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"For Show or Useless Property": Necrophilia and The Revenger's Tragedy

From: ELH
Volume 61, Number 1, Spring 1994
pp. 71-88 | 10.1353/elh.1994.0001

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ELH 61.1 (1994) 71-88

"Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me,
Your tongue's like poison"

-- The Cure

The intersection of death and the erotic throughout Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy is a virtual commonplace of the genre; from Hamlet's leap into Ophelia's grave to the perversities of Tourneur and Middleton, the body of death is at least symbolically conflated with the body of desire. Indeed, while granting that theatrical personae as yet do not "go so far as making love to the corpse," Philippe Aries notes "an almost imperceptible shift [in early modern England and France] from familiarity with the dead to macabre eroticism." Yet in Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), the eroticized body of death is more than a symbolic presence or moody memento mori: Gloriana's skull is a prop endowed with remarkable spectacular and material efficacy. Peter Stallybrass's argument that death removes Gloriana from the corrupting realm of sexual desire is doubly belied by Vindice's notably prurient obsession with the skull of his nine-years-dead betrothed and by his all but literal prostitution of the skull in pursuit of revenge against the lecherous Duke. I suggest that this latter machination constitutes the play's emblematic moment: a savage literalization of the conventional love/death conjunction as the Duke kisses -- and "like a slobbering Dutchman," at that -- the skull's poisoned maw.

Without denying the rather obvious connotations of patriarchal anxiety about female sexuality -- or falling into the tempting though anachronistic trap of having Tourneur "have read" Freud or Bataille (to paraphrase Baudrillard), I would like to claim that necrophilia in The Revenger's Tragedy serves at once to parody and to interrogate contemporary, increasingly scientistic notions of the body. The constitution of the body as the object of scientific enquiry -- perhaps most strikingly though not exclusively demonstrated in the relatively recent phenomenon of public dissection -- is brutally travestied in Tourneur's insistent displacement of an "objective" knowledge of the body by spectacular, defiantly perverse desire. Necrophilia yokes together science and seduction; discipline does not replace the unruly erotic but instead precariously displaces it in the elision of the body by the cold medium of the scientific gaze. Tourneur's play does not simply eroticize "the idea of death" -- it does not disembody death by rendering it into a discourse as does that paradigm of proto-modern subjectivity, Hamlet; rather, the play theatricalizes death in the specific, material dead body. Gloriana's skull becomes perversely seductive, in Baudrillard's sense of the term, playing alternately at being pure referent and pure signifier, the revenger's "form and cause" at once conjoined and confounded: "Every interpretative discourse... wants to get beyond appearances: this is its illusion and fraud. But getting beyond appearances is an impossible task: inevitably every discourse is revealed in its appearance, and is hence subject to the stakes imposed by seduction, and consequently to its own failure as discourse." The Jacobean spectacle, situated as it is in a liminal position between the emblematic and mimetic -- between theatricality and interpretation -- undermines its own ostensible truth value by foregrounding the instability yet opacity of appearances. Confounded as well in the play's erotics of death is the distinction between an emergent scientism and the repressed, residual otherness of the transgressive corporeality identified with madness, witchcraft, and necromancy.

Even among the grotesqueries of Jacobean theatre, The Revenger's Tragedy is notably macabre; it is small wonder that Eliot singled it out for its "cynicism... loathing and disgust of humanity." Yet the morbid interest in the corporeality of death and decomposition that so distinguishes Jacobean tragedy is at least as residual as emergent, given what Lynn White has called a pervasive "socially manifested necrophilia" of the fifteenth century. As Foucault, Aries, and others have remarked upon, the Cimitiere des Innocents, Danse Macabre, and artes moriendi are cultural productions of late fourteenth and early fifteenth century Europe, phenomena that have been attributed, alternately though not exclusively, to a burgeoning humanism, the lingering psychic, social, and economic effects of the Black Death, and an ecclesiastical interest in promoting anxiety about death and hence the economic and political well-being of church bureaucrats. Literary...

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