Shakespeare’s Commentators and Choric Devices : How Medieval, How Early Modern?

Michael Anthony INGHAM

Research output: Other Conference ContributionsConference Paper (other)Researchpeer-review


Recent scholarship by Frederick Kiefer (Shakespeare’s Visual Theatre: Staging the Personified Characters), Helen Cooper (“The Afterlife of Personification”), Angela O’Brien (“Ralph Roister Doister: The First Regular English Comedy”), among others, has sought to reveal the strong influence of medieval themes, symbolism, aesthetics, and dramatic practices in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. While the personifications of abstractions featured in the work of contemporaries, such as Kyd, Marlowe and Jonson, are obviously indebted to medieval stage and literary sources, particularly in their physical stage representation of allegorical figures related to vices and virtues, in Shakespeare’s often abstract choric devices their impact is generally less obvious. The evident classical and medieval dramatic influences in the stage comedies and the inclusion of, or reference to, pageants, folk drama and masques in Shakespeare’s work support the argument that his theatricality, like that of his contemporaries, owes a debt to the dramatic traditions that flourished in the late Middle
Ages in England.

However, Shakespeare’s use of a chorus, prologue, or quasi-Everyman commentator in plays from Romeo and Juliet, 2 Henry IV (Rumour) and Henry V and prologue in Troilus and Cressida, to his personification of Time in The Winter’s Tale and reincarnation of “ancient Gower” as chorus in Pericles (based on Gower’s version of the ‘Apollonius of Tyre’ tale in his Confessio Amantis) presents us with a conundrum. Does the expedient represent more an acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s own cultural heritage, or a radical Renaissance reworking of a medieval stage commonplace? Shakespeare’s Gower personification as archaic-sounding poet-narrator in Pericles seems particularly pertinent in both memorialising and reinventing Gower for an audience “born in these latter times, when wit’s more ripe” and, in the process, refashioning the traditional stage Everyman role and function for the modern individualistic age.

Although the characterisation of “moral Gower” is to an extent evident in his Pericles avatar, the common feature linking all of these choric devices in the plays in which they occur is narrative exposition and continuity, suggesting the aim of emulating master storytellers of verse romances, and of invoking the poetic tradition established by his own great predecessors, particularly Chaucer and Gower. My paper will compare the typical medieval choric device, where a moralistic and didactic tone is common and the Shakespearean instances, which are inflected more by poetic reflection than moralistic sentiment. The question inevitably arises why Shakespeare avails himself of the choric device in some plays but not in others, and the paper will investigate not just how, but equally why, the device is used. I will also make the case for a close connection between the history and romance genres—as opposed to comedy and tragedy—and the choric device in Shakespeare’s dramas. Through close textual analysis of language (e.g. use of archaism) and versification in his choric speeches I will chart Shakespeare’s skilful creation and deployment of a medieval and early modern hybrid.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2017
Event41st AEDEAN Conference - Centro Asociado de la UNED, Tenerife, Spain
Duration: 8 Nov 201710 Nov 2017


Conference41st AEDEAN Conference
Internet address


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