Staging Death: The Corpse in Renaissance Drama

Date of Completion

January 2011


Literature, English|Theater History




The study of the body during the Renaissance became a critical focus in the 2000s. Works such as Michael Schoenfeldt's Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England (2000) and Susan Zimmerman's 2005 The Early Modern Corpse and Shakespeare 's Theatre exhumed the corpse for understanding the impact of the material body on literature and culture. In my dissertation I go beyond the important groundwork laid by these texts by dissecting the material reality of the staged corpse. I consider how the staged corpse achieved an apogee when high mortality rates, radical changes in belief and a cultural shift away from the traditional rigidity of the feudal system all combined to make the corpse a marker of changing social reality in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. ^ I analyze the relationship between contemporary beliefs about the dead and dramatic representation of the corpse. Renaissance beliefs varied with a deeply rooted concern over the place of the dead. This growing array of beliefs was reflected in shifting practices. For example, The Book of Common Prayer moved from acknowledging the dead as present in early funeral rites to absent. Funerary practice surrounding official doctrine followed an inverse trajectory as the impersonal heraldic funeral was replaced by highly individualistic nocturnal funerals of the Jacobean period. My dissertation uncovers and investigates the connections between these two seemingly opposite trends as they play out in drama. ^ The centrality and number of dramatically significant corpses staged in this period is staggering. I argue that the corpse served to present and challenge vital cultural concerns using the dead body as a major focus of dramatic interest. The staged presence of Andrea throughout The Spanish Tragedy directly addressed the growing cultural concern with the re-shaping and questioning of the spatial layout of the afterlife. Both Titus Andronicus and Hamlet raised questions about what kind of expiation is demanded and deserved by the dead and its effect on the living. Finally, both Samson Agonistes and The Revenger's Tragedy raised chilling questions about the ontological status of the dead in regard to predestination and free will. ^