Ian Munro, The Figure of the Crowd in Early Modern London: The City and its Double
(Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 255pp
Index and notes.
ISBN 1403966427 £40.00 (hbk).
As Ian Munro notes in the Introduction to his stimulating book, The Figure of the Crowd in Early Modern London: The City and its Double, literary and cultural historians studying early modern London have enjoyed an embarrassment of critical riches in the past decade. Works such as Lawrence Manley’s Literature and Culture in Early Modern London (1995), John Twyning’s London Dispossessed (1998) and collections, including Londinopolis (eds. Paul Griffiths and Mark Jenner, 2000) and Material London, ca. 1600 (ed. Lena Cowen Orlin, 2000), have developed our understanding of the interactions of place and cultural production and consumption in the capital, while also mapping out new areas of interest and innovative modes of exploring them.
Munro locates his own work in relation to such developments, but seeks to deepen our awareness of one aspect of early modern city life — ‘the figure of the crowd’ — and also to occupy a singular critical position. This position is at once what he terms ‘deconstructive’ and ‘between’ the ‘older new historicist project’ and a ‘new new historicism’ (borrowing a coinage from Patricia Fumerton)(pp. 2-3). Such a position, Munro attests, allows him to compensate for what he perceives as the limitations of critical models formulated by the likes of Stephen Greenblatt and Leonard Tennenhouse and thereby to account more fully for the particularities of the ‘complex dynamics of power vested in theatrical (and metatheatrical) entertainments’ (p. 6). His range of critical influences is accordingly expansive. It is one of the book’s great strengths that it weaves together contemporary theorists with early modern authors and their influences in convincing ways, juxtaposing John Stow and Henri Lefebvre, Plato and Gilles Deleuze. As if mindful of the difficulties such an ambitious scope might pose for readers, Munro is careful to offer detailed directions for his arguments.
This critical range is complemented by the variety of primary literary material Munro examines. In Chapters 1 and 3 respectively, Munro employs welcome analysis of Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII, Shakespearean plays suffering from relative critical neglect. Equally, less well-known dramas by Thomas Middleton and works by Thomas Heywood, George Chapman and Thomas Dekker all receive judicious exposure. Munro even incisively re-reads primary material that is now critical common currency, such as Elizabeth’s 1580 Proclamation against subdivided residences and urban expansion.
The book is divided into six chapters, each augmenting the thesis Munro outlines in his Introduction. Here, he defines the crowd by its lack of definition, observing that ‘the uncategorizable connotations of the word “crowd” are an important aspect of its cultural character’ (p. 2). During the late sixteenth century, despite, or indeed because of, this ill-definition, urban crowds become an ‘inescapable presence’ in the ever burgeoning city, a presence that provokes ‘pervasive unease’ in the ‘literature and official proclamations’ of the period (p. 1). As Munro asserts later, crowds and how they were figured at once exemplified and produced the ‘infinite connectability’ of the early modern urban scene (p. 132). Crowds are therefore perceived as ‘the visible manifestation of an increasingly incomprehensible city’, ‘always supplemental, always understood as a form of excessiveness and/or superfluousness’ (p. 1). Munro later insightfully explores this monstrous supplementarity and prodigiousness in relation to Julius Caesar (pp. 144-46). Equally, he neatly suggests that these urban crowds ‘were most commonly staged as audiences’ (p. 11), and it is in articulating this equation that The Figure of the Crowd offers most to those working on early modern drama. By addressing how discourses about crowds related to civic pageantry, antitheatrical polemics, and the ‘War of the Theatres’, Munro adds much to our understanding of the cultural context of dramatic reception and production in the capital.
Chapter 1 investigates the contradictions and ‘overlaps’ created by staging urban worlds, by re-situating Shakespeare’s second tetralogy in relation to the issues of crowded city spaces (p. 77). The sustained emphasis on history plays in this context is refreshing and valuable. As Munro suggests, it contributes a ‘counterpoint … to the narrow focus on city comedy that usually accompanies urban subjects’ (pp. 105-6).
Through this acute focus on history plays, Munro is able to explore the problems of staging crowds in the Elizabethan period. Quite apart from the dangerous political implications of such stagings, companies didn’t have enough actors, and playhouses didn’t have enough space (as Munro pithily puts it, ‘the infinite numbers of the staged crowd’ indicated by stage directions ‘would perhaps number a dozen’ (p. 50)). However, imagined ‘mob scenes’ abound in the drama of the period (p. 47). Of course, as Munro notes, the crowds of Sir Thomas More’s riot scene never made the stage: the play was banned. Other imagined crowds were distanced or safely sanitised by being made to occupy historical, foreign or imaginary cities such as Rome or Antwerp. And yet, Munro suggests, Shakespeare for one persistently figured crowds that were not distant, historical, foreign, imaginary or sanitary, but real and vivacious, there and then – his audiences: ‘By staging or invoking spectating crowds, especially through an address to the actual audience, plays linked the bounded space of their drama to the theatrical space of their performance’ (p. 47). Munro is perhaps a little too careful to assert that this does not make Shakespeare’s histories ‘urban plays’: evidently, by figuring this audience as an urban crowd, these analyses broaden the parameters of urban literature.
