Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Killing, Hewing, Stabbing, Dagger-Drawing, Fighting, Butchery": Skin Penetration in Renaissance Tragedy and Its Bearing on Dramatic Theory

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Killing, Hewing, Stabbing, Dagger-Drawing, Fighting, Butchery": Skin Penetration in Renaissance Tragedy and Its Bearing on Dramatic Theory

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

From Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (ca. 1582-92) to John Ford's The Broken Heart (published in 1633), Renaissance tragedies bear witness to the histrionic appeal of onstage stabbing. (1) A particularly effective example figures at the end of Shakespeare's revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus (ca. 1593-94). When Titus exclaims, "witness my knife's sharp point" to announce his murder of Tamora and the consummation of his revenge, the imperative also draws attention to the knife paused in midair. (2) This creates a powerful moment of suspense that proclaims the violent encounter between knife and skin not only to Titus's victim, but also to playgoers. (3) Shakespeare's playing with the audience's excitement for and enjoyment of such violence highlights the early modern fascination with theatrical skin penetration and the generic expectations of tragedy. (4) The popularity of onstage stabbings throughout the Renaissance provoked Stephen Gosson to include "murther ... violent by sworde" among the faults of tragedy (Plays Confuted in Flue Actions, 1582); more elaborately, I. G. (John Greene?) differentiated between "killing, hewing, stabbing, dagger-drawing, fighting, butchery" in his Refutation of the Apology for Actors (1615). (5) Although skin penetration was thus perceived as a defining aspect of tragedy by Renaissance writers, (6) it has received little critical attention so far. This is especially surprising as over the past fifteen years, literary and dramatic criticism has explored the significance of the Renaissance body, dead and alive, in the drama and poetry of the early modern period. (7) Also, in 2003, Steven Connor published The Book of Skin, a cultural-philosophical examination that elaborates on the historical and contemporaneous implications of skin; among others, he discusses the term complexion in Shakespeare's plays. (8)

One reason for the neglect of skin penetration in drama criticism may be that stabbing is only one of many possible ways to die in Renaissance tragedies. Dramatists were indeed particularly resourceful in continuously inventing spectacular and gruesome deaths, which also involved poison, death traps, unfortunate accidents, and mutilation. I contend that skin penetration warrants a detailed analysis because its histrionic onstage representation illustrates critical notions of the workings of tragedy and reflects early modern views of the body's vulnerability. The precariousness of skin as the fragile boundary between the interior and the exterior is perhaps best illustrated by the early modern physician Helkiah Crooke, who remarks that "there is betwixt vs and our dissolution, not an inch boord, but a tender skinne, which the slenderest violence euen the cold aire is able to slice through." (9) Engaging in the interaction between skin and violence, and the discourses of tragedy and the body, this article assesses the representation of skin penetration with regard to its theatrical and dramatic aspects. It addresses the performative opening of the carnal envelope from the vantage point of stage pragmatics, before focusing on the way skin penetration was thematized and enacted in Renaissance drama. This article also expands upon the relevance of medical imagery, more precisely that of surgery, in protracted stabbings. What makes such a discussion especially valid is the use of surgical metaphors of skin penetration in theoretical assessments of tragedy, which suggests a conceptual continuity between the theory and practice of drama.

II. Staging Skin Penetration

From the Elizabethan to the Caroline age, tragedies abounded with sensationalist displays of blood and violence, which were in no small part indebted to the influence of Seneca. (10) This predilection for bloody scenes was shared by playgoers and dramatists alike: to the former, it was a much-anticipated spectacle, to the latter, an integral part of their artistic vision and commercial feasibility. …

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