adolescent” stage of development adheres to early modern myths regarding same-sex attraction. Indeed, one of Spenser's goals in the middle books of The Faerie Queene seems to be discouraging women's non-teleological, non-reproductive eroticism, and encouraging them to “move forward” into a reproductive sexual marriage. The homoeroticism that fills Spenser's garden of sexual delight motivates Guyon's wrathful destruction of Acrasia's Bower—a destruction that points toward the potential threat of feminine stasis in non-reproductive sexual activity. In addition, Britomart's sexual encounters with other women become both a primary challenge to the lady Knight's quest and a central element of her sexual education as she learns to embrace her role as a mother and wife.
Reconstructing the Bower of Bliss
Spenser's Bower of Bliss is a space of feminine sexual autonomy. Although critics once viewed the sexuality displayed in the Bower as a show that exists only for Guyon, describing it as a realm of lust devoid of sexual fulfillment, a world of pornographic show as opposed to one of sexual satisfaction, more recent readings acknowledge the rampant female sexuality of the Bower. Only Guyon sees a show without sexual satisfaction. Indeed, the women in the fountain who “wrestle wantonly” are enjoying lust in action (2.12.63). Acrasia repeatedly “bedew[s] Verdant’s lips . . . with kisses light” and “sucke[s] his spright,”—considering the early modern connection between “spright” and “semen,” Acrasia is obviously engaged in sexual activity and satisfying her lust (2.12.72). For the women fondling each other in the fountain, and for Acrasia and Verdant, the Bower contains sex: the reader only sees a show if he or she looks through the eyes of the voyeuristic Guyon. Indeed, Spenser invites such a perspective: the Bower is full of references to eyes and sight.
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