Date of Degree
Richard C. McCoy
Steven F. Kruger
Theatre and Performance Studies
My dissertation examines representations of necrophilia in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. From the 1580s, when London’s theatres began to flourish, until their closure by Parliament in 1642, necrophilia was deployed as a dramatic device in a remarkable number of plays. Exquisite Corpses analyzes the relationship between the English Reformation’s abolition of the doctrine of Purgatory and obsequies for the dead, and the frequent, often eroticized representations of dead bodies in the commercial theatre. Despite Protestant iconoclasm, “the cult of the cadaver,” as Eamon Duffy refers to it, was not readily relinquished and remained indelible in the cultural imagination. My project expands the definition of necrophilia beyond sexual intercourse with corpses, and builds on current uses of the word by early modern scholars to include all eroticism that occurs within the vicinity of death and dead bodies in English Renaissance drama, all eroticism that cannot be understood without considering the role death plays in its formulation.
During this same period, human dissections were publically performed more frequently and anatomical discoveries were published for lay as well as professional audiences. Outbreaks of the plague and public executions likewise kept the dead in intimate proximity to the living. I argue that the confluence of religious, anatomical, and punitive discourses contributed significantly to the eroticized depictions of corpses in early modern drama. Central to this study is my observation that the sex/death nexus is about the flesh. As theologians and polemicists argued, lust is born in, expressed through, and ultimately corrupts the flesh; similarly, many discourses concerned with what “dead” meant posited that death was defined by the decay of the flesh. In other words, flesh conjoins the erotic and the thanatotic. Thus, to understand the eroticization of corpses, and the ways in which corpses influenced the shaping of erotic subjectivities, is to better understand how early moderns conceived of eroticism, death, and mortal flesh. To demonstrate my argument, I use a cultural historicist approach underpinned by psychoanalytic and gender theories and analyze plays that illustrate particularly well the conjunctions between sex and death and their relationship to subject formation. My intervention opens promising new models for understanding the reciprocal relationship between death and erotic subjectivity. As the first book-length study on necrophilia in early modern drama, it foregrounds several dramas that interrogate key cultural concerns about intimacies between the living and the dead.
Neiberg, Linda K., "Exquisite Corpses: Fantasies of Necrophilia in Early Modern English Drama" (2014). CUNY Academic Works.