English 301b
R. O’Neil
M,W 12:30-2

Topics in Middle English Literature:
Medieval Performances

In this class, we will explore English drama from its beginnings until the period just before the establishment of commercial theater in the second half of the sixteenth century. We will also read theoretical texts from a number of disciplines which take up the idea of performance: What does it mean for constructs such as gender and political power to be 'performed'? How are individual identities and communities created through performance?

While we will sample late-medieval morality and miracle plays as well as the Tudor interludes (satirical, allegorical plays performed during banquets in aristocratic households), the bulk of our time will be given to a study of cycle drama. Every year, in towns across medieval England, residents gathered gathered to perform and witness a dramatic recreation of the entire cycle of history, from the fall of the angels in the distant past to the Last Judgment in the feared-near future. As well as tracing a complete cycle through selected readings from these surviving pageants, we will also read documents relating to the material conditions of performance -- puzzling out, for instance, the elaborate system of 'corporate sponsorship' in York by which various guilds outfitted different parts of the cycle. (The shipbuilders provided Noah's Ark, we will learn, while the merchants loaned their weights and scales to the Last Judgment.)

Our investigation of the way the cycle plays allowed their participants and audience to enact community and perform class, gender, and religious identities will also allow us to bring questions of performance to a wider swath of surviving medieval texts, such as sermons. We will consider the highly performative spirituality on display in Margery Kempe's autobiography, including her particular performance of gender and her efforts to expose clerical authority and power as performance. Similarly, we will interrogate Chaucer's elaborately enacted culpability for his authorship, performing both celebrity and penitence, in his Prologue to the Legend of Good Women.

Participation, including willingness to read plays aloud in class, is crucial. In addition, two short papers (~4 pages) and a longer final paper (~10 pages) will be required. A performance or staging exercise may be substituted for one of the papers.

Greg Walker, ed., Medieval Drama (Broadview)
Lynn Staley, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe (Norton)
Siegfried Wenzel, ed., Preaching in the Age of Chaucer (Catholic University Press)

* additional primary documents and readings from Chaucer, Judith Butler, Irving Goffman, Mikhail Bakhtin, Caroline Bynum, Mervyn James, Miri Rubin, etc., will be available from the instructor

Pre-requisites: Two 200-level courses or consent of instructor.

This course satisfies the Pre-1800 requirement.

Enrollment is limited to 15 students.