'"Batter'd, Not Demolish'd': Staging the Tortured Body in the Martyred Soldier

By Williamson, Elizabeth | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

'"Batter'd, Not Demolish'd': Staging the Tortured Body in the Martyred Soldier


Williamson, Elizabeth, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


How does torture work on the stage? And how does that work align with, or provide room for a critique of, the work that torture does for the state? This essay takes up these questions through a close reading of Henry Shirley's The Martyred Soldier, first performed at the Red Bull Theater around 1618. This play has recently gained critical attention because of its miraculous conversions and other special effects.1 It is also noteworthy because it falls in the middle of a group of plays first performed in the late 1610s and early 1620s that consistently revisit narratives from early Christian history, using visual and aural effects to heighten the audience's appetite for familiar religious themes.2 What interests me here, however, is the way The Martyred Soldier interrogates both religious ideology and state power. In a recent analysis of King Lear, John D. Staines argues that tragedy "makes an audience experience the violence of its culture."3 The Martyred Soldier is ambiguously tragic-its protagonists die enthusiastically, like all good martyrs-but it does present an anatomy of torture that complicates religious narratives of transcendent suffering. Its staging of martyrdom pushes the Christian tradition to the limits of its own logic before exposing the ways in which state power both relies upon and effaces martyred bodies.

My approach to The Martyred Soldier draws on the work of Nova Myhill and Holly Crawford Pickett, whose analyses of the spectacular martyrdoms in Jacobean drama reveal the limitations of attempting to label these moments as either Catholic or Protestant. To borrow Pickett's elegant formulation, "[o]ne need not be pro-Catholic in order to be anti-torture."4 Instead, these scholars demonstrate the importance of analyzing stage martyrdoms as theatrical events created by using systems of signification particular to the stage. Like the medieval plays described by Jody Enders, Jacobean stagings of torture invited playgoers "to interpret what is already subject to interpretation," i.e., the spectacle of the body in pain.5 Myhill locates a similar kind of awareness in the staging of early modern drama, arguing that public theater audiences were constantly reminded, by the recognizable conventions of the repertory system, that it was their own reception of the play that determined its significance. She focuses in particular on Dekker and Massinger's The Virgin Martyr, suggesting that its heroine's suffering "allows for multiple readings simultaneously, based not on Dorothea's body, which reveals nothing, but through the generic conventions of martyrdom and the stage play."6 The result is that spectators have a variety of options available to them: they can read the events depicted on stage mimetically according to a variety of ideological positions, or they can view them as "mere" spectacle.

Extending Myhill's argument about The Virgin Martyr to a series of other Jacobean plays, including The Martyred Soldier, Pickett makes the claim that these texts "seem to carve out a space within their culture's definition of mainstream Christian orthodoxy ... for theatrical spectacle."7 Complicating Michael O'Connell's influential assertion that the theater existed as a reaction against an anti-visual Protestant culture, Pickett finds in the plays' selfconsciousness not just ideological flexibility but also a defense of the theatrical apparatus itself: "they admit to their own ostentation," she concludes, "without conceding the power of that ostentation to improve."8 In Pickett's reading, the plays implicitly argue that theatrical spectacle was not so different from the kinds of spectacle that religion itself deployed.

The overt staginess of The Martyred Soldier lends itself naturally to readings such as Pickett's and Myhill's, which reveal that theater was always pointing first and foremost to its own mechanisms. The play begins with a typically bloody pagan crusade against a small but stalwart group of Christians. …

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