Blood sports: violence and the performance of masculinity in early modern drama
Stokes, Matthew McArthur
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This dissertation explores the construction of masculine identity at the intersection between early modern English drama and competitively violent entertainment. It argues that early modern Englishmen navigated a complex system of dangers and rewards associated with violent self-assertion, and that the playhouse represented a space uniquely suited to the embodying and interrogating of that system. Spaces used for performing plays frequently doubled as venues for cockfights, animal baitings, and fencing exhibitions, and the violence of such entertainments often appeared, either physically or rhetorically, in the period's drama. The project of the dissertation will be to provide a historicizing lens through which to view this violence "in play" in order to understand how early modern English drama refracted and participated in shaping the period's highly contested norms of violent self-assertion in the performance of male identity. Chapter One maps the cultural disruptions precipitated by the importation of the Italian rapier into late-sixteenth century England. It argues that the secretive exclusivity of rapier culture rendered its novel form of violent masculinity fundamentally "untheatrical" in comparison to more traditional male identities, leading playwrights to caricature the duelist as either a cowardly braggart or a treacherous assassin. Chapter Two examines Shakespeare's plays in light of the discourses described in Chapter One. Shakespeare's work consistently associates traditional weaponry with a threatened male honor culture while associating rapiers with the undermining of male identity through cowardice or treachery. Chapter Three considers the English hunt as a means of asserting a capacity for violence, focusing on attempts to use the wild boar as a means of restoring the hunt's fading masculine associations. The chapter ends with an extended reading of Thomas Heywood's Age plays, the English Renaissance theater's richest staging of hunting culture. Chapter Four offers an historically informed understanding of the interconnections between bearbaiting and theater by addressing the early modern image of the bear as both a terrifying representative of a threatening natural world and a figure of courageous self-defense in the face of overwhelming odds.
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