Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespearean Revivifications: Early Modern Undead

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespearean Revivifications: Early Modern Undead

Article excerpt

IN THE MEDIGAL TREATISE A Briefe Discourse of a disease called the Suffocation of the Mother (1603), Edward Jorden is particularly descriptive about the distinctive symptomology and uncanny appearance of undead hysterical women, conscientiously inscribing his report within the classical tradition of medicine. While recent scholarship has found Jorden's work increasingly noteworthy for exploring facets of the minefield that is early modern medical praxis, (1) it is yet necessary to quote the 1603 text at some length so that the full extent of interest in this peculiar subject of the female undead may be more readily apparent:

   in that Symptom which is called Syncope or swounding, the very image
   of death, where the pulse is scarcely or not at all perceyved; the
   breath or respiration cleane gone [...] lying like a dead corpse
   three or foure houres togither, and sometimes two or three whole
   dayes without sense, motion, breath, [external] heate, or any signe
   of life at all (like as wee see Snakes and other creatures to lie
   all the winter, as if they were dead, under the earth) insomuch as
   diverse errors have beene committed in laying foorth such for dead,
   which have afterwards been found to have life in them, and have
   risen up in their burials, whereupon there have beene laws enacted,
   as Mercurialis reporteth, that no woman which was subject to this
   disease should be buried until she had beene three dayes dead....
   Plinie maketh mention out of Heraclides, of a woman who for seven
   dayes together lay for dead in a fit of the mother, and was restored
   againe to life: which (saieth Marcellus Donatus) is not to be
   thought a fabulous tale, seeing it is not repugnant to the rules of
   Philosophie and Physicke. And Galen making mention of the verie
   same hystorie under the name Apnaea, discourseth of the reasons of
   it.... Many more examples to this end could I produce out of
   Authenti call writers, and late experiences.., but these may suffice
   to shew how wonderfully the vitall facultie is overthrowne in this
   disease. (2)

Women suffering from the uterine disease known as "suffocation" or "strangulation of the womb" (or fits of "the mother," and all of the other variants), have a special place in early modern medical and literary history and, moreover, in the imagination. These women present the most spectacular of all symptoms available to the category of the hysterical, with their rigid limbs' paroxysmal contractions, falling into syncopic fits, "refrigerated" frigidity of temperature, moribund appearance, and breathing so barely perceptible that it takes a practiced doctor indeed to discern the truly dead woman from those merely suffocated and capable of reviving.

Simply put, female revivification cases center on female hysterics whose uterine maladies--usually displaced wombs--create symptoms that cause others to believe they are dead. It is a commonplace of criticism to state that early modern medicine believed in a womb that wanders unmoored around the female body and is responsible for the choking sensation described as the predominant symptom of "the mother," but few have taken the trouble to define the mechanistic models for hysterical illnesses of the womb that existed in the Renaissance as set apart from much later psychoanalytic definitions of "hysteria"--the term "hysteria" is not even available to English until 1801, though "hysterical" is. (3) Even fewer note the disjunctiveness of literary analyses that make a gesture to historicity by first citing antique theories of wandering wombs to preface discussions of Shakespeare's or Middleton's works and then discuss the hysteric in psychoanalytic terms, a connective logic properly outside Renaissance-specific modes of representation or etiological models. If we pay attention to the early modern period's different set of representational strategies for depicting a category of illness properly identified broadly as hysterical, a new set of accompanying literary representations comes to light that looks quite different from what we would normally expect from a "hysteric": not a psychosomatic disorder but a malady caused by a displaced and freely wandering uterus wreaking havoc upon a woman's body wherever it presses upon other organs or blocks critical passages. …

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