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Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama.

Margaret E. Owens. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama.

Newark, DE, and Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press/AUP, 2005. 332 pp. index. illus. bibl. $59.50. ISBN: 0-87413-888-4.

The mutilation, dismemberment, and decapitation of the human body has always made great theater. In medieval and early modern England the tortured bodies of both Christian martyrs and more secular victims served as the dramatic focus of religious and cultural contestation from the medieval Corpus Christi cycles, through the flowering of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama to the closing of the theaters in 1642. But while the kinds of physical violence inflicted on theatrical bodies has been surprisingly consistent, the cultural meanings and ideological implications of this violence have changed drastically over time. In this thorough and stimulating book, Margaret E. Owens examines theatrical representations of decapitation and dismemberment from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, focusing on the changes brought about by the Reformation and the radical reconfiguration of "corporeal semiotics" (18) that it produced.

Launching her study from familiar post-Foucauldian considerations of judicial violence and theatrical spectacle, Owens extends her analysis into the realms of popular culture, material theatrical practices, and psychoanalytical models of recursive temporality, to examine how the fascination with theatrical representations of violence reflected a complex and evolving relationship, not just to the spectacle of judicial punishment, but to the changing focus on the physical and symbolic body in post-Reformation doctrine.

While an evident fascination with violent dismemberment and decapitation continued from the medieval period through to the early seventeenth century, the ideological force and meaning of these representations changed radically. Religious devotion in the late Middle Ages had been organized around a consideration of Christ's corporeal suffering and sacrifice, and most theatrical representations of violence referred in some way to the suffering of this sacred body. Such violence was thus contained within an ideological context that gave such physical violence a particular religious meaning and purpose, offering an attempt to reconcile fragmentation and unity. But with the Reformation and the rise of more secular drama on the Elizabethan stage, "the tortured body could no longer be assimilated to the sacred body: violence no longer presaged redemption" (19). Yet the fascination with corporeal violence in early modern drama continued to put the human body at the center of dramatic spectacle, and as the visual representation of dismemberment was separated from the reassuring paradigm of the Crucifixion, it became available for new and more various semiotic applications. As Owens suggests, early modern drama provided a cultural setting in which to explore and test the body's role in signification, adapting the vivid violence of medieval dramatic portrayal to the new "corporeal economy" of post-Reformation England.

This book organizes an impressive array of historic and critical sources, and though this wealth of secondary scholarship occasionally threatens to overwhelm the author's own voice, it provides a solid base for a very expansive and thought-provoking exploration. In a series of chapters focusing on texts ranging from the Croxton Play of the Sacrament to Apius and Virginia, from 2 Henry VI to Doctor Faustus, Owens offers a history of theatrical representations of dismemberment and decapitation, devoting considerable attention to the pragmatic aspects of staging violent spectacle, and offering a thought-provoking analysis of the relationships between entertainment and ideology within the larger cultural context. As the author notes, the actor's body is not "a purely spectacular, material object, but is always constituted at some level of language, most obviously by the dialogue that frames and conditions the audience's response" (16). In rigorously focusing on the visual representation, Owens considers what these theatrical representations suggest about the complex relationship between theatrical violence and the religious and judicial images of violent dismemberment that are so deeply embedded in early modern culture. In particular, Owens offers a perceptive examination of the ways in which dramatic representations reinforced or resisted contemporary models of exemplary behavior, tracing the influence of the hagiographic and martyrological traditions on the perceptions of judicial victims, such as Walter Ralegh, in their last moments on the scaffold. And then, extending her analysis, Owens examines how the semiotics of beheading and dismemberment in early modern revenge tragedies and history plays illuminates the ways in which bodily destruction provided a means of establishing symbolic markers of national, ethnic, and religious difference. Overall, this is a thoughtful and far-reaching exploration of the theatrical fascination with bodily dismemberment, and it sheds considerable new light on the culture's desire to control the human body, and the body's power to represent both anxiety and its own form of ideological reassurance.


Kansas State University
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Author:Smith, D.K.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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