About “The Play’s the Thing” / Ren Things Matthew J. Rinkevich
In Othello, a bride dies because of a handkerchief. In Doctor Faustus, a scholar hopes burning books will save his soul. And, in The Roaring Girl, a pickpocket redefines her gender by smoking a pipe. Objects like handkerchiefs and pipes are powerful actors in English Renaissance drama, and a group of honors students at the University of Delaware took them seriously. They did so by working together in a section of Honors 290, a creative arts and humanities colloquium called “‘The Play’s the Thing’: Material Cultures of English Renaissance Drama” that I designed and taught this fall (2019).
If, to quote Hamlet, “the play’s the thing,” this class unpacked what happens when things are the play, when objects contribute to the dramatic force of plays by Shakespeare and others. First, students worked through important material-culture methodologies and theories, including works by Karl Marx, cultural historian Jules Prown, and political theorist Jane Bennett. Then, they read and analyzed six English Renaissance plays: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (ca. 1593), William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ca. 1596), Shakespeare’sOthello (ca. 1603), Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl(ca. 1611), and Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure (ca. 1668). Conversations focused on how objects construct and complicate social and identic positions like race and gender—in other words, the ways human-made artifacts work to make us us. Additionally, students encountered Renaissance plays as objects by analyzing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books in Special Collections, discussing book history and design, making their own playbooks in class, and touring a professional theater and meeting with a properties supervisor. Student writing included close-reading paragraphs, research-based argumentative essays, and submissions to a digital archive of English Renaissance material culture.
Working collaboratively, students created this learning resource: Ren Things: A Study of Material Culture in Renaissance Era Plays. Now, you have the opportunity to tour it; read their work; and learn more about these plays, various contexts that can inform your understanding and appreciation of them; and the world of objects—the abundance of Renaissance things—that constitute this imaginative, literary, and historical landscape.
Ren Things was a group effort, and every student in the class contributed their time and energy to creating it. Therefore, I take this opportunity to thank and recognize all of them:
Nate Abbe, Quinn Annable, Dan Borsykowsky, Nicholas Cameron, Anna Cleary, Patrick Murray, Zoe Doubrley (contexts editor), Ciana Fe Gadut (plays editor), Mathias Heider, Matt Higgins, Chris Jaeger, Aaron Junkin (objects index editor), Stephen Li, Tyler Mehigan (objects index editor), Molly Miranda, Ashley O’Farrell (analyses editor), Megan O’Meara, Nate Sercelj, Manju Sivasankar, Phina Smith, and Hallie Teitelbaum (analyses editor).
Nick deserves special thanks for his work as webmaster!
Many thanks as well to Stefanie Hansen, Properties Supervisor for the University of Delaware Resident Ensemble Players; Curtis Small, Senior Assistant Librarian and Public Services Coordinator at the University of Delaware Library Special Collection Department; and Jackson Truschel, ThingSTOR Project Supervisor. Finally, the University of Delaware Center for Material Culture Studies and Honors Program supported and, at times, championed this colloquium.