Munro is similarly attentive to, and engaging on, the disjunctions occasioned by comparing ‘the city staged and the city as stage’ (p. 58). Yet, arguably, he misses a trick when discussing Henry V. Munro suggests that though the play’s Chorus rehabilitates a relationship with the audience, ‘London vanishes from the dramatic world of the play’: ‘Harry’s constant staging of himself takes place not before an urban crowd or a tavern audience but in front of an army’ (p. 87). Well, one urban crowd is still present at least — in the playhouse. And it was a crowd to whom this disjunction would have been painfully plain. In Act IV, Westmoreland wishes that those ‘That do no work to-day’ could join the King’s forces to fight at Agincourt, only for the King to downplay the need for more men. The skiving apprentices, feckless aristos and fops massed for an afternoon’s entertainment may have realised that they were the ones doing no work that particular day, and as such, were superfluously holding ‘their manhoods cheap’, to cite the King.
These analyses enhance existing approaches to London’s drama, and especially Shakespeare’s history plays. However, Munro’s overall treatment of the political valency of the figure of the crowd may prove contentious. Munro makes it plain that he is interested in the ‘cultural reception’ of crowds, not their ‘political or psychological agency’, unlike historians such as George Rudé, Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill (p. 2). All the same, he affirms that by emphasising the ‘function’ of the crowd as a ‘dramatic motif … a theatrical manifestation’, he does not intend to ‘de politicize the meaning of representations of the crowd’ (p. 2, sic). Yet he consistently recognises but then diminishes the political context for, and potential political implications of, his subject. Munro admits as much, observing that Chapter 2 ‘generally pays limited attention to the local historical and political concerns’ (p. 53) in which mayoral shows and pageants operated.
It is tenable to accept, as Munro does, that ‘it is correct on one level’ to perceive the political dimension of crowds and perceptions of crowds as only part of the cultural phenomena of crowds and their representation (p. 130). Equally, one might stress, as Munro also does, that ‘the crowd was seen in terms of social and symbolic instability’ (p. 9). As such, he avers, ‘a basic equation of representation with political anxiety oversimplifies the uses to which the trope of the many-headed monster was put’ (p. 113). However, when dealing with a figure of such manifest political import as the early modern crowd, is it not quite another matter to dislocate political contexts, dimensions or anxieties?
Munro expresses his caution about reading ‘representations and perceptions of the crowd’ in a ‘straightforward mimetic fashion’, in the hope of recovering ‘an apparent political reality existing outside the parameters of the text’ (p. 2). Yet Munro is so intent on demarcating a singular critical position in this regard that he is prepared to argue, of Julius Caesar, that ‘the driving force of the play is theatrical, not political, power’ (p. 154). Later, he describes his reading of Coriolanus as one that understands the play ‘less as a political parable than as an urban parable’ (p. 193). New historicist and cultural materialist critics might well denounce such statements, vehemently proclaiming that early modern theatricality and cities are never apolitical. In itself, this is not a reason for Munro to vacate the position he occupies. Debate is as vital as novel orthodoxies are morbid, and Munro is rightly cautious about reducing plays such as Henry VIII to representing or facilitating the ‘subversion of royal power’ (p. 102). However, to oppose the theatrical and the political, or the political and the urban, or to intimate that each might exclude or outweigh the other, appears overly dogmatic. Given the interconnected supplemental and excessive energies Munro finds in crowds, why can’t these plays articulate interconnected ideas about theatrical, political and urban power simultaneously? Elsewhere, Munro usefully seems to suggest that such simultaneity is possible precisely because of these energies, at least for the crowded audience, ‘for whom the line between political and commercial theatrical displays, between ritual and entertainment, is blurred’ (p. 131).
Yet these concerns intensify when we focus on how Munro describes the figure of the crowd itself. Early on in the book, Munro declares that as he sees ‘the figure of the crowd’ as a ‘vehicle by which certain kinds of cultural meanings and conflicts are transmitted’; it is not his intention ‘to establish the crowd as a simple manifestation of legitimate or illegitimate popular discontent’ (p. 2). This is fair enough, but why not attempt to read the crowd as a ‘complex’ manifestation of discontent, legitimate or otherwise? Attempting to realise this complexity might lead to a question that remains unasked and so unanswered throughout The Figure of the Crowd: how did the crowd figure itself?
