Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Absorbing Interests: Kyd's Bloody Handkerchief as Palimpsest

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Absorbing Interests: Kyd's Bloody Handkerchief as Palimpsest

Article excerpt

Old stancher! [Pause.] You ... remain. --Hamm in Endgame(1)

After the Protestant Reformation took hold in England, many stage properties familiar from the drama of worship performed by urban trade guilds became politically and religiously suspect. While Elizabethan society debated whether theatrical representation was acceptable on the one hand or idolatrous on the other, Elizabethan authorities sought to curb the theatrical use of Catholic symbolism through legislation. Thus a letter dated 27 May 1576 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners of York to the bailiff and burgesses of Wakefield decreed that "no Pageant be used or set furth wherin the Ma[jes]tye of God the Father, God the Sonne, or God the Holie Ghoste or the administration of either the Sacramentes of baptisme or of the Lordes Supper be counterfeyted or represented, or anythinge plaied which tende to the maintenaunce of superstition and idolatrie or which be contrarie to the lawes of god [and] or of the realme."(2) By 1580, the Corpus Christi play cycles had either withered away or been suppressed by the Elizabethan authorities, and with them vanished such formerly central properties as the eucharistic Host itself.(3)

Yet the Mass and its symbols did not fade from the awareness of early modern audiences once their overt representation was banned on the stage. The Elizabethan playwrights who wrote for a nascent commercial theater were eager to exploit the rituals of the old religion, although their aim was not necessarily the Reformist propaganda exemplified by Cromwell's aggressively polemical playwright, John Bale. While the political space for expressions of dissent was restricted, in the new economy of the sign developed by commercially-minded playwrights, radically different imaginative contracts with spectators drawn from all levels of society became necessary in order to build an audience largely made up of individual, urban ticket-buyers rather than regional communities united by civic and devotional concerns. And if the new commercial drama risked provoking the authorities by presenting religious material in verbal form, it could smuggle religious imagery and content onto the stage by appealing to the spectators' imagination and memory through gestures and physical objects.

Marvin Carlson's concept of "ghosting" offers a useful way of understanding the mechanism whereby the commercial Elizabethan drama invoked religious symbols and ideas that could no longer be directly represented on stage with impunity. Carlson reminds us that spectators bring associations from previous productions with them to the theater, and that these "ghosts" color their experience of the current performance.(5) When Elizabethan audiences saw Edward Alleyn play Christopher Marlowe's Faustus, for example, Alleyn's performance would have been "ghosted" by his previous appearances as Marlovian overreachers such as Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta. According to Carlson:

   In semiotic terms, we might say that a signifier, already bonded to a
   signified in the creation of a stage sign, is moved in a different context
   to be attached to a different signified, but when that new bonding takes
   place, the receiver's memory of the previous bonding remains,
   contaminating, or "ghosting" the new sign.(6)

One concrete example of such "ghosting" was the Elizabethan players' use of actual church vestments and properties for satiric ends. In one familiar example, Marlowe's Mephistopheles wears the robes of a Franciscan friar (and thus confirms the audience's presumed suspicion that all friars are devilish).

Another striking example, and the focus of this essay, is the device of the bloody handkerchief popularized by Thomas Kyd's spectacularly successful The Spanish Tragedy (1582-92). As it moves through the play, Kyd's bloody handkerchief invokes previous performances by bloody cloths, even as it weaves them into an original narrative. …

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