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  • Conferring with the Dead: Necrophilia and Nostalgia in the Seventeenth Century
  • Scott Dudley

O that it were possible we might But hold some two days’ conference with the dead, From them I should learn somewhat, I am sure I never shall know here.

The Duchess of Malfi 1

This nostalgic lament, uttered by the Duchess of Malfi just before her death, looks back to an earlier, though not so distant, cultural moment when it was still possible to hold “conference with the dead.” It simultaneously summons the images of the dead—the corpses, the severed body parts, and the skeletal remains—that are such a notable feature of this play as well as of seventeenth-century theater and culture in general. Derided as mere sensationalism, or, more recently, explored as a site for the emergent scientific objectification of the body and subsequent privileging of the Cartesian subject, the relics of the dead that accumulate in plays like The Duchess of Malfi, in fact, engage a counter-reformation, Roman Catholic aesthetic and theology about the dead body that most frequently clusters around discussions of relics and the efficacy of prayers to the saints. The remains of the body that accrue throughout the literature of this period participate in a uniquely seventeenth-century negotiation between emergent and residual cultural concerns about history, the nature of the body, subjectivity, representation, and epistemology. The necrophilia that surrounds these body parts reconstitutes, in an altered form, the residual cultural impetus to have access to the past through the physical, and, in the best new historicist fashion, thereby to hold “conference with the dead.”

Earlier criticism of Jacobean theater was primarily concerned either to denigrate it for the “Tussaud Chamber of Horrors” that it frequently stages, or to justify it for its ability to depict a higher moral or theological order that triumphs over the macabre. 2 A decade ago Francis Barker argued that the “glorious cruelties” of the Jacobean theater “articulate a mode of corporeality” in which the body is not “that effaced residue which it is to become, beneath or behind the proper realm of discourse.” 3 [End Page 277] In a similar fashion Karin Coddon has argued that the necrophiliac desires that run throughout The Revenger’s Tragedy serve to “parody and to interrogate contemporary, increasingly scientistic notions of the body.” 4

These arguments, while seminal, do not account for the continuing power of residual cultural forces which complicate the distinctions between subject and object, discourse and body, present and past in this period. In the first half of the century the cultural tensions concerning corporeality, subjectivity, and epistemology, which had long been present in Reformation debates over issues of salvation, relics, and images, took on a new intensity in the increasingly frequent and often heated controversies regarding miracles performed at the shrines of saints. Beginning in 1606 with the English translation of the French pamphlet Histoire des Miracles (Miracles Lately Wrought) and continuing on for the next several decades, Catholic, Anglican, and occasionally Puritan authors argued with one another over the potential power of relics. The corpses and body parts that appear on the Jacobean stage—for example, Gloriana’s skull in The Revenger’s Tragedy, Annabella’s heart in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, or the severed hand in The Duchess of Malfi—participate in these theological debates. Unlike the corpses on the dissecting table or the view of the dead body taken by Protestant theology, body parts on the Jacobean stage are endowed with extraordinary material potency. They thus stage the moment in seventeenth-century culture when the corpse can be seen either as an object that has been emptied of all subjectivity, as Protestant theology and the emerging scientific discourse of anatomy claim, or as an object in which attenuated and even enhanced subjectivity and agency still reside, as Catholic polemics about relics insist. The intrusion of the macabre into these plays revives earlier cultural concerns which here return in an alienated form to mark the distance between the dominant and residual culture, and which expose areas of epistemological and affective human experience that the dominant culture does not and cannot address. 5

Such residual cultural concerns come...

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