Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy

Paperback | November 1, 1998

byMichael Neill

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Death, like most experiences that we think of as natural, is a product of the human imagination: all animals die, but only human beings suffer Death; and what they suffer is shaped by their own time and culture. Tragedy was one of the principal instruments through which the culture of earlymodern England imagined the encounter with mortality. The essays in this book approach the theatrical reinvention of Death from three perspectives. Those in Part I explore Death as a trope of apocalypse -- a moment of un-veiling or dis-covery that is figured both in the fearful nakedness of theDanse Macabre and in the shameful openings enacted in the new theatres of anatomy. Separate chapters explore the apocalyptic design of two of the periods most powerful tragedies -- Shakespeare's Othello, and Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling. In Part 2, Neill explores the psychological and affective consequences of tragedy's fiercely end-driven narrative in a number of plays where a longing for narrative closure is pitched against a particularly intense dread of ending. The imposition of an end is often figured as an act of writerlyviolence, committed by the author or his dramatic surrogate. Extensive attention is paid to Hamlet as an extreme example of the structural consequences of such anxiety. The function of revenge tragedy as a response to the radical displacement of the dead by the Protestant abolition of purgatory --one of the most painful aspects of the early modern re-imagining of death -- is also illustrated with particular clarity. Finally, Part 3 focuses on the way tragedy articulates its challenge to the undifferentiating power of death through conventions and motifs borrowed from the funereal arts. It offers detailed analyses of three plays -- Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, and Ford'sThe Broken Heart. Here, funeral is rewritten as triumph, and death becomes the chosen instrument of an heroic self-fashioning designed to dress the arbitrary abruption of mortal ending in a powerful aesthetic of closure.

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Death, like most experiences that we think of as natural, is a product of the human imagination: all animals die, but only human beings suffer Death; and what they suffer is shaped by their own time and culture. Tragedy was one of the principal instruments through which the culture of earlymodern England imagined the encounter with mor...

Michael Neill is at University of Auckland.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:418 pages, 8.5 × 5.43 × 0.91 inPublished:November 1, 1998Publisher:Oxford University Press

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:019818493X

ISBN - 13:9780198184935

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Table of Contents

IntroductionPart I. Within all rottenness: Tragedy, Death, and Apocalypse1. Peremptory nullification: Tragedy and Macabre Art2. The Stage of Death: Tragedy and Anatomy3. Opening the Moor: Death and Discovery in Othello4. Hidden Malady: Death, Discovery, and Indistinction in The ChangelingPart II. Making an End: Deaths Arrest and the Shaping of Tragic Narrative5. Anxieties of Ending6. To know my stops: Hamlet and Narrative Abruption7. Accommodating the Dead: Hamlet and the Ends of RevengePart III. Rue with a difference: Tragedy and the Funereal Arts8. Death's triumphal chariot: Tragedy and Funeral9. Finis coronat opus: The Monumental Ending of Anthony and Cleopatra10. Fame's best friend: The Endings of The Duchess of Malfi11. Great Arts best write themselves in their own Stories: Ending The Broken HeartAppendix. The Plague and the Dance of DeathBibliographyIndex

Editorial Reviews

`The position may be familiar, but it is important, and Neill's version of it is richly illustrated ... The book forcefully revives the old thesis about the role of the plague, not just in the danse macabre motif but in the mortality crisis of this era as a whole ... a substantive and gracefulpiece of literary and cultural criticism, wise and learned, well argued and well written, generously and helpfully documented, perceptive about the dominant patterms of some major Renaissance dramatic texts, and informative about their social contexts.'Robert N. Watson, University of California, Los Angeles, MLR, vol 94, no 3, 1999