- Staging Women and the Soul-Body Dynamic in Early Modern England by Sarah E. Johnson
The early modern putative notion of the hierarchal soul-body relationship wherein the soul is masculinized and governs the feminized body prompted many negative representations of women in Jacobean literature. This hierarchal and gendered soul-body relationship is the starting point of Sarah E. Johnson’s monograph as she ambitiously seeks to uncover moments in Jacobean drama that employ the soul-body dynamic but in ways that actually demonstrate more positive representations of women. Johnson contends that while the soul-body hierarchy explicitly disfavours women, it “carries equal potential to promote empowering ideas of women.” She explains, “Precisely because of its pervasiveness, its familiarity[,] … variations on the dominant versions of the body-soul relationship would be recognizable and loaded with meaning in their departure from the well-known standard.”
Johnson convincingly demonstrates her argument throughout the course of her monograph by showcasing, in each of the four chapters, one particular analogy of the soul-body dynamic—puppeteer-puppet, tamer-tamed, ghost-haunted, and observer-spectacle—and the ways each of these analogies are “both at work in and challenged by the representations of women in the plays and masques” under investigation. Johnson explains that these dichotomies “reflect the reality that the soul-body dynamic itself was primarily understood and expressed through analogy,” so the tamer-tamed relationship, for example, would have been understood as a reflection of the “influential Platonic notion of the soul as the rightful governor of a body that can often be unruly.”
Having established these analogous terms, Johnson turns to dramatic examples in which each dichotomy is at play (such as the puppeteer, Vindici, and his puppet, Gloriana’s skull, in Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy) and considers how the specifically theatrical treatment of the analogy produces a new or more positive representation of women. For example, Johnson emphasizes the difference between puppetry in theory and puppetry in performance so as to make the claim that while in theory puppetry is “an active wit imposing meaning upon and animating passive material,” in performance “the appearance of actual puppets onstage tends to captivate and fascinate the audience in a way that parodies and unsettles a hierarchal distinction between spirit and flesh, controller and controlled.” The puppet in The Revenger’s Tragedy, Johnson posits, possesses a “disruptive signifying power” that can “signal meaning apart from the puppeteer’s intentions,” thereby undermining the gendered soul-body dynamic.
Johnson’s study thus makes a refreshing contribution, not only to [End Page 372] current early modern scholarship that has tended to focus on the body and materiality, but also to theatre criticism since her study cleverly shows how elements of theatre (puppetry, dance, etc.) engage directly with the soul-body dynamic. Students and scholars interested in the study of women in early modern drama would find Johnson’s monograph valuable as it offers an innovative framework for reading representations of women and thus provides an original perspective on women who are otherwise seemingly portrayed as subordinates in much of Jacobean drama.