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Reviewed by:
  • The Early Modern Corpse and Shakespeare's Theatre
  • Elizabeth D. Harvey
Susan Zimmerman . The Early Modern Corpse and Shakespeare's Theatre. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. viii + 214 pp. index. bibl. $80. ISBN: 0–7486–2103–2.

The cover of this important new book on early modern death features a striking illustration of a marble corpse sculpted by the sixteenth-century French artist Ligier Richier. The image is central to the book's arguments, since this depiction of a transi-sculpture, which seems to evince consciousness and which figures death as a dynamic process of putrefaction, begins to explain why the cadaver appears so frequently as a paradoxical and disturbing figure in Renaissance drama. The Early Modern Corpse aims to examine the corpse in English Renaissance theater in relation to two discourses in early modern culture that radically redefined the ideology of the dead body: religious discussions of idolatry and scientific representations of anatomical dissection. The book's premise is that the actor's impersonation of the dead body in early modern drama stands as a theatrical and ritualized point of intersection between the public spheres of science and religion and the private life (and afterlife) of the early modern subject. Zimmerman's objective is to bring historicism and literary theory, especially psychoanalysis, into dialogue in order to investigate the haunting presence and ambivalent agency of the cadaver in Renaissance theater and culture. She is interested in moments that confuse stable categories, in the permeable boundaries between life and death — material and immaterial, inside and outside — and in the refusal of the corpse to become simply inert. She argues that the dead body in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama imaged the unknowable and the unspeakable, and as such, it provided a compelling figure for the simultaneously seductive and repellant aspects of the body's ineluctable materiality, a signifier of the inscrutability not only of death but of the body itself.

Julia Kristeva, Mary Douglas, and Georges Bataille make appearances in her theoretical introduction, but it is Walter Benjamin's idea of the Trauerspiel, a theory that is itself historically grounded in Baroque drama, that provides the central conceptual matrix. Trauerspiel explains the paradoxical fascination with the dead, for, as Benjamin argued, the concept captures the sorrow generated by the human yearning for transcendence and the inevitable confrontation with physis, the materiality and mortality of the body. The cadaver signifies the principle of vitality that emerges from, and in spite of, the body's disintegration in death. It is also an idea that helps to account for the stylistic excesses and metatheatricality that characterize the sensationalist drama of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, features that Zimmerman examines in persuasive and illuminating detail in the three [End Page 637] chapters on the drama. Each of these chapters treats a pair of plays: chapter 3, on The Second Maiden's Tragedy and The Duke of Milan, explores the idolatrous object of desire; chapter 4, on The Revenger's Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi, looks at the sexualized and reproductive power of the corpse, its semianimate aspects; and the final chapter, on Macbeth and Hamlet, explores the "interstitial ambience" between life and death.

The conceptual core of the book is the second chapter, "Body Imaging and Religious Reform," in which Zimmerman provides the central historical arguments about the Reformation and changing ideas about the culture of death. Exploring such topics as Resurrection, the Eucharist, purgatory, and the fate of the soul after death, she maps the medieval and Catholic inheritance, turning in the last part of the chapter to a convincing close analysis of the 1547 homily on idolatry and Foxe's Acts and Monuments. Because Protestant iconoclasts sought to discard the material body in order to focus on an invisible soul, she argues, the corpse becomes a conflicted site both for reformers and for playwrights. The presence, or indeed the performance, of the cadaver inevitably evokes changing conceptions of body-soul relations, and nowhere more insistently than in the Middleton and Massinger plays that stage necrophilia.

The considerable strengths of this book lie in its analysis of the effect of Reformation ideology on the theater's representation of the corpse and in...


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pp. 637-638
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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