Immortal Longings: Towards a Poetics of Preservation on the Early Modern Stage Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Park, Jennifer
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • “Continually we bear about us,” John Webster asserts through Bosola, “A rotten and dead body.” In a late fifteenth-century copy of the popular medieval pharmacopia, the Livre des simples médecines, the entry for momie—or mummy, a corpse drug often in the form of a powder made from embalmed bodies—is illustrated by “an image of an open tomb displaying its grisly contents: a blackened skeletal corpse with its abdomen sliced open, its head thrust back and the hands coyly covering the genitals.” Ideas of decay terrified the early moderns, but preservation was no less troubling. Caught up in the powder of embalmed bodies and the search for the philosopher’s stone were worries over the inevitable decline of all physical matter. My dissertation, theoretically and physiologically attuned to such displays, locates some of the richest metaphorical manifestations of immortality and/or corruption on stage, in performance. Drawing on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, as well as advancements in medicine and natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, “Immortal Longings” examines how early modern dramatic works conceptualize material experiments in preservation: sugar melted in Cleopatra’s (dis)candying, mummy evaluated in the Duchess of Malfi’s circulation, milk curdled in Lady Macbeth’s “unsex”-ing, and alchemical solvents recreated from the alchemist’s menstrues. Theatre is especially resonant because it enables this recursive flexibility: it is a “laboratory” space that provides the chance to see matter revitalized, transformation enacted, and stasis secured. By connecting vitality in the material with the ephemerality of performance, performative preservation provides early moderns with a fertile site for experimenting with change and flexibility in permanence. “Immortal Longings” seeks to intervene in Renaissance debates over the viability and righteousness of extending human life; it asks us to look for the first time at the poetic interplay between preservation and alteration, permanence and vitality, drawing inferences between and across categories and opening up the possibility that constructs of life and time may very much be open to human intervention, conceivably in the Renaissance and beyond.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Matchinske, Megan
  • Wolfe, Jessica
  • Barbour, Reid
  • Floyd-Wilson, Mary
  • Baker, David
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2017

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