Death & Drama

Death and Drama in Renaissance England: Shades of Memory
Oxford University Press (2003)

"Future work on all such emblematic forms in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture will need to take account of [Engel's] latest study."  Emblem Studies Newsletter, 32 (Jan 2003), 12

"This is dramatic criticism and cultural history of a very high order, learned but not pedantic, an essential book for a fuller understanding of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean tragedy, whether derived from history or from domestic life." — Bibliothéque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 66 (2004), 371-410

"Engel is the first post-Yates scholar to offer a compelling account of the importance of the memory arts in the English Renaissance. ... Engel attends with sensitivity and acumen to the complex ways that mnemonic art encodes and enacts its meanings, accomplishing his goal of 'help[ing] scholars of early modern England become better, more mnemonically attuned, interpreters.' ...Death and Drama will certainly reinvigorate early modern memory studies, and Engel remains the Renaissance memory arts' most eloquent spokesperson."  Sixteenth Century Journal, 35/2 (2004), 593-5

"A convincing case is made that there was a widespread (and now rather unacknowledged) familiarity with the Art of Memory, which would have led contemporary audiences and readers to recognize emblems, proverbs, and exempla in the context of these larger genres. ?Death and Drama is capacious in its subject matter; episodic in its rhetorical construction; and often digressive in its argument (a quality which Engel appreciates in Ralegh). All of which adds up to a demanding, unorthodox, and ultimately moving study that remains very difficult to categorize within current disciplinary boundaries." — Clio: Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History, 33.4, Summer 2004

"The phrase 'Aesthetics in an Age of Decline' provides a matrix for William E. Engel's important study of images of death in seventeenth-century English drama, rhetoric, and historiography. ...[T]his work offers a credible overview and critical method to understand the cultural patterns and underlying beliefs of the period that helped shape dramatic and literary forms." Renaissance Quarterly, 57 (2004), 1166-68

Renaissance responses to the extremes of human experience and the extent of mortal knowledge are given new focus in this innovative study, through an exploration of emblems and memory images. Using the classical Art of Memory as an interpretive key, William E. Engel shows how a great range of Renaissance texts, from stage-plays to dictionaries and histories, deployed the emblematic to communicate special meanings--layers of understanding that have since become obscured. The first part of the book deals with the staging of silent spectacles of death in selected tragedies, by Shakespeare and other dramatists. From there, Engel moves to a different use of emblem: the function of the highly mannered vignettes of daily life constructed in foreign-language phrase-books; and finally to the ways in which metaphors of the stage were translated into a body of work that portrayed 'the soul of history' in terms of an overriding aesthetic of decline. By restoring an understanding of the particular significance of these images, Engel illuminates the essentially mnemonic principles of design that animate much English Renaissance writing, and its preoccupation with the place of oblivion in human life.

Drawing on a range of works, this book offers a novel way to understand, in their original contexts, key aspects of Renaissance mental life and letters. Focusing on the classical Memory Arts, this book explores issues of death and decline in exemplary English dramas, dictionaries, and histories of the period, and demonstrates the ways in which emblems and memory images were used to communicate special meanings.