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Defining Acts

Defining Acts

Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England

Ruth Nisse

“Medieval drama, itself immensely confident, subtle, and profound, meets in Ruth Nisse a scholar able to match its demands. From her pyrotechnic opening discussion of the Miller’s Tale to her penetrating final chapter on Wisdom, Nisse’s cultural intelligence remains unfailingly alert and illuminating. Defining Acts is itself a defining act.” —James Simpson, Harvard University

“This is an original, well-researched book of enormous interpretive richness and subtlety whose readings unostentatiously but tenaciously and persuasively build on and reinforce each other. It is certain to become a set text for students of medieval English drama.” —Sarah Beckwith, Duke University

“This forcefully argued and immensely detailed study makes a new case for the relationships among drama, dissent, and religion in the English fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It will be valued for its development of key ideas and motifs, its detailed working-through of textual associations and allusions, and its intuitive associations.” —Seth Lerer, Stanford University

Defining Acts considers how the surviving English theatrical works of the fifteenth century represent competing practices of interpretation. The plays take up a series of contests over who could legitimately determine the meaning of texts—men or women, clerics or laity, rulers or subjects, Christians or Jews—and transform these questions for audiences far beyond their original medieval academic contexts. Ruth Nisse focuses in particular on how theater translates the temporal ideas of textual exegesis into spatial models and politics. She situates medieval drama, therefore, both in its vernacular literary setting, as a genre composed against the same cultural background as The Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman, and The Book of Margery Kempe, and in its performances, which negotiate a range of contemporary social and political issues.

Defining Acts begins with an introductory chapter that reveals the dangers and pleasures of theater in a reading of Chaucer’s antic Miller’s Tale and the violently anti-theatrical Wycliffite Treatise of Miracle Playing. These two radically different works provide a dialectic entry into late-medieval controversies over biblical interpretation and vernacular theology, versions of which then reappear in dramatic texts themselves. Subsequent chapters engage problems such as the clash between civic rule and the authority of women’s visionary experiences in the York Plays; competing ideas of labor and poverty in the Towneley Plays; and theories of Jewish exegesis that continue to haunt Christian and national understandings of history in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament.

By reading medieval drama in relation to its intertexts, Nisse explores the ways in which ideas previously limited to academic discourse become elements of public theatrical performances, available to new audiences. Her pathbreaking approach to the study of medieval drama makes this book required reading for scholars and students alike.

ISBN: 978-0-268-03601-0
232 pages
Publication Year: 2005

Ruth Nisse is associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Using surviving theatrical works as the medium, Defining Acts provides an analysis of how texts were interpreted in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. . . . [I]t provides insights into the fifteenth century controversy concerning the access of the laity to scripture. Theatrical works reflected this controversy, as well as opening up the politics of interpretation in new directions” — History: Reviews of New Books

“Nisse’s discussions include much of value. [O]ne cannot but be grateful for her thoughts on the problems caused by men playing women’s roles and Christians playing Jews and on the issues between governing and governed classes.” — Choice

“In Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England we see the challenges and problems of theatrical exegesis played out in a theater of remarkable range and urgency. Ruth Nisse ably persuades in this thoughtful, illuminating book that, as her epigraph from Beckett’s Endgame extolls, ‘Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!’ " — Studies in the Age of Chaucer

Defining Acts examines the ways that biblical and morality plays from later medieval England performed a ‘vernacular theology’ that addressed the social concerns of their diverse audiences. . . Her book explores the intersection of a religious-but not ecclesiastically controlled-drama with the multiple political and spiritual currents circulating during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; these include Wycliffite theology, female and male mysticism, Franciscan ideals, and anti-Jewish exegesis.” — Speculum

“Nisse’s exceptional study of the political implications of interpretation both represented in, and occasioned by various dramatic enactments of religious texts offers a fascinating glimpse into not only the performance history of her dramatic texts, but also the interweaving of the great intellectual and cultural threads which produce the unique texture of the period.” — Comitatus

“. . . An absorbing work on exegetical practices in late medieval literature. . . . Defining Acts is one of the most interesting investigations into exegetical politics in early English drama to be produced in many years.” — Medium Aevum

