Academic journal article Early Theatre

'The House Is Hers, the Soul Is but a Tenant': Material Self-Fashioning and Revenge Tragedy

Academic journal article Early Theatre

'The House Is Hers, the Soul Is but a Tenant': Material Self-Fashioning and Revenge Tragedy

Article excerpt

In Thomas Middleton's The Maiden's Tragedy, the Lady, object of interest for Govianus and the Tyrant, appears on stage as a ghost together with her corpse. (1) Indeed, the Lady appears twice with her corpse. She first appears as a ghost dressed in her virginal burial garb with a crucifix, while her corpse has been bedecked in a different elaborate dress and jewels; the stage directions prior to her entrance read, 'Enter the Ghost of the Lady, as she was /Last seen, standing just before him all in white, stuck with / Jewels, and with a great crucifix on her breast (4.5.43). The Lady's second appearance on stage is even more fraught, since she next appears on stage as a ghost dressed in the very same garb as her corpse: 'Enter the Ghost of the Lady, dressed in the same form as her body in the chair (5.2.143). For many scholars this instance follows a prevailing motif of revenge tragedies, in which ghosts and corpses problematize 'playing dead'. (2)

Playing dead, however, is not merely a staging issue, though performance of a single character in two simultaneous but separate locations is a legitimate concern, both metaphysical and staging, since playing dead also poses eschatological and ontological challenges to neoplatonism, stoicism, and Christian theology, frameworks within which many Jacobean and revenge plays are conceived. Where most readings of ghosts and corpses on stage rely on a Christian, neoplatonic, and stoic notion of the body's unity with the soul, in which the soul governs the body and the body is a mere vessel for the soul, I argue that The Maiden's Tragedy, The Revenger's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi all participate in a larger trend of the early modern period in which the body is progressively evacuated of the spirit. This progression ultimately reverses the conventional Christian and neoplatonic paradigm, such that the material, the body, is shown to govern the spirit, and the body itself demonstrates an unruly agency that troubles both a stable and 'whole' conception of the self, as well as a notion of the soul/self as indivisible from the body until after death. All three plays anticipate Cartesian mechanistic dualism where consciousness constitutes subjectivity and where bodies can be automata.

The very medium of theatre itself works to undermine neoplatonism and stoicism, in that theatricality effectively destabilizes the spirit's immanence in the body, as it demands materialism both in staging and in reading. What is more, the mode of theatre is connected with the Cartesian cogito, which also insists upon a kind of detached theatricality, what Erica Harth calls a 'theatrum mundi' and what Gordon Braden calls 'a privileged position from which to observe and delineate'. (3) Thus, as we move from plays of the late Elizabethan period to the Jacobean period, which call increasingly for theatricality, we witness a progressive evacuation of the spirit from the body, to the extent that the material and not the spiritual is the governing force of the body. Not only does the body precede and govern the soul, but also modifications to the body effect modifications to the soul. (4)

That corporeal modifications are a subject of this article in the first place arises in part because a discussion of Jacobean and revenge tragedies demands a discussion of bodily modifications. For many scholars, the early modern body can be described by Elaine Scarry's notion: 'We today generally assume that the body should be thought of "as a whole" rather than as "parts", since the latter seems to imply an aggressive, if only mentally executed, dismemberment.' (5) Indeed, this premise, neoplatonic and stoic at heart, proves to be the underlying impetus for revenge, even if the outcome challenges this motivation in the first place. The concept of revenge is itself bound up with corporeal fashioning in that the body is frequently the locus for revenge, where dismemberment is not merely mental, but actual and staged. …

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