Trashy Romances: The Pathetic Fallacy at the End of the World
I take up the figure of the pathetic fallacy in Cymbeline and The Tempest to show how both plays unfold after an ideal natural world has fallen into ruin. In their respective post-apocalyptic landscapes, each play stages instances in which discarded, non-human objects take on agency, arrest human action, and contend with human actors for priority. For instance, the candle in Imogen’s bedchamber vies with Iachimo for position as he composes the inventory that has the potential to bring about the ruin of civilization. Similarly, when Prospero threatens to bury his staff and drown his book, the inanimate objects reveal a certain liveliness: the book and staff must be alive prior to Prospero’s threat in order to be drowned and buried. Though textual and environmental critics of Shakespeare’s drama disdain the attribution of human qualities onto nonhuman objects, the moments in the plays in which things seem to move and live expose the notion of unfettered human as unthinkable. That is to say that despite its bad reputation the pathetic fallacy suggests that the objects on which humans rely also compromise them. Similar to modern day hoarders, characters in Shakespeare romances are constantly undone by objects they collect. The taper in Imogen’s bedroom, as well as Prospero’s book and staff, offer a way to think the trace of the author in the object, as well as the ways in which inanimate objects survive cataclysm to predict events in the world to come. It is on these grounds that I argue that detritus on the early modern stage has a great deal to teach us about life, and life after life, on this, our dying planet.
Word-Hoard: Life After Life on the Early Modern Stage
Hamlet is a quintessential hoarder. Consider that the first thing he does upon his return to Denmark is rescue detritus from a landfill as just one example of his predilection to keep and store-up uncanny things. When Hamlet takes-up Yorick’s skull, marked in advance as it is by the memory of playing, he reinserts it into an endless chain of signification signaled by the famous phrase “infinite jest” (5.1.171). Hamlet’s concern with converting trash into treasure by bringing the dead back to life resonates with contemporary ecological thought. That is to say, just as thinkers such Timothy Morton, Slavoj Zizek, and Jane Bennett, urge environmentalists to love the nonhuman in the absence of an ideological concept of Nature, Hamlet and his skull layout the potential for an affective, ecological practice. The skull that is at once “grinning” and “loam,” shows ways to think annihilation while remaining open to a concept of life without Nature (5.1.177 & 194). Hamlet is not the only early modern character to store-up skulls. I take the scene in the graveyard as a starting point from which to investigate other skull hoarders, such as Antonio from Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and Antiochus from George Wilkins’ portion of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The memento mori, skulls retained, reposited, and reserved, remind audiences of the finitude of life while signifying infinitely. I argue skulls on the early modern stage have a great deal to teach us about life, and life after life, on this, our dying planet.
Spectacular Devices: Revenge and Repeatability in Renaissance Drama
I am directing your attention to weathervanes in The Changeling and The Jew of Malta to show how the early modern theater construes instruments of experimentation as texts. Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Middleton show that the stage does not imitate the lab so much as the lab and the stage produce definitive ideas of what counts as real or natural in cahoots with one another. To explicate the relationship between science and the stage, this paper examines indexical instruments such as weathervanes and test tubes in early modern revenge drama to suggest that even as the New Science attempted to divide the natural world into strict ontological categories, the plays stage the indissoluble connection between the original and the artificial. The scientific objects prominent in both plays are not mere replicas of objects used beyond the theater; they are objects that produce knowledge about the natural world. For instance, the virginity test at the center of The Changeling and the cauldron with which The Jew of Malta ends are both spectacular devices through which the revengers can represent past events to register a certain kind of truth about unseen forces over and over again. Through the several scientific objects, the plays show that truth resides in the copy, and not the original because the worlds they stage lack the kind of moral certainty that is predicated on an essential authority. In fact, the process of revenge is analogous to the scientific experiment. That is to say that if the truth could be know for certain, then neither the revenger, nor the scientist, would need to take into his own hands the righting of wrongs and the restoration of truth through repetition and spectacular devices.
“Dead Stones”: The Uncanny Potential of Things in Revenge Drama
This project examines animate stones in Elizabethan/Jacobean revenge drama to show that because early modern drama figures the human as coextensive with animals, plants, and minerals, authors such as John Webster, William Shakespeare, and Cyril Tourneur “give a voice to thing-power” (Bennett 2). In many revenge dramas, stones have uncanny potential, often speaking and/or moving; I argue the confusion initiated by the conversation between Delio, Antonio, and Echo exemplifies a disjuncture between words and their meanings that results in a vibrant potential for material objects. For instance, during the echo scene that is set amid the ruined stonewalls of an ancient abbey, Delio expresses a crisis between signifier and signified when he turns to Antonio and says, “Hark! The dead stones seem to have pity on you/And give good council” (5.3.35-36). The voices of the two characters supposedly echo off the ruins of the ancient abbey walls, but because there are some variants between the lines spoken by the characters and the lines spoken by “Echo,” critics suggest that the scene either stages the disembodied voice of the recently murdered Duchess or the disembodied voice of a heavenly spirit. While these readings are at ideological odds, both argue for an authority that exists beyond the staged experience of the characters. I disagree with the assertion that anything outside language verifies the relationship between words and meanings. Yet, even if the Echo repeats back the characters’ lines, it points to a slip or instability between the name and thing it names, because there is no essential starting point before words themselves. In other words the echo suggests that when Antonio tries to learn the truth, he just sets of a chain of signification. In sum, I take Delio’s assertion that the stones speak and feel pity as an occasion from which to argue that Webster and his colleagues exploit the lack of an essential connection between signifier and signified by expanding the notion of who or what can speak to all sorts of “vibrant matter,” but especially stones.