Shakespearean Maternities: Crises of Conception in Early Modern England

Shakespearean Maternities: Crises of Conception in Early Modern England

Shakespearean Maternities: Crises of Conception in Early Modern England

Shakespearean Maternities: Crises of Conception in Early Modern England


This study explores maternity in the 'disciplines' of early modern England. Placing the reproductive female body centre-stage in Shakespeare's theatre, Laoutaris ranges beyond the domestic sphere in which the rituals of childbirth, midwifery and wet-nursing were performed in order to recuperate the wider intellectual, epistemological, and archaeological significance of maternity to the Renaissance imagination. Focusing on 'anatomy' in Hamlet, 'natural history' in The Tempest, 'demonology' in Macbeth, and 'heraldry' in Antony and Cleopatra, this book reveals the ways in which the maternal body was figured in, and in turn contributed towards the re-conceptualisation of, bodies of knowledge. The relevance of the maternal to early pedagogical, aesthetic, and scientific disciplines, Laoutaris argues, makes itself felt when crises overturn the desired outcomes of birth and nurture. Instances of tragic intervention - such as disease, bewitchment, monstrosity, and death - expose the potentially destabilising power of maternity, dismantling the epistemological certainties with which the maternal body had been invested in the interests of masculine legitimation. Shakespeare resists a monolithic concept of motherhood, presenting instead a range of contested 'maternities' which challenge the distinctive 'ways of knowing' these early disciplines worked to impose on the order of created nature. Key Features
• Provides a new interpretation of a subject which is becoming increasingly popular among Shakespeare scholars, cultural and medical historians, and feminist critics
• Focuses on four of Shakespeare's best-loved plays
• Presents striking visual material which forms a central component of the book's critical methodology, including anatomical plates, cabinets of curiosity, early modern follies and grottoes, archaeological discoveries, artefacts of witchcraft and superstition, early natural historical specimens, Renaissance 'monsters', ceramics, portraiture, funerary monume


I thinck the time best spent in tiring you with the idle conceits of my
travelling minde … to convert my feare, dispaire, greefe, mistrust and
other deepe rooted conceits which long time and wofull experience …
bring forth … which hide the desired fruite of your labour from your
knowledge till time have brought it to maturity …

Lady Arabella Stuart to Sir Henry Brounker

Between 2005 and 2007 Pioneer Productions launched its groundbreaking trilogy of documentaries, In the Womb, taking a global audience on a spellbinding journey into the very beginnings of life. State-of-the-art 4D technology and arresting computer-generated imagery met with live-action medical photography to open the world of the womb as never before. the foetus was shown developing in a nurturing yet perilous eco-system, interacting with its living environment and, in the case of multiple-births, with its siblings. This was bodied forth with touching immediacy in the documentary In the Womb: Multiples which revealed the womb to be a space in which early emotional ties could be formed and human boundaries tested. Twins and multiples were captured as they engaged in recognisable acts of social exchange, seeming to play, fight and even, in one particularly memorable instance, kiss (Fig. I.1).

These documentaries mark an important historical phase in the biomedical epistemology of the womb which, in the twentieth century, was inaugurated by the pioneering photography of Lennart Nilsson. It was in Life magazine's edition of 30 April 1965 that Nilsson released his painstakingly assembled visual record of human life in its earliest stages of development. Introduced with the provocative caption 'Drama of Life before Birth', a veritable cabinet of foetuses, each locked in its diaphanous amniotic bubble, was showcased in finer detail than had ever been possible (Fig. I.2). Since then the seemingly indissoluble marriage between the technologisation of the maternal body and the increasing . . .

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