Hungry bodies: the politics of want and the early modern stage
Keck, Emily Gruber
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This dissertation explores how early modern playwrights articulated complaint and critique through a dramaturgy of hunger. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries England faced poor harvests, changes in land use, and ineffectual government action leading to repeated subsistence crises both actual and perceived. Employing the anthropological concept of “foodways,” which recognizes food’s entanglement in multiple imaginative and material systems of meaning, the dissertation offers a corrective to contemporary literary and cultural scholarship in accounting for the sociopolitical implications of consumption in the context of these crises. Playwrights addressed the inequities of feasting and hunger in England from a range of competing ideological perspectives, engaging with the cultural dilemmas posed by scarcity through the interplay of plenty and want onstage. Chapter One explores the poor harvest of 1586 and the drama produced in its wake, in which hungry tyrants call attention to imaginative tensions within religious framings of hunger as a punishment. Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI simultaneously presents the rebel Cade as an ambitious glutton and draws attention to the consuming violence of the encloser Alexander Iden. Chapter Two focuses on two historical duologies influenced by the scarcity of the 1590s that re-evaluated governmental discourses condemning specific economic agents for exacerbating dearth. Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays suggest the corruption of Justices Shallow and Silence in tandem with Falstaff, while Thomas Heywood’s Edward IV plays highlight the king’s failures of traditional hospitality. Chapter Three first analyzes how Shakespeare drew on images of James-as-father and Elizabeth-as-nurturing-mother to address the 1607 Midlands Revolt in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, then explores Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Bloody Banquet, which links the Queen’s starved infants with the appetites of the father-Tyrant’s court and implicitly interrogates the material value of patriarchal political theory. Chapter Four argues that representations of hungry soldiers in early Caroline drama echo Continental military humiliations to indict the royal favorite Buckingham. In The Unnatural Combat, Philip Massinger subverts this paradigm to blame the captain Belgarde’s hunger on the governor’s neglect, condemning Charles I for subsistence failures and suggesting the threat posed by an unchecked royal will.