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The Multimedia Age of Melancholy

Elizabeth Sauer
Brock University

“The Age of Melancholy: Early Modern Drama, Poetry, and Prose–1603 to the English Revolution” is an undergraduate course I taught on various occasions, and one in preparation for online delivery this year. Retitled “The Multimedia Age of Melancholy,” the course is deliberately designed for the closet, a richly resonant term, whose cognates, connotations, and denotations I encourage students to learn and deploy throughout the course.1 This article demonstrates that the course’s subjects—early modern closeted performances and literary representations of melancholy (the condition that afflicts and activates intellectuals, writers, and philosophers)—lend themselves successfully to the online-classroom environment, notably in my low-tech course, and to learning that takes place in physical isolation. The proposed course materials exemplify different kinds of imaginative expressions afforded by the closeted life and by early modern and modern mediums. Presented here are overviews of the course’s rationale, resources, and delivery methods, as well as its learning activities and some anticipated outcomes.

The exercises in subjectivity, self-fashioning, self-interrogation, and creativity that defined early modern English society make the “Age of Melancholy” a rich and contemporarily resonant subject of critical inquiry today. This course explores dramatic, poetic, and prose works that depict and anatomize selfhood and the melancholic human condition. The first text we study, Marlowe’s The Tragicall History of D. Faustus (1604), which opens with the armchair actor ruminating in his closet or studio, captures the melancholic scholar’s stance and disposition, diagnosed by his students in the final scene as a state of excessive solitariness. Under investigation in the course are such subjects as forms of authorship; the dialectic between social relations and autonomy; experimentations with literary forms and mediums; and the significances of closeted performances, interior dramas, and even the “stanza” as a standing place (space or room). “The Multimedia Age of Melancholy” also generates discussions of the affinity that postmodern readers have with early modern thinkers and of the value of researching the early modern world today.

The course texts are classified accordingly: “World’s General Sickness” (Donne’s An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary, 1611); Tragedy and the Devil Inside (Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus); Female Self-assertion (Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam, 1613); Paper Prisons (Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, 1613); Defects Defended (Lanyer, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611); Gender B(l)ending (Speght and Sowernam, 1617; Wroth, 1621); Ode to Himself (Jonson’s poems, 1616, 1640–41]; Affliction (Herbert’s Temple, 1633); Forms of Inquiry (Bacon’s Essays, 1625); Melancholy Anatomized (Burton’s prodigious treatise, 1621).

Eager to incorporate visual and archival materials and tools into the online teaching of literature, I begin by posting an image of Georges de La Tour’s The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame (ca. 1638–40), who appears in a meditative pose, in her closet (fig. 1).2 The mysterious pensive figure is featured with a skull, books, a cross, a scourge, and a lit candlewick floating in a glass of oil, suggesting the interior illumination of the self and the setting. The work is a chiaroscuro composition,3 a perfect study in clarity and obscurity. The sharp visual contrasts complement the themes, including the juxtaposition of life and death, prominently displayed by the images of the ruddy convex abdomen and the dark shaded skull, joined by Mary Magdalen’s extended arm and hand. The painting is a touchstone for representations of melancholics in the course, including Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Donne’s meditative speaker in An Anatomy, Webster’s tragic Duchess of Malfi and Bosola, Cary’s Mariam, Lanyer’s self-vindicating Eve, Wroth’s Urania and distressed Perissus, and Burton’s satirical Democritus Junior. All these personas exhibit conventionally feminine qualities. One of the essay topics, which students may choose for their final assignment, is an analysis of how their interpretative experience of The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame has been transformed by the course readings, notably the literary representations of melancholy, agency, and heroism.

The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame

Fig. 1. Georges de La Tour, The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame. Ca. 1638–40. Oil on canvas. 46 1/16 x 36 1/8 in. (117 x 91.76 cm). Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation (M.77.73). Digital Image © 2020 Museum Associates / LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

Class meetings occur weekly and are synchronous. Each student is allotted the same amount of time to prepare seminar assignments and discussion postings. Between classes, I collate and review responses, and then post anonymous versions so that students can view editing practices in action and review each other’s interpretations, while knowing that their privacy and property are protected. At the same time, students in this virtual environment are all essential frontline workers: no one can take a backseat and defer to the person at the front of the class with her hand up.

