And we’re back for the fourth and final thesis session of the MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. This session will run from 5:30-8pm.
Michael Wagoner: “‘When You Succeed Me, You Follow Not Me’: Processing Succession in Post-Tudor History Plays”
Wagoner’s presentation opens with the juxtaposition of England’s protestations of tremendous grief after Elizabeth’s death and their exuberant welcome of King James. 1603, as Wagoner notes, marks an important “liminal moment” in English history; his thesis explores the succession’s effect on early modern drama. With Elizabeth’s death, historical drama began to consider the more recent past, whereas previous plays had tended to stop with the rise of Henry VII. Within three years of Elizabeth’s death, a spate of plays with a “sudden and intense focus” on the Tudor dynasty sprang up; the effect was immediate and relatively short-lived. The significant shifts that marked the transition from Elizabeth to James (woman to man, Englishwoman to foreigner, virgin queen to man with an established family) were reflected in the drama, particularly with regards to “the cultural processing of such a shift”.
Wagoner interrogates the representations of the Tudor dynasty in William Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me, ultimately suggesting that both the male figures, Henry VIII and Prince Edward, figure King James, while the female figures, Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, figure the deceased Elizabeth. Actors Katie Crandol, Brett Sullivan Santry, and Shannon Schultz present scenes surrounding the pregnant Queen Jane and the birth of Edward. While King Henry begins by expressing his concern for his wife, he also demonstrates the “Henry we expect”, consumed by his desire for a male heir. When asked to choose between saving his wife and his child, Rowley presents a Henry who grapples with the decision, but ultimately chooses his wife. The play then has Queen Jane advocate for her own death, placing the succession ahead of herself. Wagoner argues that the play presents Henry as more preoccupied with his own concerns and personal desires than those of the country, presenting perhaps a more sympathetic man but less responsible king.
Wagoner moves into a consideration of Elizabeth’s connection with the phoenix as propagated both Rowley’s play and in Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody. The trope was common in Elizabeth’s England, not least for its overtones of asexual progeneration (which, as Wagoner points out, is not precisely accurate, since Elizabeth certainly came from sexual union). The idea links the Tudor dynasty and the Stuart together in a “line of phoenixes”. The metaphor also stresses the idea of motherhood through self-sacrifice. Wagoner finishes by commenting on the way that these plays “comment on their moment”, offering insight into the cultural attitudes surrounding the transition from Elizabeth to James.
Rachel Ratkowski: “‘What Imports This Song?’: The Paradox of Music and Madness in Early Modern England”
Ratkowski’s presentation opens with AJ Sclafani and Maria Hart singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round, prompting the question from Jonathan Haas: “Are you mad, or what?” Ratkowski foregrounds her thesis as an exploration of the relationship between music and madness. She notes that music may either cause, cure, or be symptomatic of madness, all at once. The most common of these is music as a symptom, famously represented by Ophelia in Hamlet. Ratkowski notes that, since music is commonly perceived as symptomatic of madness, characters who feign madness often sing to assist with their portrayals. She next considers instances of music causing madness.
During this discussion, Hart begins singing in Sclafani’s ear, causing him to begin dancing uncontrollably, progressing through several recognizable dances of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today. Ratkowski points out that this is clearly an unfortunate circumstance of “tarantism”, a phenomenon which occurred in early modern Germany — where madness caused by music which manifests itself in spontaneous terpsichorean expression. Fortunately, Ratkowski knows the solution. Music can cure madness as well as cause it, and so she encourages the audience to join Sclafani in dancing and singing until the fit leaves him. Ratkowski then gives several historical and dramatic examples of song being used to bring a mad person back to his or her senses.
Ratkowski summarizes that, while we in the 21st century view the idea of music curing, causing, and reflecting madness as a paradox, the early modern culture did not seem to, due to the medical beliefs of the time period. She argues that the philosophy of the humours still informed medical opinions; an imbalance of the humours could cause not only illness but madness. Music could, then, be either the trigger, the remedy, or the symptom, depending on the nature of the imbalance. Music could stimulate the humors and get them moving through the body faster; this could cure a dominance of the sluggish fluids, but could overstimulate those which were already running hotter and faster. Ratkowski finishes by stating that an awareness of these theories can better inform the performance of madness in early modern plays.
