Staging touch in early modern England
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This dissertation argues that early modern English drama portrays touch as a crucial means of social negotiation. In the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, a diverse array of contacts between characters, from kicks to kisses to handshakes, embody social relations including dominance, reciprocity and mutuality, in contexts ranging from friendship to marriage to the political realm. But the relations embodied by a given form of touch are not fixed: even as the stage depicts characters using touch to negotiate social relations, many touch gestures are themselves the subjects of social struggle. Amid changing religious views of the senses and emergent discourses of civility, the theater tests, critiques, and reformulates competing codifications of the social role of touch. Five chapters, organized by body part—feet, laps, arms, hands, and mouth respectively—outline the most contested features of the theater’s surprisingly diverse vocabulary of touch. Chapter One considers plays from Love’s Labor’s Lost to the anonymous A Yorkshire Tragedy that contest prevalent associations of the foot with hierarchical dominance in portrayals of such gestures as kicking, foot-kissing, and playing footsy. Chapter Two argues that Hamlet and other plays rework the culturally expected meanings of a male laying his head in a female’s lap, to suggest this action could signify affectionate reciprocity rather than masculine dissipation or dangerous female dominance. Chapter Three argues that Coriolanus, Marlowe’s Edward II, and Arden of Faversham resist a prominent historical tendency to restrict both same-sex and cross-gendered embracing and linking arms to erotically intimate contexts, with each play suggesting that such restriction supports patriarchal power and surveillance. Chapter Four considers hand-holding, betrothal, and hand clasps accompanying business deals and political alliances in Julius Caesar, Jonson’s Poetaster, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and others, which portray touch as enacting mutuality, in contexts otherwise marked by hierarchies of gender and status. Finally, Chapter Five analyzes depictions of kissing, whether erotic or sociable, in plays ranging from Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair to Romeo and Juliet. In depictions of contested courtship and neighborly kisses, plays represent female agents strategically claiming a measure of autonomy among patriarchal structures.