In his Introduction, Munro asserts that his ‘central’ concern is the ‘crowded space’ of the city, and he encapsulates this concern in a question: ‘What does it mean for a space to be crowded?'(p. 5). This question surely demands extension: what does it mean to whom? Munro marshals royal decrees, Venetian ambassadors, playwrights, poetasters and civic potentates. Yet nowhere do we hear the voices of the crowds, and their concerns or ideas about being in and of a crowd or crowded spaces. We learn of ‘the discourse of the crowd, the ideological framework within which the urban multitude was contextualized’ (p. 106). Yet we do not learn of any discourses by the crowd, the poor, the low, the mobile, those whose discontent disconcerted their betters and whose voices may have been united or diverse. To be fair, Munro insists on the perceived anonymity and ‘illegibility’ of the early modern urban crowd (p. 10). Crowds were and are hard to define, and the crowded city, especially, is ‘both inarticulate and disarticulated, distracted, dismembered’ (p. 141). But if crowds were illegible and inarticulate, or made so, how did this happen? In other words, if we can’t hear these voices, then or now, it would be good to know why. What are the conditions that silence the individual and massed voices of crowds, and prevent them figuring themselves? What are the conditions that permit articulation? If crowds do speak, how can we hear them?
Arguably, answering these questions falls outside Munro’s remit and interests. Nonetheless, they are worth addressing not least because acknowledging how members of crowds articulated their own status, even to those punishing or condemning them, might productively counterbalance anxious or punitive or animated discourses about the crowd. Moreover, considering these issues would enhance Munro’s own reading of the ‘figure of the crowd’ as many-headed and polymorphous: why not let these many heads have their many voices? Of course, it is supremely hard and risky for our ears to capture these voices — often, on hearing, we alter them. Yet it is possible, even desirable. Court and parish records might offer some evidence, for example. Though, as noted above, The Figure of the Crowd deals with a range of ‘literature and official proclamations’, one wonders whether it might not have been enhanced by engaging with more primary historical data of this kind. It was one of Christopher Hill’s many virtues as a cultural and socio-economic historian that he was able to revive the words and stories of so many marginal or silent people, from disparate sources, even if in fragmentary or mediated forms.
The book’s most compelling chapter is perhaps the last, an earlier version of which appeared in English Literary Renaissance 30.2 (Spring 2000). It explores the ‘overdetermined association between the plague and the urban crowd’, and ‘the presence and persistence of plague in early modern London as it is manifested in the urban literature of the period’ (p. 178). Where Munro locates this presence in obvious places — Dekker’s plague pamphlets — he offers new readings sensitive to the febrile material and corporeal realities of London at the time: ‘Growth thus always carries within itself the threat of its own destruction’ (p. 186). Hence Munro also engagingly cultivates a ‘productive infelicity’ (p. 191) by setting such pamphlets and their concerns alongside, or against, Coriolanus, a play he suggests is infected by ‘plague imagery and rhetoric’ (p. 178). This kind of cross-generic interrelation prompts and is validated by Munro’s most detailed textual analysis, evincing the quality of this book.
Though the Introduction is concise and clear, the work might have benefited from a conclusion that could knit together the issues it explores or trace their development. Munro only hints at future trajectories for the discourses and dynamics he identifies. Accordingly, as he notes in the Introduction, it might be read profitably alongside Tim Harris’ London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II (1987) and also his ‘Perceptions of the Crowd in Later Stuart London’, in J. F. Merritt, ed., Imagining Early Modern London (2001). To this list one might also add a piece Munro does not mention, dealing usefully with the politicality and spectacle of urban crowds: Thomas Laqueur’s ‘Crowds, Carnival and the State in English Executions, 1604-1868’ available in A. L. Beier et al. (eds.), The First Modern Society (1989).
Those working on later periods who have already encountered Robert Shoemaker’s The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-century London (2004), Thomas Reinert’s Regulating Confusion: Samuel Johnson and the Crowd (1996) and John Plotz’s The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics 1800-1850 (2000) would benefit from scrutinising The Figure of the Crowd. This is a highly commendable study sensitive to the convulsions of a burgeoning city, and how literature figured itself in relation to these convulsions. As it deserves to incite debate, it is a crucial addition to explorations of the crowd in London’s cultural history. Give or take the odd typo (pp. 2, 43), Munro has produced an enviably challenging, original and scrupulously argued work.
To Cite This Article:
Adam Hansen, ‘Review: Ian Munro, The Figure of the Crowd in Early Modern London: The City and its Double’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2005/hansen.html. Accessed on [date of access]