The 2015 Martin Stevens Award for Best New Essay in Early Drama Studies

Award: 
Martin Stevens Award
Award Year: 
2015

Christopher Crosbie. “The Longleat Manuscript Reconsidered: Shakespeare and the Sword of Lath.” English Literary Renaissance 44.2 (Winter 2014), 221-240.

In Christopher Crosbie’s lucid, deftly argued article, “The Longleat Manuscript Reconsidered: Shakespeare and the Sword of Lath,” “so much, it would seem, depends upon Aaron’s sword” (p. 225). Crosbie revisits the Peacham illustration of Titus Andronicus, focusing on the vexing figure of Aaron the Moor, whose unsheathed sword and curious hand gesture seemingly do not match the scene illustrated or referenced by the accompanying text. But as Crosbie demonstrates, the conjunction of both image and text do make sense if we understand the sword not as real sword, but as a wooden prop sword associated with the Vice figure of moralities, and the gesture as a representation of the nail-paring often associated with stage devils. Each of these details, he argues, have been turned into rhetorical tropes in the image to signify Aaron’s relation to the Vice tradition. Reading the image/text this way not only gives the manuscript coherence, but also shows it to be a sophisticated engagement with theater history, whereby a late 16th century audience may have sought to understand its drama through older traditions and conventions. Crosbie’s adroit argument draws on evidence as multi-modal as the Longleat manuscript itself: textual references from other plays to swords of lath and nail-paring; visual representations of swords and sheaths, especially in woodcut illustrations in printed plays; and stage practices related to the Vice. Throughout, Crosbie performs perceptive close readings of text and image that teach the reader to notice details they may have previously overlooked. The Longleat manuscript may seem like a minor object of study, but the image is often reproduced in classroom editions of Shakespeare, and the accompanying captions should be updated in light of Crosbie’s findings. What is more, the essay gestures more widely to a larger reconsideration of how older theatrical conventions might simultaneously get reinvented and yet also remain viable rhetorical tropes and devices of understanding for theater audiences, thus contributing to our understanding of a theater history shared across the medieval and renaissance periods.