Glimmering worlds: the drama of dying in Shakespeare's England
Byker, Devin Lee
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This dissertation explores how late medieval and early modern English culture understood the possibilities of experience inherent within our dying moments. I argue that, rather than approaching the moment of death as exclusively terrible, unbearable, or meaningless, as some literary scholars have claimed, many could instead hope to find within such moments the opportunity for what Erasmus called “glimmerings”—new revelations, actions, and experiences of the world. I explore how the drama of Shakespeare and Marlowe investigates both the promises and illusions of the glimmering worlds cast up in one’s dying moments. This project draws on the thought of Hannah Arendt to elucidate the actions, forms of life, and worlds that can be undertaken and sustained in the circumstances of dying. In Chapter One, I uncover the late medieval roots of an association between dying moments and worldly awareness, expressed in fifteenth-century English texts such as Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Christ, Thomas Hoccleve’s Learn to Die, the morality play The Castle of Perseverance, and Desiderius Erasmus’s Preparation to Death. My second chapter argues that sixteenth-century ars moriendi texts such as Thomas Lupset’s Way of Dying Well, Thomas Becon’s Sick Man’s Salve, The Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead,” and John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments each provide strategies of dying that preserve both self and world from the deteriorating force of mortality. Chapter Three moves from theological to dramatic inquiries into the moment of death, examining how Marlowe’s tragedies The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus scrutinize the risks of dying in conditions of exposure, in contrast with the sheltering protections of dying in a little room. My fourth chapter takes up Shakespearean tragedy to illustrate how King Lear evaluates and dramatizes the consequences of William Perkins’ Salve for a Sick Man, which contends that we are unable to undertake meaningful action in our final moments. In my last chapter, I show how Shakespeare’s late plays, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, consider whether, in the presence of death, one can claim flourishing life and feel at home in the world.