Shakespeare's Middle Ages.

Smith, Bruce R.

Shakespeare's Middle Ages.

Smith, Bruce R. "Shakespeare's Middle Ages." In Medieval Shakespeare: Pasts and Presents. Ed. Ruth Morse, Helen Cooper, and Peter Holland. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 19-36.

With a certain aptness, given that Smith's essay opens the volume, he takes the notion of "middle" as his point of departure, pointing out how much of Shakespeare's London was medieval, and further that more or less mid-way between the Globe and London city proper stood St. Saviour's Church, with its prominent tomb of John Gower (includes photo, 20). Gower's tomb becomes a reference point, Smith suggests, for what he views as Shakespeare's "medieval" imagination: that is, a "whole-body model of perception" derived from "Aristotle and Galen; more immediately, Aquinas" (28-29): "We can witness the importance of the middle, the domain of imagination and passion, by pausing before Gower's tomb" (29). A description of the decoration follows, leading to: "The imaginative space created here in stone, pigment and gilding is the visual equivalent of the imaginative space created through words in Gower's 'Mirour de l'Omme,' or 'Speculum Meditantis,' written in French . . . ." (29) Noting that on the tomb the MO volume is "the middle of the 'Confessio Amantis' (in English) on the bottom and 'Vox clamantis' (in Latin) on the top." (29) Smith asks: "Is there a hierarchy of languages here, as there is a hierarchy of architectural spaces and states of being? Does the French of fourteenth-century high culture occupy a middle ground between the homeliness of English and the divinity of Latin?" (29) Smith suggests that answering such questions about what Gower expected from his tomb requires a "whole-body model of perception" that must be applied to understanding how Shakespeare understood theatrical space and guided his shaping of plays: "The most important of the implications for the Aristotelian/Galenic model of perception . . . was this: rational judgment [by which Smith means that of Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke 27-28] does not trump kinaesthetic experience. For me, that is the continuity that connects Shakespeare most forcefully with the so-called Middle Ages" (31). He concludes by applying this observation to "the middle plays," examining three very briefly ("Twelfth Night," "King Lear," "Antony and Cleopatra"), and "Hamlet" in greater (but still cursory) depth (31-33). He returns to Gower's tomb to note the "two angel heads that receive the vaulted ribs of Gower's tomb." (33). Although damaged by iconoclasts, "the imaginative surrounds [of the heads] were . . . still intact and gave onlookers an imaginative cue for encountering a vanished past that ‘ancient Gower' in 'Pericles' suggests was not yet firmly distinguished from Classical antiquity" (33). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 38.2.]


Gower Subjects
Influence and Later Allusion
Biography of Gower