Spectacle in Early Modern English Drama

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The early modern English theater abounds with sights that were prepared, designed, and built to be seen. Playwrights conjured evocative and terrifying spectacles for their productions on the London stages between 1576 and the early 1640s, and publishers preserved those moments in printed plays with stage directions. Early modern play scripts call for flayed skins, arrows shot through hearts, tritons in flowing rivers, Zeus's thunderbolts, fiery hellmouths, brazen heads that speak, vengeful ghosts, bridled kings, cannibalistic feasts, enlivened statues, hungry bears, sea battles, naked puppets, vomiting wives, cursing monsters, and the hand of God.

Determining how these spectacles operate is the purpose of this dissertation. I argue that spectacle--the hypervisual shows demanded by playwrights in stage directions and dialogue cues--is a fundamental tool of early modern dramatists. In the hands of certain playwrights, spectacle defamiliarizes the known world, making it strange and evocative in order to guide the audience to re-imagine their understanding of such objects and events. Spectacles such as mythological figures, broken bodies, talking dogs, and military machines compel audiences to recognize but then reassess what those images signify.

Each of the dissertation's four chapters focuses on a spectacle that is indicative of a larger pattern in dramatic literature. Chapter One, "Herculean Efforts: Spectacle as Rebellion," studies the liminal figure of Hercules in Thomas Heywood's The Silver Age (1611), Jasper Heywood's 1561 translation of Seneca's Hercules Furens; and Thomas Heywood's The Brazen Age (1613). Herculean spectacle suggests an unnerving connection between spectacular control and rule. The second chapter, "Spectacular Suffering: Edward II and Titus Andronicus," suggests that broken bodies on stage are more compelling when they do not adhere to the decorum that accompanied punishments on the scaffold. Chapter Three, "Bad Dog: Spectacle in The Witch of Edmonton," investigates the unsettling tension between morality and spectacularity that centers around Dog, a devilish talking canine in Thomas Dekker, Thomas Rowley, and John Ford's 1621 true-crime drama. Finally, "Spectacular Collapse? Tamburlaine, Parts I and II," argues that Tamburlaine's shows demonstrate the instability of spectacular power as they become increasingly illegible to those he would conquer.