Making a virtue of necessity,4 I maintain that this is a propitious time for instructors to reread academic studies on pedagogy and on the transition from embodied teaching to the facilitation of the virtual classroom. The Modern Language Association’s “Approaches to Teaching” series has never been more relevant. To help students develop abilities to identify and consult vital information resources and locate, evaluate, and apply literary and historical evidence effectively, I turn to Teaching Tudor and Stuart Women Writers and Teaching Early Modern English Literature from the Archives, which place traditional and electronic archives in conversation and offer practical guidelines for incorporating them into the curriculum.5 The availability of digital editions of early modern books also brings a wealth of exciting archival and primary source materials into the online classroom. The Renaissance Society of America hosts the Humanities Commons (HC) to equip Humanities scholars with research and pedagogical tools. Among the sites on the HC is “Digital Resources Curated by Members of the RSA.”6 One of the exercises in my course involves exploring resources like the Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME). The composite definitions in LEME of such key terms as “melancholy,” “closet,” and “studio” perfectly encapsulate the subjects of this course, which translates the riches of the closet to an online environment. The entries on both “melancholy” and “closet” direct readers to the terms in John Florio’s A Worlde of Wordes (London, 1598). “Closet,” for example, references “Stúdio, a studie or place to studie in, a cabinet, a closet a vniuersitie, a colledge. Also a deske, a standing deske in a schoole for great bookes to stand vpon, but properlie an earnest bending of the minde to a thing, great affection that one hath to do good or euill, studie, exercise, feate, trade, endeuour, will, care, carke, diligence, industrie,” etc. These concepts and cognates animate the study of each of the course’s characters, from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to Burton’s Democritus Junior.

Virtually, all the course’s sources are contained in the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database in the form of digitized facsimiles of the original documents. The EEBO allows various means of searching for and retrieving data and, along with the EEBO Text Creation Partnership, which hosts transcriptions of the original documents, is an indispensable resource. EEBO gives students and researchers a tool that sheds light on early modern editorial practices; variations among editions of individual works; and the mechanics, technologies, and physical means of book and knowledge production. Students are asked to consult the EEBO versions of each early modern text they analyze and to locate EEBO sources related in theme or genre to the assigned readings. The opportunity to peruse the archives by way of EEBO adds a sense of adventure to “The Multimedia Age of Melancholy,” a meta-critical, meta-textual, and meta-technological course.

Homework assignments designed for the “Multimedia Age of Melancholy” lend themselves especially well to the “closeted” space of the online environment. Descriptions of three exercises follow.

  1. 1) Students are invited to explore the ways playwrights in the Age of Melancholy reimagine the stage and theater productions. The composition of early modern closet dramas—private-public-political theatricalized works, which often partook of the classical models—encouraged, for example, different ways of interpreting stage plays and of interrogating concepts of “performance.”7 C. E. McGee’s “Webbing Webster” is among my recommended hits for using the online environment to make alternative models of production come alive.8 Stratford Festival McGee proposes a class assignment involving the preparation of program notes for the website to announce an upcoming performance.9 The notes are geared to high-school students studying the play in a virtual classroom. Adopting McGee’s model, I instruct students in my virtual classroom to compose advertisements for two dramatic works studied in the “Age of Melancholy,” and to address their “performance possibilities” in a manner intended to promote theater attendance (when the curtain is again raised). Students are prompted to assume the roles of stage managers, producers, and dramatis personae in accounting for the criteria they selected in designing their educational and promotional platforms for their virtual target audiences.10 Among the takeaways for the class are the cultivation of digital literacies and marketing competencies, transferable to the world outside the closet, as well as greater confidence, poise, and authority in developing online presences and contributions.
  2. 2) Students are asked to reflect on ways that concepts of texts and textuality have changed as a consequence of the sustained attention to the packaging of digitized early modern books, that is, to the front matter, textual apparatuses, and machinery that books (poems, pamphlets, tracts) preserve and display, as well as to different media and genres through which protocols of interpretation are transmitted. In reference to “The Multimedia Age of Melancholy,” students will apply their analytical skills to readings of the key differences between the A (1604) and B (1616) editions of Doctor Faustus (both available on EEBO). Or they might be asked to compare the front matter of controversialist literature, for example, Swetnam’s 1615 Arraignment of…Women and Speght’s 1617 A Muzzle for Melastomus, which was published and maybe solicited by Swetnam’s bookseller, Thomas Archer.
  3. 3) A critical examination of historical literary formulations of authorship is especially revealing in an online-learning environment. Reading early modern texts alerts students to the fact that the primacy ascribed to authorial identities today was largely alien to past readers and writers, and that texts in turn were not automatically designated as the author’s property.11 Students will have the option of composing final papers on the ways early modern notions of authorship can illuminate how the online world supports alternative authorial identities and practices. An alternative essay topic is the reinterpretation of The Magdalen and the Smoking Flame in the context of the English literature of the Age of Melancholy.

