On the Way in which Tragedy ‘Openeth up the Greatest Wounds and Showeth forth the Ulcers that are Covered with Tissue’

Terence Hawkes

  • Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy by Michael Neill
    Oxford, 404 pp, £45.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 19 818386 0

Hamlet calls death the ‘undiscovered country’, but perhaps the deftness of that description masks a fatal insouciance. True, it isn’t really possible for us to ‘discover’ extinction in the sense of gaining actual experience of the phenomenon. But, as Michael Neill points out, human beings do imagine dying and in the process they inevitably invent a notion of death capable of matching their presuppositions. To that extent, death could be said to be something that each society discovers for itself. As a result, nobody just dies. The icy hand may descend everywhere and indiscriminately, but it does so in specific cultural and historical contexts. In all communities, a high degree of political and economic mediation invariably attends the event which is usually also intensely ritualised. The result, as Neill compellingly argues, is that though all animals die, only human beings ‘suffer death’ in the form of a subjugation to imperatives moulded by their own collective imaginations. And if death is culturally determined, it is also historically specific and thus altogether a more complicated matter than Hamlet allows. Certainly, the Renaissance ‘crisis’ about death, which is at the centre of Neill’s concern, is a quarry worthy of the spry, meticulous scholarship he brings to its pursuit. Webster wasn’t the only Early Modern British dramatist to be much possessed by the topic. In fact, a good deal of Renaissance tragedy could be seen as an instrument by which that culture set out to discover and map new meaning for death.

The need to reinvent death sprang from a changed experience of life. One of the prices exacted for the development of the sustaining sense of individuality and distinctive ‘inwardness’ that we take so much for granted was a burgeoning horror of personal extinction. As dying came to be seen as the cancellation of a unique, concrete selfhood, so death acquired its own unmistakable identity; no longer vaguely outlined or cloudily envisioned, but brutally personalised: literally given a face. Death became ‘a threatening Other, or a morbid anti-self – the one we are each born to meet, an uncanny companion we carry with us through life, a hidden double who will discover himself at the appointed hour’.

The second striking characteristic of Early Modern death was its shamefulness. The ‘Dance of Death’, in which the impartial, unselective leveller summons all ranks of society to cavort with him to the grave, could bring only humiliation to an intensely hierarchical culture, wedded to the comforting complexities of class and status. The fact that death scandalously degrades and unbearably ‘vilifies’ (that is, removes social distinction from) the body was nothing less than mortifying. Hamlet’s knock-down conclusion that ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay/Might stop a hole to keep the wind away’ has an edge of genuine anxiety that the play carefully whets.

The most disturbing evidence of death’s capacity to transgress all human and natural boundaries was provided by that great solvent of social limitations and distinctions, the plague. The fact that the infection knew no boundaries made feasible a number of metaphorical gambits, yoking it and the theatre together. Not only were large multi-class audiences perceived as potential disseminators of the pestilence, but Puritan denunciations of the stage commonly linked the influence of the theatre itself to the distressing disregard of status evident both in the plague’s progress and its most horrifying consequence: the grisly democracy of the mass burial. Like the plague, the theatre questioned and undermined inherited social distinctions. Yet at the same time as it paraded the threat of levelling, its tragic plays offered to contain the fear of death’s annihilation by staging fantasies of ending in which the moment of dying was transformed into an occasion for the conferment of distinction. On stage, if not in life, death could become a powerfully individuating event; something that surfaces memorably in Lodovico’s eerie expression of satisfaction as he contemplates the slaughter at the end of The White Devil: ‘I limned this night piece and it was my best.’

The idea that each person carried death around from birth as a sort of travelling companion, an uncanny, dogging ‘double’, blossoms on the stage into the horrific spectre of the ‘thing, armed with a rake’ stalking the Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi, or the ‘Turban’d Turk’ who claims and perhaps also is Othello at the moment of his demise. It is, appropriately, in the graveyard that the Prince of Denmark encounters a version of his own ‘fell sergeant’, the Clown who started grave-digging ‘that very day that young Hamlet was born’. Death, ever strict in his arrest, may even take to parading through the streets like a king. Thus Tamburlaine, the very emblem of mortality, sweeps through the world like a pestilential scourge of God, riding ‘in triumph’ over the carcasses of those he has slain. Of course, death ultimately claims Tamburlaine himself, and his growing awareness of his inability to defeat the fate awaiting him forms part of the play’s ironic complexity. The undercurrent of Faustian defiance in the face of extinction finally colours our view of Marlowe himself, who from time to time, like Ovid, deliberately fosters the irony that, in the depiction of death, the artist can achieve immortality.

The rise of general interest in anatomy in the 16th century springs directly from experience of the plague, and Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) quickly became the Bible of a resurgent and spectacular science. As Neill demonstrates, in this context, too, the theatrical mode remained the dominant form of engagement with the grim reaper. Anatomy lectures and public demonstrations of dissection became increasingly popular, and the construction of lavish, purpose-built anatomy ‘theatres’ enabled ‘performances’ to be advertised and tickets sold. In London, the Company of Barber-Surgeons put on four public dissections of criminal bodies a year and by 1636 Inigo Jones had designed them a new building, modelled on the teatro anatomico of Padua. In what amounted to carefully staged productions, ‘the anatomist acted out a drama of the human encounter with death’ and the anatomy theatre became an active adjunct to pulpit and playhouse, offering, like them, entertainment as well as instruction. The use of the bodies of criminals was one further aspect of the culture’s preference for punishment by means of public humiliation and display, while the spectacle of the anatomist stripping away surfaces to disclose enfolded secrets obviously linked him with the exponents of dramatic art. As Sidney put it, tragedy works like a kind of moral surgery: it ‘Openeth the Greatest Wounds and Showeth forth the Ulcers that are Covered with Tissue’. This is a recurrent trope, as is the idea of the anatomist as the explorer of mysterious regions. The body, rather than its condition, takes on the standing of an ‘undiscovered country’ and the title-page of Vesalius’s great work accordingly features Christopher Columbus, gesturing knowingly towards the dissected corpse, as if to reinforce the words of Sir Thomas Browne: ‘We carry with us the wonders we seek without us; there is all Africa and her prodigies in us.’

