Date of Degree

9-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Tanya Pollard

Committee Members

Mario DiGangi

William Fisher

Subject Categories

Literature in English, British Isles | Renaissance Studies | Theatre and Performance Studies

Keywords

ventriloquism, early modern drama, women and speech, witchcraft, acting and playwriting, Greek influences in Renaissance England

Abstract

Bringing together feminist and theater-centered readings, this dissertation examines the status of female vessels that foreign voices inhabit and animate in early modern drama, arguing that the Greek model of ventriloquism represented by the Pythia exerted a powerful influence on the period’s ideas about women’s speech. In feminist work on ventriloquism, despite highlighting theatrical performance’s dependence on citationality, ventriloquism has been largely understood as an analogue for exploring male poets’ authorial power to appropriate women’s voices. In these readings, the term ‘ventriloquist’ is mainly identified with the person who throws his voice into human or nonhuman objects, reminding us of the technique we find in a puppet master who animates his dummies. But for early moderns, the word ‘ventriloquist’ was primarily associated with female bodies becoming possessed by outside forces in order to channel supernatural presences’ voices. While the most famous of the ventriloquists during the period were the Greek Pythia, their central significance has been obscured by the critical attempt to focus on the male voice-thrower’s authorly control.

In this dissertation, alternatively, I suggest that contemporary playwrights exploring the potential of ventriloquism were heavily influenced by the legacy of the Greek priestesses, presenting both versions of female speakers onstage. While some women on the early modern stage are depicted as vessels for powers beyond their control, others vocally control others, as when Paulina verbally animates the embodied statue in the final moment of The Winter’s Tale. Exploring versions of the Greek belly-speakers in plays including The Spanish Tragedy, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and The Witch of Edmonton, I argue that these dramatic representations of vocal takeover offer an uncharted model for the complex meanings of agency and authorship, with implications not only for ventriloquism’s supernatural associations but also for its emerging theatrical possibilities.

The introduction charts the brief history of ventriloquism, beginning with the ancient world’s understanding of the Pythia as chaste vessels delivering Apollo’s oracle. The way that the virgin priestess’s body was spiritually penetrated and possessed by the male god offered a sexualized model, and reproducing the god’s voice was considered equivalent to giving birth. The medieval Christianity carefully distanced ventriloquism from any connotation of pregnancy, but the late sixteenth century-resurgence of witchcraft revived the inherent association between ventriloquism, female bodies, and female fertility. But another sense of the term emerged as Baconian science began to displace occult tradition, leading ventriloquism into a double sense in the later seventeenth century. By laying out how ventriloquism’s associated meanings shifted throughout these periods, I suggest that not only women’s bodies are central to its dramatic representation, but also that it referred to two contradictory events—the one who is inhabited by a voice and the one who throws a voice—at once in Shakespeare’s time. In the second chapter, “Puppet Theater, Woman Actor, and Hieronimo’s Playwriting in The Spanish Tragedy,” I juxtapose Bel-Imperia improvising her stage action and Hieronimo, the ventriloquist-author, losing his tongue, arguing that Kyd’s tragedy challenges the author’s exceptionalism and gestures towards an alternative way of conceiving dramatic authorship. In the third chapter, “Hearing Echo’s Voice in Twelfth Night: Female Kinship and Collaboration,” I suggest that Shakespeare’s evocation of Echo in Twelfth Night enables us to explore the play’s three intimate relationships in the language of ventriloquism. Shakespeare evokes Echo to signal that imitation and twinship become pleasurable and fruitful rather than having absolute self-control and autonomy. In the fourth chapter, “‘The stone is mine’: Theater, Witchcraft, and Ventriloquism in The Winter’s Tale,” I observe how Shakespeare seizes on the performative effects of ventriloquism not only to present Paulina as combining the roles of ventriloquist, magician, and playwright, but also to offer a version of implicit but passionate defense of the theater, which strikes the audience as a powerful form of magic and necromancy. In the fifth and last chapter, “Ventriloquism and the Power of the Vessels in The Witch of Edmonton,” I argue that the chain of relationships leading from the evil spirit to the witch and finally to the actor shows the play co-written by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley exploring ventriloquism’s double sense, with an emphasis on the susceptibility that allows the inhabited vessel to access unusual forms of agency.

Taken together, these chapters show how the idea of ventriloquism—being authorized or forced to speak another’s words—plays a crucial role in rethinking the authority and agency of speech at the heart of the theater. By calling on the classical model of female belly-speakers, ventriloquism raises important questions about the relationship between vessels and the external forces that inhabit and voice them. The Pythia’s prevailing literary legacy in and around seventeenth-century England offers some potent ways to capitalize on the susceptibility. I suggest that by examining women’s inhabited bodies in early modern English drama, we can better understand the theatrical and gender relationships surrounding speech and text on the period’s stage.

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