Funeral meats on marriage tables: A cultural poetics of Renaissance tragicomedy
Gleed, Paul Richard
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This dissertation, "Funeral Meats on Marriage Tables: A Cultural Poetics of Renaissance Tragicomedy," investigates the relationship between tragicomedy and the festive and ritual life of early modern England. The work takes as its theoretical starting point the interrelation between literature and the wider web of culture that surrounds it, an idea established by New Historicist and Cultural Materialist critics. I demonstrate a connection between the radically shifting components of festive life (death, marriage, time, etc) in sixteenth-and (especially)-seventeenth-century England, and the flourishing of tragicomic theory and practice. The Introduction, "Towards a Cultural Poetics of Tragicomedy," provides the theoretical apparatus at work in the following chapters. In particular, I link the notion of genre in dramatic literature with the festive elements of daily life, showing how both were of incredible importance in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and how radical threats and challenges to festive traditions permeate the English stage. In particular, tragicomedy may be seen as a response to the breakdown of ritual orthodoxy resulting from the English Reformation; a blurring of the way ordinary men and women categorized the comic and tragic moments of their lives is both a catalyst to and partial result of generic innovation by playwrights. Chapter One, "The Mythic Lineage of Tragicomedy," briefly establishes the core, titular metaphor of the dissertation, looking at the conflation of marriage and funeral pageantry in two Shakespeare plays: Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream . In Chapter Two, "'Hymen begins to put off his saffron robe': Myth, Marriage, and the Decline of Romantic Comedy," I explore the reorganization of marriage, its role and its power, in drama after 1600. If marriage is the most definitive element of festive comedy, what happens to comedy, to dramatic form in general, when dramatists assert that marriage can no longer wholly resolve the obstacles encountered in the play? Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well and John Marston's The Malcontent and The Dutch Courtesan , each attempting a comic resolution despite the symbolic mixing of marriage with death and prostitution, provide the textual focus of the chapter. Although such complexities can in part be linked to changing ideas of marriage in early modern society, it is clear that marriage's role in genre-making is being innovatively contested as part of a new aesthetic. Indeed, Shakespeare and Marston appear to carefully and deliberately conflate the festive themes and ceremonies of marriage with images of death and decay. These "comedies" are crowned by marriages that make generic classifications look as vulnerable as the couples they depict. Chapter Three, "'We die in earnest, not in jest': Death and the Comic," begins with an extended investigation of how death had 'comic' meaning for many people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course, within in the context of Christian belief, death was an earthly dénouement creating an eternally comic resolution. In light of this hope, funerals did not resemble the sober affairs of our time, but were typically ceremonies ushering in feasting and celebration. Moreover, with the tradition of 'the good death,' an idealized set of standards and expectations surrounding the passing from life to death, people could perform the last moments of their life as a 'happy ending.' Against this historical backdrop, the chapter examines four plays that belie the commonplace criteria of tragicomedy, the absence of death. In illustratively different ways, Beaumont and Fletcher's Cupid's Revenge , Marston's Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge , and Dekker, Ford and Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton resonate with the mixed meanings of death described at the start of the chapter by allowing death to permeate the comic form. This should be enough to ensure that each play becomes tragic, but such an outcome is far from clear. The dramatists use death, and in particular the rituals and ceremonies that surround death, not to eclipse the comic elements of the plays but to transform them into hybrid markers of a new dramatic style. Chapter Four, "'Our carver's excellence'---Towards a Model of Tragicomic Time," explores the ways in which tragicomedy uses "mythic" or festive time, and how this differs from comedy's use of such time. In mythic time, the forward, linear motion of ordinary experience is suspended, and participants in rites and festivals return to an originary moment out of time. Such an escape from the destructive powers of "normal" time has enormous comic potential, but tragicomedies seem to offer only a partial, circumscribed model of mythic time. By opening the chapter with an account of the changing 'nature' of time in the early modern world, a tension appears between ancient ideals of festive time and the pressing urgencies of a growing dependence on ordered, measured units of time. The significant overlap between these two visions of time, unique to the Renaissance in Western history, is the backdrop to close readings of two plays fixated with such tensions: Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale , and Middleton and Rowley's The Old Law . Indicative of this mixed and ambiguous sense of time is the sheep-shearing festival scene of The Winter's Tale , where Shakespeare's portrayal of festivity, seemingly out of time in idyllic Bohemia, is in fact deeply concerned with the intrusion of linearity upon the dream of timelessness. In the fifth and final chapter of the dissertation, "Tragicomedy and Knowledge" I posit a relationship between the festive ambiguity observed in the preceding chapters, the tragicomic plays that informed and grew out of that uncertainty, and the burgeoning intellectual current of skepticism in the Renaissance world. If C. L. Barber claimed that the formula for festive comedy was the movement "through release to clarification," and Stanly Cavell and others have asserted the skeptical nature of tragedy, what are the epistemological consequences of tragicomedy? I suggest that, far from being a metaphysical middle ground, a watered down form of skepticism or a lukewarm presentation of clarification, the implication of tragicomedy, a genre divested of all teleological certitude, is a radical form of skepticism finally darker even than the great tragedies of the period. The chapter continues with a close reading of uncertainty, both epistemological and generic, in the anonymously authored Arden of Faversham .