The closing words about the course are scripted by Burton’s “Democritus Junior,” whose discourse exemplifies and enables self-discovery in the genre-defying Anatomy of Melancholy:

Gentle reader, I presume thou wilt bee verie inquisitive to know what Anticke or Personate Actor this is, that so insolently intrudes upon this common Theater.…

Thou thyselfe art the subject of my Discourse.

… all my Treasure is in Minerva’s Towre. Greater preferment as I could never get, so am I not in debt for it, I have a competencie (laus Deo) from my noble and munificent Patrons, though I live still a Collegeat Student, as Democritus in his Garden, and lead a Monastique life, sequestered from those tumults and troubles of the world.12

“The Multimedia Age of Melancholy” is about FaceTime, that is, about self-encounters and communications afforded by experiential online education in seclusion. The last portraits of melancholics posted on the course’s Sakai site are on the frontispieces of various post-1621 editions of Anatomy of Melancholy.13

Of course, the approaches to teaching outlined in this article are as much or even more suitable for in-person classes. Still, what is different in my online course is the investment in and rewards of sustained attention to the medium-message interrelationship of each text, specifically selected to illuminate, anatomize, and complicate interpretations of the chiaroscuro Age of Melancholy, then and now. Class time in the closet allows students more opportunities to apply and appraise the educational tools, journals, databases, and digitized archival materials assigned for the course, which is intended to challenge early modern and contemporary understandings of literary evidence, genre, and media. The course’s focus on the dynamics between early modern and modern mediums and messages proves especially revelatory at a time of closed libraries and distance learning.

Elizabeth Sauer, FRSC is Professor of English Language and Literature at Brock University, Canada. Her courses focus on early modern English literature, history, and culture. She has coedited various course anthologies, including Reading Early Modern Women (2004) and Reading the Nation in English Literature (2010), and has contributed to MLA “Approaches to Teaching” volumes on subjects from Las Casas to Milton.

1 John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes (London, 1598).

2 The image is posted on Sakai, a web-based Learning Management System that provides communication tools and creates private communities for information exchanges.

3 Chiaroscuro: chiaro “clear, bright” (L clarus) + oscuro “dark, obscure” (L obscurus).

4 The phrase is used by writers from Shakespeare in The Two Gentleman of Verona (comp. 1592–94; pub. 1623): “… make a virtue of necessity / And live, as we do, in this wilderness?” (4.1) to Elaine Hobby in Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writings, 1649–1688 (London: Virago, 1988).

5 Susanne Woods and Margaret P. Hannay, eds., Teaching Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (New York: MLA, 2001); and Heidi Brayman Hackel and Ian Frederick Moulton, eds., Teaching Early Modern English Literature from the Archives (New York: MLA, 2015).

6Digital Resources Curated by Members of the RSA,” RSA Digital Resources, Humanities Commons.

7 Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam, ed. Stephanie Hodgson-Wright (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000) is unavailable as an ebook. The university campus store staff arranges to mail copies to each student enrolled in the course. To enliven the study of performances, I recommend Catherine Burroughs, ed., Closet Drama: History, Theory, and Genre (New York: Routledge, 2018).

8 C. E. McGee, “Webbing Webster,” in Approaches to Teaching English Renaissance Drama, ed. Karen Bamford and Alexander Leggatt (New York: MLA, 2002), 106–12.

9 Though the Stratford Festival (Stratford, ON) cancelled its 2020 season, its website states optimistically “While the creation of a vaccine and anti-viral drugs will cure this pandemic, ultimately what will cure society in its aftermath is art.” Stratford Festival, .

10 McGee, “Webbing Webster,” 107.

11 See Wendy Wall, “Circulating Texts in Early Modern England,” in Woods and Hannay, Teaching Tudor and Stuart Women Writers, 37; and Stephen Orgel, “What is a Text?,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 24 (1981): 3–6.

12 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford, 1628), 1–3.

13 See, for example, the frontispiece of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford, 1632), the EEBO version of which is a good quality reproduction.

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