Dying to Learn, Learning to Die, The Craft of Dying in Early Modern English Drama and the Cultivation of Dying-Voice Literacy

Simon Gaston Fortin, City University of New York, Graduate Center







Adviser: Professor Mario DiGangi

This dissertation contends that, through their relentless dramatization of agonies, the early modern English dramatists taught their audiences how to die. Attending a play where characters devised, discussed, prepared for, plotted, inflicted, endured and witnessed death, constituted an apprenticeship I demonstrate, akin to going to school, though informal it may have been, where audiences learned about mortality, death as an event, and dying as a process. Thus, this study points to the early modern English stage as a locus of human achievement that acculturates the experience of dying during the long Reformation, this complex historical unfolding that recalibrates many doctrines relating to death, dying, funereal rites and the afterlife.

The dramatists accomplish this acculturation by positing 'literacies of the liminal' that are alternatives to the pervading religious protocols of preparation for death known as the ars moriendi (the craft or the art of dying), a continental literary tradition born in the late medieval period. Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists I show, aim at more than merely representing the agonal process; living in a moment of religious fluidity, these stage artists interrogate mortality; they embody and encode 'the living death' by resorting to their two-fold agency: the creation of an imaginative/literary stage-bound idiom and the immediacy of performance required for its expression. Like any living language, this stage-bound idiom is an assemblage of influences and social energies and as such, the dying-voice literacy I suggest this canon of drama fosters is not sui generis. This dissertation examines this novel theatrical idiom against the background of its inspirations and influences. This study posits the craft of dying literary tradition as one of many catalysts for the advent of the theatre as a school for dying. Thus the didactic potencies of this process of acculturation are what I examine.

Dying to Learn, Learning to Die, as my title suggests, aims at animating an eternal paradox: the eagerness to learn what happens as one dies can only be sated by personal experience, and that experience, repellent to most, entails the irreversibility of self-dissolution. Theatregoers vicariously apprentice the praxis of dying by witnessing fictions that obliquely teach them how to die, and more probably how not to die. Though the literature of the ars moriendi tradition has of late benefited from a welcome scrutiny by scholars across disciplines, the study of its poetic impact upon playwriting has been little explored and has yet much to yield.

Though my dissertation resolutely borrows a cultural historicist approach, it hosts a frank Presentist agenda. At the current time, the field of Death Studies is experiencing an explosion of interest, possibly explained by the ever-increasing human lifespan; both secular and religious individuals have more time to ponder the process of dying. Although Death Studies are not new, the concept of dying-voice literacy is; I coin the term in what is an inaugural gesture at using the grand theatrical deaths of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical canon as heuristic occasions, where these profound meditations through drama are used as keys for unlocking perhaps the most difficult of conversations: what will my death, and the deaths of those I love, be? A dying-voice literate person is one who is willing to engage in the exploration, preparation and design of her own death, and the deaths of others, by engaging with, interpreting, absorbing and acting on the literary representations of death and dying across time and cultures. My advocacy for a dying-voice literacy is already at work: Dying to Learn, Learning to Die, is the basis of a performance, a recital of death scenes that I have developed and already performed several times.