Shakespearean renunciation: asceticism and the early modern stage
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This dissertation examines the representation of ascetic renunciation in early modern drama, focusing in particular on the way asceticism functions as a tool of political agency. This study argues that the act of renunciation is essentially performative and public, directed outward to an audience whose responses the performer hopes to shape or direct. The specific political significance of ascetic acts varies according to the status and social position of those who perform and receive them, potentially functioning as a discourse both of resistance and of control. In early modern England, traditional asceticism's association with heterodox catholicism lent it an extra-normative and subversive quality that found utility in acts of resistance. However, ascetic or renunciatory discourse could also be utilized in the exercise of power by monarchs, both as a discourse of legitimation and as an act of public image construction. To help explain this flexibility, this study utilizes the sociolinguistic theories of M.M. Bakhtin, V.N. Voloshinov, and Pierre Bourdieu, all of whom offer models for interpreting language in shifting contexts and across discursive fields. The introduction defines asceticism as performative and potentially political, before tracing some of the relevant historical developments of asceticism from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century. Chapter One analyzes the representation of asceticism in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, focusing in particular on the character of Isabella, whose celibate vows place her in conflict with mechanisms of power. Chapter Two examines the literary representation of asceticism in both medieval and early modern contexts by reading Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen in relation to its Chaucerian source material, The Knight's Tale. Chapter Three shifts to an examination of ascetic postures and discourse by monarchs, considering first The Escorial, Philip II's monastic palace, and then moving to a reading of Elizabeth I's translation of the renunciatory Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Chapter Four further pursues this intersection of kingship and asceticism with an analysis of ascetic discourse in Shakespeare's Henry V. The conclusion considers areas for further analysis of asceticism in early modern literature, including revenge tragedy and Milton's Paradise Lost.