Playing Dead: Living Death in Early Modern Drama
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
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This thesis looks at occurrences of "living death" – a liminal state that exists between life and death, and which may be approached from either side – in early modern English drama. Today, reference to the living dead brings to mind zombies and their ilk, creatures which entered the English language and imagination centuries after the time of the great early modern playwrights. Yet, I argue, many post-Reformation writers were imagining states between life and death in ways more complex than existing critical discussions of “ghosts” have tended to perceive. My approach to the subject is broadly historicist, but informed throughout by ideas of stagecraft and performance. In addition to presenting fresh interpretations of well-known plays such as Thomas Middleton’s The Maiden’s Tragedy (1611) and John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), I also endeavour to shed new light on various non-canon works such as the anonymous The Tragedy of Locrine (c.1591), John Marston's Antonio's Revenge (c.1602), and Anthony Munday's mayoral pageants Chruso-thriambos (1611) and Chrysanaleia (1616), works which have received little in the way of serious scholarly attention or, in the case of Antonio's Revenge, been much maligned by critics. These dramatic works depict a whole host of the living dead, including not only ghosts and spirits but also resurrected Lord Mayors, corpses which continue to “perform” after death, and characters who anticipate their deaths or define themselves through last dying speeches. By exploring the significance of these characters, I demonstrate that the concept of living death is vital to our understanding of deeper thematic and symbolic meanings in a wide range of dramatic works.
PhD in English