Jessi Malicki: “‘Poor Tom’s a-cold’: Paleoclimatology’s Perspective on Shakespeare”
Malicki introduces her thesis in relation to paleoclimatology, the study of those time periods and cultures which could not or did not maintain consistent. She notes that Europe in the late 16th-century was in the grip of the “Little Ice Age”, which many historians have noted as the coldest period on earth since the last Ice Ages (assisted by quote-readings from Celi Oliveto, Kayla Renee Peterson, and Cyndi Kimmel). Though a drop of two degrees may not seem critical, it had a profound effect on life in the early modern period, particularly with regard to growing seasons and dead crops. The colder temperatures also drove insects indoors, leading to a spike in malaria and recurrences of plague. “The English fought a constant battle to stay warm,” Malicki notes, describing that the average temperature was below sixty degrees, the temperature at which it is possible for the human body to enter hypothermia without adequate protection.
Malicki notes that Shakespeare would have seen the full range of the Little Ice Ages effect, and she reminds the audience of the effect that the weather has on outdoor performances (such as those at the Globe or which the acting companies may have encountered on tour). She notes that many characters in Shakespeare seem to reflect the cold, even in plays nominally set in far more temperate climates, such as The Taming of the Shrew. The comedy of Katherine falling in the mud and riding to Petruchio’s house becomes somewhat more dire when the climatological reality is taken into account. Kate’s final argument regarding a husband exposing himself to the elements also takes on different meaning in light of the severity of those elements. Malicki also notes the mention of the disordered weather in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the conflict between Titania and Oberon has had many of the same effects as the Little Ice Age had on England.
Malicki then compares some of the vocabulary used in Shakespeare with descriptions of continental tragedies related to meltwater flooding. She also notes the storms at sea common in Shakespeare and their potential relationship to the bizarre hurricane that destroyed the Spanish Armada, though she notes that such storms have been a trope since the advent of literature, and thus are not necessarily reflective of the Little Ice Age. Storms on land represented in drama, however, may bear a stronger correlation to England’s unfortunate climate. She goes on to note the further prevalence of mentions of weather in the songs in many of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Malicki also notes that Shakespeare’s later plays contain more storms than the earlier ones, suggesting a stronger correlation towards the end of his career.
Jarom Brown: “Revising Revision”
Brown’s presentation aims to examine the prevalent ideas surrounding the idea that Shakespeare “actively and systematically revised his works”, a concept which has gained general acceptance in the scholarly community. He questions, though, what revision means when an “original” from which a revision would spring may be difficult to identify. Brown argues that Shakespeare not only revised versions of a play, but also revised “horizontally”, from play to play.
He uses Much Ado about Nothing as his litmus test (with help from Joshua Brown, Kelly Elliot, and Brian Maxwell), demonstrating what he believes to be a connection between Much Ado and Julius Caesar in references to opponents as “honourable men”. He posits Antony’s tactics in Julius Caesar as a refinement of Leonato’s technique in Much Ado, making more complete use of the theatrical audience. Another possibility links, by Brown’s estimation, Much Ado, the earlier Romeo and Juliet, and the later Twelfth Night. Brown claims these moments are “not simple coincidences”, and hopes that they will encourage further examination of the idea of horizontal revision.
Jamie Weaver: “Blood Will Have Blood: ‘Macbeth’ and the Renaissance Fetish in London”
Weaver seeks to examine “the ramification of the word ‘blood’ on the social ether”. She describes the prevalence of the word “blood” and its variants in the play Macbeth (used 45 times in one form or another). She argues that the play’s focus on blood not only aids the plot but also works on a social-historical level, as characteristic of an early modern fetishistic interest in blood, both real and imagined. She cites the cyclic representation of blood imagery with the actual depiction of stage blood as evidence of the fetish.
Weaver ties this idea to the popularity of bloodsports and executions as entertainment in early modern England. She also positions these concepts in relation to the changing ideals of medical science during this period. Her actors (Joshua Brown, Kelly Elliot, and James Byers) share some of those concepts, including the idea that the blood originates in the liver, and enact a rough approximation of a human dissection during the early modern period. Weaver also notes that these dissections did not have an audience exclusively consisting of medical students, but that they also drew in a crowd of spectators. This related to the popularity of bear-baitings (which Weaver’s actors also approximated in pantomime).
Weaver then traces the presence and absence of real and imagined blood in Macbeth, noting the pattern of a rise and fall, almost teasing the audience, then sating them, then offering respite. She considers that Macbeth mirrors the blood fetish prevalent in society, and places it in line with a social anxiety over monarchical transition that released itself in entertainment. She hopes that this will offer a new perspective on Macbeth as responding to something other than political considerations alone.
For the rest of the Festival, see these posts: