During the religious reforms of the sixteenth century, traditionalists and reformers debated the physical nature of the Eucharist—which seemed to require two bodies to occupy the same place, or a single body to be in multiple places, at one time—within a shared framework of Aristotelian physics. In this tradition, any “thing” was a combination of underlying matter and a form which gave it shape and identity. Transubstantiation was of course the miraculous substitution during the mass of Christ’s body for the matter of the bread and the wine, while their outward forms remained the same as before. But many reformers challenged transubstantiation on the grounds not simply of theology, but of physics—that it was physically nonsensical. In the second half of the century this conundrum within theology and physics emerges as a quintessentially theatrical problem, embodied onstage in the recurring tropes of disguise, or of indistinguishable twins, even of the ordinary staging practices like the doubling of parts or the transvestite playing of women by boys. The plays of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and their predecessors, West argues, both drew on and contributed to these debates by producing experiments in what we could call a “physics of performance.” The idea that one body might assume multiple identities was of particular interest to players, which of course their occupation required of them daily. Shakespeare’s plays show no clear allegiance to any particular physical theory of the world, instead displaying a readiness to make use of whatever world picture offered the most dramatic force in any situation. The character of Richard III, however, West argues, provides a sustained engagement with Aristotle’s physics, in particular the possibilities that open in a world made of unformed matter that can be repeatedly reshaped into multiple identities.


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pp. 103-126
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