Shadow and Substance

Eucharistic Controversy and English Drama across the Reformation Divide

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Jay Zysk
Reformations: Medieval and Early Modern
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , September
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jay Zysk’s Shadow and Substance: Eucharistic Controversy and English Drama Across the Reformation Divide states that the book is about “bodies and signs in theological debates over the Eucharist and dramas staged in their wake” (1), which gives a sense of how the author’s attention will be employed across this study. In choosing the controversies concerning how the Eucharist functioned semiotically in relation to the body of Christ, Zysk isolates a productive bridging point between the often arbitrary divide of drama in the medieval and Early Modern periods, and in doing so provides a model as to how scholars might come together in productive discussion. Zysk’s contention that the instability of interpreting the sacrament of the Eucharist forms an important a part of dramatic practice in biblical drama such as the York Crucifixionand in Shakespeare’s Macbethor Webster’sThe Duchess of Malfi is provocative, and invites discussion about how we approach, discuss, and teach English drama. A wider dramatic expertise is shown to be a benefit to drama scholars of the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who rarely engage with earlier dramatic practices unless it in the vein of source-text material. 

Zysk avoids certain pitfalls of bringing plays such as those of the poet-monk John Lydgate, the reformist John Bale, suspected atheist Marlowe, and a selection of biblical drama into conversation with each other by eschewing a chapter structure that privileges an earliest to latest organization, and takes care to avoid teleological claims of dramatic development. The pertinent aspect of Eucharistic theology is carefully selected and helpfully expanded on before its dramatic relevance is worked through in each chapter. This format is helpful for the reader, and keeps the argumentative structure of the book at the forefront of the study. The scholarship on each play is up to date and relevant, which is no mean feat when one considers the range of material included. The result is to bring plays into a relationship with each other which may otherwise be thought to have little in common. Chapter 2 (“Words and Wounds: Christ Crucified and Coriolanus”) and 3 (“Sacramental Signs and Mystical Bodies in Lydgate, Bale, and Shakespeare”) are particularly successful in this regard. 

The expansive focus and the narrow argumentative strategy work well for the majority of the book, but at certain times the singular focus on the Eucharist in semiotic terms feels restrictive, and critically out of date. Chapter 5 (“Relics and Unreliable Bodies in the Croxton Play of the SacramentThe Duchess of Malfi, and The Changeling” and 6 (“Conjured to Remembrance: Emmaus Plays, Jack Juggler, and The Winter’s Tale”) have a greater focus on bodies than the earlier chapters, and despite the author’s claim that embodiment is a focus of this study, the discussion of relics, clothing, and bodies in relation to sign systems is too limited and does not engage with complementary criticism from the last decade or so. One feels that this methodological stance would have benefitted from admitting other critical viewpoints into the conversation, which would have offered other strategies for the dramatic analysis. The Eucharistic dimension is a bit forced in the discussion of relics in chapter 5, and though I do not contend that the connections made are unfounded, it feels like too much justification needs to be done in order to neatly link the relic, the Eucharist, and sign theory in a coherent manner, especially in relation to The Duchess of Malfiand The Changeling. Another issue in terms of consistency across the six chapters is the treatment given to the plays from different historical moments. Chapter 4 is essentially about Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus(as the title “Father Faustus? Confection and Conjuration in Everymanand Doctor Faustus” suggests), and Everyman—which gets a paltry discussion by comparison—begins to feel like historical context for Faustusrather than a play that deserves to be discussed on equal footing. 

In spite of these critiques, this book is an impressive study that is wide-ranging in dramatic material, and which uses theological discourse in a way that sheds light on its historical and dramatic pertinence. Zysk displays an impressive command over a difficult and unwieldy subject matter, and manages to do so without reducing its complexity to serve dramatic ends. This book is a worthwhile read, and may convince skeptical readers of the value of extending themselves outside of restrictive periodic boundaries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Brazil is Senior Research and Teaching Assistant in Medieval Literature at the University of Geneva.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jay Zysk is assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.


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