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Defining Acts

Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England

Ruth Nisse

 Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England
Cloth Edition
Paper Edition

“Medieval drama, itself immensely confident, subtle, and profound, meets in Ruth Nisse a scholar able to match its demands. From her pyrotechnic opening discussion of the Miller’s Tale to her penetrating final chapter on Wisdom, Nisse’s cultural intelligence remains unfailingly alert and illuminating. Defining Acts is itself a defining act.” —James Simpson, Harvard University

“This is an original, well-researched book of enormous interpretive richness and subtlety whose readings unostentatiously but tenaciously and persuasively build on and reinforce each other. It is certain to become a set text for students of medieval English drama.” —Sarah Beckwith, Duke University

“This forcefully argued and immensely detailed study makes a new case for the relationships among drama, dissent, and religion in the English fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It will be valued for its development of key ideas and motifs, its detailed working-through of textual associations and allusions, and its intuitive associations.” —Seth Lerer, Stanford University

Defining Acts considers how the surviving English theatrical works of the fifteenth century represent competing practices of interpretation. The plays take up a series of contests over who could legitimately determine the meaning of texts—men or women, clerics or laity, rulers or subjects, Christians or Jews—and transform these questions for audiences far beyond their original medieval academic contexts. Ruth Nisse focuses in particular on how theater translates the temporal ideas of textual exegesis into spatial models and politics. She situates medieval drama, therefore, both in its vernacular literary setting, as a genre composed against the same cultural background as The Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman, and The Book of Margery Kempe, and in its performances, which negotiate a range of contemporary social and political issues.

Defining Acts begins with an introductory chapter that reveals the dangers and pleasures of theater in a reading of Chaucer’s antic Miller’s Tale and the violently anti-theatrical Wycliffite Treatise of Miracle Playing. These two radically different works provide a dialectic entry into late-medieval controversies over biblical interpretation and vernacular theology, versions of which then reappear in dramatic texts themselves. Subsequent chapters engage problems such as the clash between civic rule and the authority of women’s visionary experiences in the York Plays; competing ideas of labor and poverty in the Towneley Plays; and theories of Jewish exegesis that continue to haunt Christian and national understandings of history in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament.

By reading medieval drama in relation to its intertexts, Nisse explores the ways in which ideas previously limited to academic discourse become elements of public theatrical performances, available to new audiences. Her pathbreaking approach to the study of medieval drama makes this book required reading for scholars and students alike.

ISBN: 978-0-268-03601-0

232 pages

“Using surviving theatrical works as the medium, Defining Acts provides an analysis of how texts were interpreted in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. . . . [I]t provides insights into the fifteenth century controversy concerning the access of the laity to scripture. Theatrical works reflected this controversy, as well as opening up the politics of interpretation in new directions” — History: Reviews of New Books

“Nisse’s discussions include much of value. [O]ne cannot but be grateful for her thoughts on the problems caused by men playing women’s roles and Christians playing Jews and on the issues between governing and governed classes.” — Choice

“In Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England we see the challenges and problems of theatrical exegesis played out in a theater of remarkable range and urgency. Ruth Nisse ably persuades in this thoughtful, illuminating book that, as her epigraph from Beckett’s Endgame extolls, ‘Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!’ " — Studies in the Age of Chaucer

Defining Acts examines the ways that biblical and morality plays from later medieval England performed a ‘vernacular theology’ that addressed the social concerns of their diverse audiences. . . Her book explores the intersection of a religious-but not ecclesiastically controlled-drama with the multiple political and spiritual currents circulating during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; these include Wycliffite theology, female and male mysticism, Franciscan ideals, and anti-Jewish exegesis.” — Speculum

“Nisse’s exceptional study of the political implications of interpretation both represented in, and occasioned by various dramatic enactments of religious texts offers a fascinating glimpse into not only the performance history of her dramatic texts, but also the interweaving of the great intellectual and cultural threads which produce the unique texture of the period.” — Comitatus

“. . . An absorbing work on exegetical practices in late medieval literature. . . . Defining Acts is one of the most interesting investigations into exegetical politics in early English drama to be produced in many years.” — Medium Aevum