- Staging Women and the Soul-Body Dynamic in Early Modern Englandby Sarah E. Johnson
In Staging Women and the Soul-Body Dynamic in Early Modern England, Sarah E. Johnson interrogates early modern dramatic tropes of gender inequality to illustrate the multiple and surprising ways in which representations of women being manipulated or mistreated onstage can in fact reveal transgressive and empowering portrayals of women and the feminine. Chief among these dramatic tropes is the dynamic of soul and body, which was not only gendered (men were aligned with the rational, divine soul; women with the capricious, earthly body) but also hierarchized, in that the soul was placed above and thus governed the body in all things. By reframing the “soul-body hierarchy” as the “soul-body dynamic,” Johnson makes the persuasive case that many metaphors typically associated with gendered control can ultimately generate, on the stage, “empowering ideas of women” (5). That is, once we consider alternate power dynamics between soul and body, we can view afresh other relationships that appear hierarchized in the same manner. Over the course of four chapters and a brief conclusion, Johnson examines two tragedies, two comedies, several masques, and a religious treatise from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England. Her reading of the dramatic works in terms of the soul-body dynamic and its analogues unsettles and productively challenges scholarly thinking on the seemingly trenchant binaries that organized representations of men and women on the early modern stage.
For Johnson, the perception of a power struggle between soul and body animates familiar tropes of gendered conflict in early modern drama, and thus each chapter focuses on a particular relationship manifest in one or more plays: puppeteer/puppet, tamer/tamed, ghost/haunted, and observer/spectacle. For each relationship, the author explores how hierarchized thinking about who is controlling whom gives way, on stage, to more complex representations of power and social critique. The puppet, for example, might be seen as a soulless, empty “body” brought to life only by the hand, voice, and will of the puppeteer. [End Page 369]In gendered terms, the staging of a man using a woman like a puppet reinforces the analogue between soul over body and masculine control of women. In performance, however, the puppet almost always takes on a “life” of its own, commenting upon and even critiquing the will of the puppeteer. Early modern puppetry, the author notes, often capitalized on the uncanny ability of the puppet to subtly (or uproariously) undermine the labors of its “master.” While, metaphorically, puppets represent (feminized) subordination, onstage they have a “disruptive feminizing power” that “holds positive implications for the representation of women more broadly” (27).
In chapter 1, which focuses on this relationship between puppeteer and puppet, Johnson notes multiple early modern dramatic examples of men turning women into puppets. The most famous example is to be found in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, in which Katharina specifically scolds her husband for attempting to make her into a puppet. Her final speech, for Johnson, reveals both a puppet-like performance (throwing her cap on the floor, placing her hand beneath Petruchio’s boot) as well as the “disruptive” power of this puppetry (since her commendation of husbands’ duties may be read as parody). Many examples feature men displaying and animating women’s corpses; these macabre displays have been much discussed in terms of the volatile signifying power of the stage property. By analyzing Gloriana’s skull in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedyas a puppet—not a prop—Johnson affirms the more active role Gloriana plays in the tragedy: “As Vindice unloads his contempt for women onto Gloriana’s skull and celebrates his ingenuity in suiting her up for the Duke, her perpetual, gruesome grin could very easily produce the effect of seeming to silently mock Vindice himself. Such mockery is in keeping with the daring vulgarity and rebelliousness that came to be expected from a puppet” (48...