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COMPARATIVE F?F??19 Volume 34 No. 2 · Summer 2000 Absorbing Interests: Kyd's Bloody Handkerchiefas Palimpsest Andrew Sofer Old stanched [Pause.] You... remain. —Hamm in Endgame1 After the Protestant Reformation took hold in England, many stage .properties familiar from the drama ofworship performed by urban trade guilds became politically and religiously suspect. While Elizabethan society debated whether theatrical representation was acceptable onthe onehand oridolatrous ontheother, Elizabethan authorities sought to curb dietheatrical use ofCatholic symbolism throughlegislation.Thus aletter dated 27 May 1576 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners ofYork to the bailiff and burgesses of Wakefield decreed that "no Pageant be used or setfurthwherin theMa[jes]tye ofGod the Father, God the Sonne, or God the Holie Ghoste or the administration ofeither the Sacramentes ofbaptisme or ofthe Lordes Supper be counterfeyted or represented, or anythinge plaied which tende to the maintenaunce of superstition and idolâtrieorwhichbecontrarietothelawes ofgod [and] or oftherealme."2 127 128Comparative Drama By 1580,the Corpus Christi playcycles had eitherwithered awayor been suppressed bythe Elizabethan authorities, and with them vanished such formerly central properties as the eucharistie Host itself.3 Yet the Mass and its symbols did not fade from the awareness of early modern audiences once their overt representation was banned on the stage. The Elizabethan playwrights who wrote for a nascent commercial theater were eager to exploit the rituals of the old religion, although their aim was not necessarily the Reformist propaganda exemplified by Cromwell's aggressively polemical playwright, John Bale. While the political space for expressions of dissent was restricted, in the neweconomyofthe sign developed bycommercially-mindedplaywrights, radically different imaginative contracts with spectators drawn from all levels of society became necessary in order to build an audience largely made up of individual, urban ticket-buyers rather than regional communities united by civic and devotional concerns. And if the new commercial drama risked provoking the authorities by presenting religious material in verbal form, it could smuggle religious imagery and content onto the stage by appealing to the spectators' imagination and memory through gestures and physical objects. Marvin Carlson's concept of"ghosting"offers a useful wayofunderstanding the mechanism whereby the commercial Elizabethan drama invoked religious symbols and ideas that could no longer be directlyrepresented on stagewith impunity. Carlson reminds us that spectatorsbring associations from previous productions with them to the theater, and that these "ghosts" color their experience of the current performance.5 When Elizabethan audiences saw Edward Alleyn play Christopher Marlowe's Faustus, for example, Alleyn's performance would have been "ghosted" by his previous appearances as Marlovian overreachers such as Tamburlaine and the Jew ofMalta. According to Carlson: In semiotic terms,we might say that a signifier, already bonded to a signified in the creation of a stage sign, is moved in a different context to be attached to a different signified, but when that new bonding takes place, the receiver's memory of the previous bonding remains, contaminating, or "ghosting" the new sign.6 One concrete example of such "ghosting" was the Elizabethan players' use of actual church vestments and properties for satiric ends. In one familiar example, Marlowe's Mephistopheles wears the robes of a Andrew Sojer129 Franciscan friar (and thus confirms the audience's presumed suspicion mat all friars are devilish). Another striking example, and the focus ofthis essay, is the device of thebloodyhandkerchiefpopularized byThomas Kyd's spectacularlysuccessful The Spanish Tragedy (1582-92). As it moves through the play, Kyd's bloody handkerchief invokes previous performances by bloody cloths, even as it weaves them into an original narrative. Indeed, at the play's climax the ghost in the bloody handkerchief's folds is the Host itself, the"Real Presence" ofChrist's body as it was embodied in the sacrament of the eucharist and metonymically invoked by various sacred cloths on the late medieval stage. By the time of The Spanish Tragedy— set in a Catholic country loathed and feared by a great many in Kyd's audience—the Protestant Lord's Supper had replaced the Catholic Mass in theAnglican Church. The Host itselfwas officially understood to be a commemorative symbol and sign of Christ's spiritual presence in the sacramentratherthanthetransubstantiatedbodyofChrist.7Meanwhile, the commercial Elizabethan playhouses filled a theatrical and spiritual void left by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 127-153
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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