Echoes of the notion that psychological probing resembles the work of the dissecting scalpel appear in the titles of widely read works such as Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, and London’s playhouses were quick to take up the possibilities inherent in their physical resemblance to the dissecting theatres. When Lear urges ‘let them anatomise Regan; see what breeds about her heart,’ he is directly, and savagely, intensifying Hamlet’s morbid concern with ‘that within which passeth show’. The Prince’s wish to analyse a ‘vicious mole of nature’, to peel back those elements that ‘skin and film’ an area of disease in order to expose the ‘inmost part’, the ‘ulcerous place’, the source of a ‘rank corruption’ which ‘mining all within/Infects unseen’ is virtually surgical. It climaxes in the grotesque and bitterly moralised anatomy lecture he delivers to Horatio on Yorick’s skeleton. As Neill points out, the same unveiling, disclosing, anatomising metaphors lie close to the heart of any number of the plays of the period. Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling aims to expose a core of mortal corruption in the body politic, presented in terms of the ‘hidden malady/Within me, that I understand not’ spoken of by Alsemero in the opening scene. In Othello, an anatomising Iago offers to ‘open up’ the alien territory of the Moor, to re veal the ‘real’ Othello beneath the black skin.

For a culture in crisis, the narrative structure of tragedy seemed to offer an effective form of shaping and control to set against the incoherence and confusion of the ‘tale told by an idiot’ otherwise confronting it. Remorselessly end-driven, tragedies reach out for resolution or closure with a zeal to which most playwrights eagerly respond, although the sudden and violent demise awaiting the tragic protagonists can also present itself as a barely justifiable act of death-dealing committed by the author, or his representative in the play. Neill’s account of the resulting tension at the heart of Early Modern tragedy requires him finally to engage with the larger question of whether art should console or disturb. In the process, his meticulous sifting of Hamlet quickly arrives at the source of that play’s continuing capacity to disconcert.

Not surprisingly, a notion of narrative lies there. The form-giving and coherence-generation of storytelling – even that of a Ghost, who ‘could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood’ – has a central role in a formless, lawless world where any shape, camel or whale, can be imposed in accordance with the requirements of policy. At Elsinore, narrative power quickly turns into political power and the battle of authority involves a deadly contest for authorship. Both kings, Hamlet and Claudius, vie to impose their version of events on the raw material of regicide and incest, and Hamlet’s involvement with ‘The Mousetrap’ confirms his recognition that a capacity to persuade people to accept a particular interpretation of Claudius’s actions is vital. To the extent that his own death completes a different version of the narrative (to be told by Horatio), it is fitting that the rest should be silence.

Since the ‘issue’ of death, its social outcome or dénouement, inevitably forms part of the broader cultural narrative to which the theatre makes its distinctive contribution, Neill’s concern with the way things work out on the stage constantly illuminates shadowier aspects of the society at large. The Protestant revision of the Christian story, with its denial of Purgatory, had meant that it was no longer possible for the living to assist the dead. The consequent decay of the ‘vast industry of intercession’ resulted in a growing complexity of funerals and monuments and the magnification of obsequies in general. Neill’s supple reading of the heraldic aspects of the portrait of Sir Henry Unton in the National Portrait Gallery amply confirms his case that the ostentatious funerals of the great constituted a kind of public theatre with both biographical and political dimensions. They reinforced a complex system of hierarchy and interdependence in a manner which art found impossible to resist and, in the end, appropriate to emulate. For poets and dramatists, it became more than a mere conceit to allow that literature might eventually offer the most enduring monument of all.

Revenge tragedy can certainly be seen as, in part, a response to the Protestant displacement of the dead. The removal of Purgatory leaves us alone with our memories, and these are, as Neill argues, ever the revenger’s spur. An unmistakable increase in the importance of funeral rites in these plays makes them the most conspicuous of the forms by means of which memory is displayed and put to work. In this context the indecorous ‘maimed rites’ accorded to Ophelia would have invoked an infamy whose pains were worse than those of death itself. Other examples abound: Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, a tomb-ridden work in which the final eternalising monument is seen to be the play itself; or Ford’s The Broken Heart, whose Dance of Death motif, displays of surgical violence and elaboration of funeral motifs make it a reprise of Renaissance drama’s confrontation with mortality. In all these works, funerals enact the transformation of political defeat into moral and aesthetic victory.

Antony and Cleopatra presents this tendency at its most complex and disturbing. Here death takes on the function of a heroic self-redefinition in which the arbitrary ending of mortal existence acquires the redemptive trappings of aesthetic closure. Death, which is required by the structure of tragedy, becomes an instrument, even an emblem, of a crowning triumph almost to be desired. Antony’s resolve to be ‘a bridegroom in my death, and run into’t/As to a lover’s bed’ finds its complement in the final, overwhelming spin which Cleopatra puts on the same project: ‘To do that thing that ends all other deeds/Which shackles accidents and bolts up change’. Perhaps reinvention at this pitch demands, as Octavius reluctantly admits, nothing less than a bed-like monument, a place of extinction which is also a site of generation, its embrace simulating the encounter it situates so closely that ‘no grave upon the earth shall clip in it/A pair so famous.’