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Staging Anatomies: Dissection and Spectacle in Early Stuart Drama.

Hilary M. Nunn. Staging Anatomies: Dissection and Spectacle in Early Stuart Drama.

Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005. x + 232 pp. index. illus. bibl. $89.95. ISBN: 0-7546-3399-3.

The title of this book is slightly misleading. Nunn examines a variety of forms of violence against the body, and she situates that violence within a variety of contexts, including architecture, theater history, theology, and political theory, as well as medicine; dissection is sometimes peripheral to her analysis. When Nunn does focus on anatomy, often what she offers is a suggestive analogy rather than a clear and unambiguous demonstration of the influence of dissection on drama. Nunn describes her project more clearly in her introduction: "Scenes of bloodshed, I argue, call upon playgoers' curiosity about the physical makeup of the human body not only to provoke their horror, but to invoke their sympathy and even their contemplation" (3). The book examines the ways that Jacobean and Caroline plays imagine their audiences as responding to the presentation of vulnerable bodies.

The first chapter focuses on Coriolanus and Sejanus. Nunn argues that both plays develop a kind of anatomy of the crowds that kill their protagonists: the disorders of the body politic mirror the wounds of the mutilated corpse. In the next chapter, Nunn discusses the use of corpses in The Revenger's Tragedy, The Atheist's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi. She demonstrates that both pamphlets and plays display an intense curiosity about the bodies of murder victims, almost as if they were conducting autopsies. Nunn also points out that, like the bodies in anatomical illustrations, corpses on the Jacobean stage display a disturbing liveliness. The third chapter begins by noting the similarities between anatomy theaters and playhouses. The chapter discusses plays including The Second Maiden's Tragedy, The Duke of Milan, The White Devil, The Traitor, and 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, arguing that, like court masques and dissections, these plays aestheticize and perspectivally frame female bodies. In the fourth chapter, Nunn analyzes two plays which stage the plucking out of a character's eyes: King Lear and a neglected Caroline play of uncertain authorship, Revenge for Honor. Nunn suggests that these plays both ask audiences to reflect on the fragility of eyes, the complexity of their anatomy, and the unreliability of the evidence they provide to the witnesses of a spectacle.

The epilogue contains some of the book's most memorable passages. Nunn discusses two recent controversies, one over the display of plasticized corpses and the other over the discovery of a new facial muscle by a group of dentists. Both controversies resonate strikingly with the sixteenth-century debate between Vesalius and exponents of Galenic anatomy. Although the epilogue succeeds beautifully on its own terms, its use of scandals from our own era highlights what some might consider a problem: the book does not isolate a set of ideas or literary conventions that are unique to the early Stuart period. Nunn frequently juxtaposes plays written decades apart without distinguishing their contexts; she conducts an extensive examination of Vesalius to set up a discussion of plays written over half a century later; and she has little to say about how Stuart ideas about anatomy and embodiment differed from Elizabethan ones. In short, the book does not develop the periodizing assertion implicit in its title. The book's readings of individual plays and topoi, though, are coherent and persuasive without a framework of this kind. From within this book's historicist carapace, a study of metatheatricality in the manner of Harry Berger, Jr., is struggling to emerge.

Nunn conducts a thorough review of the secondary literature on anatomical thinking in the early modern period. For those who are not familiar with this material, she has performed a useful service by synthesizing it. I have just one minor quibble with her handling of earlier work on anatomy: she sometimes sounds unnecessarily dismissive in her discussion of the work of predecessors such as Jonathan Sawday. Because of the number of plays discussed, the book's engagement with literary criticism of individual plays is necessarily less exhaustive. Although this is generally a perfectly reasonable strategy, it seems irresponsible for a discussion of eyes in King Lear to neglect Stanley Cavell's magisterial argument about vision and sympathy.


The College of Staten Island, The City University of New York
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Author:Greenfield, Matthew
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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