Time and Authenticity in Visions and Images of Abraham Joshua Heschel

[7 minute read]

“Can we have snack right now? When we get back to the classroom?”

“We usually have snack at 10:00 or 10:30am. It’s only 9:30am now. Don’t you think you’ll want it later?” I ask one of my students doubtfully, walking beside him as we head towards the seventh-grade classroom at Temple Concord. We have just come from T’fila – the communal thirty-minute prayer-time that begins weekly Sunday school.

“I’m hungry now! Can I have two snacks? One now, one later at 10:30am?” the student continues. Twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds have a fast metabolism.

“Maybe. We will see if there is enough…” I say, hoping that there will be enough snacks for those who want two. Sure enough, there is – most of the students don’t want an extra snack. I hand over the snack-sized bags of pretzels for the hungrier students and begin the class. We are talking about the Holocaust today.

As I ushered my students down the hallway of the religious school wing at Temple Concord, we passed the following poster:


Masters Series©2012, Paula Scher, Quote: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Most days I walked by it unawares, busy with telling students not to run or going over the lesson plan for the day in my head. But it was always there, something that we looked forwards and upwards towards, metaphorically and literally.

The poster depicts a partial photograph of a man walking, with the quote “When I marched in Selma, I felt as though my feet were praying” offset to one side. The quote is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking about his involvement in, and experience with the famous Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a prolific writer and thinker, and an important figure to postwar American Judaism. Born in Poland to an important Hasidic family, he was able to escape the Holocaust by way of a visa program organized by Julian Morgenstern, the then-president of the Reform rabbinical college, the Hebrew Union College (for more information, see this link or Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner’s biography Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. Information about this book here). Once in America, Heschel taught at the Hebrew Union College and later the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and wrote many influential works about Judaism and religion.

My dissertation projects seeks, in part, to understand how and why the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement is so important to contemporary American Jews. This poster, produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Voices and Visions projects, is part of a series of posters sold (and in some cases donated) to Jewish communal organizations internationally. Under the tab “Our Vision” on the Voices and Visions website, the site reads “Voices & Visions is about art, about powerful messages, about combining them into posters, about starting conversations, about continuing the Jewish journey” (see this link for more). This poster, created by Paula Scher, is therefore intended to help Jews to “continue their Jewish journey” by way of having transformational conversations and experiences reflecting on the artwork and quote in the poster. The site contains background information and a “conversation guide” for Jewish educators who want to incorporate the poster into a lesson plan (see this link for more). The poster, then, is supposed to not only be a testament to the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the civil rights movement, but is also intended to influence contemporary Jews to think about and reflect upon their Jewish identity in some way.


I started this blog post intending to do a visual reading of this poster. A wrench was thrown into my original plan when I realized I had never asked myself an obvious, foundational question about Scher’s graphic art. Does the poster actually use an image of Heschel at the march? Is that really Heschel on the poster? What does it mean if it is? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean if it is not?

The most well-known photo of Heschel at the march can be found at this link. In it, a white-haired and bearded Heschel stands between Ralph Bunche and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands in between Ralph Bunch and Ralph Albernathy (one person away from Heschel). Heschel’s right foot is in exactly the same position as the foot in the poster, albeit seen from another angle. However, in the historical photograph, Heschel is wearing a coat and his arms are linked with his fellow protestors, not simply hanging down as is the case with the poster.

This leads me to conclude that this image is not taken from a photograph of Heschel himself, unless it was taken from a later photograph. (Heschel passed away well before the creation of this poster, in 1972. This poster was made in 2012.)

When I saw the poster for the first time, I assumed it was of Heschel. However, I was a bit of a specialized audience member – I had already graduated with an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Heschel worked himself!) and was therefore accustomed to seeing pictures of him in hallways. I was also already familiar with the quote and Heschel’s involvement in the Selma-Montgomery march.

But for those people not already-in-the-know about the historical background of the quote, the poster may be less clearly about a rabbi named Heschel (the attribution of the quote is quite small on the poster itself).

What is clear on the photo is that the quote is important, and furthermore, that the quote is a quote. The quotation marks are quite large – larger and bolder, in fact, than any of the words themselves! The important thing is that this is a historical quote, that someone from the Jewish community (perhaps it doesn’t even matter who, it matters that it was someone) said this and was therefore at the march in Selma. The graphic of the partial man marching looks old-fashioned (indeed, old-fashioned enough to make me initially think it was an altered photo of Heschel!), also signaling to the viewer the importance of the past-tense-ness of the poster. However, cyan and magenta lines rocket off the borders of the graphic of the man and of the quote, shattering the clean lines of image and making it almost difficult to stare at for too long a period. While this certainly doesn’t make the poster look vintage or of the 1960s, it still doesn’t look quite modern, either. The effect is alluring yet jarring as the temporal setting of the photo is destabilized and the poster becomes hard to look at for a sustained period of time – like a Magic Eye that your eyes just won’t “lock onto” correctly. This happened in our community’s past, the poster seems to whisper (remember, the poster is intended for a primarily Jewish audience) and it can happen again, as well.

I don’t know if any of my 7th-grade Sunday School students took the time to look and reflect on the poster as they passed by it on their way from the sanctuary to the classroom. I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that I never incorporated the poster into any of my lesson plans. However, I noticed it, and it had a transformational effect on me, at least – it helped me choose the topic of my dissertation.

Maria Carson is a Dissertation Fellow at the Humanities Center at Syracuse University. She is a PhD Candidate in the Religion department at Syracuse University, working on her dissertation about the life, thought, and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Her work blends together cultural studies, affect theory, and Jewish thought and cultural studies. She has an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a B.A. in Religious Studies from DePaul University, and a B.F.A. in Theatre Management from The Theatre School at DePaul University.


Shipwrecked Courtier: Nostalgia and Courtiership in Twelfth Night and The Book of the Courtier

[7-10 minute read]

Above my fortunes, yet my state is well.

I am a gentleman. – Viola, Twelfth Night

Viola, the shipwrecked woman of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, finds herself separated from her twin brother in a foreign land. Vulnerable, she must find means for supporting herself and dons the disguise of a eunuch named Cesario to serve Duke Orsino. The neighboring grieving Duchess, caught off-guard by Cesario’s unexpected presence of beauty and eloquent speech, seeks to uncover Cesario’s origins as s/he enters the court. She inquires about Cesario’s “parentage,” and s/he responds, “I am a gentleman” (1.5.222-24).[1] I read Viola’s embodied construction of the gentleman named Cesario within the tradition of courtiers and courtly service culture. I ask, why is the courtier, as an eroticized figure of civilized society, wrapped up with notions of reconstructing lost times and places? I explore this question in the deployment of Castiglione’s figuration of the ideal humanist courtier within The Book of the Courtier in Viola/Cesario’s embodiment of an English gentleman in Twelfth Night. I argue that Shakespeare’s re-imagination of Castiglione’s ideal Italian humanist courtier in Twelfth Night is demonstrative of the affective entanglement between courtiers, nostalgia, and sovereigns; thus, offering the potential for alternative queer futures.

The influence of Castiglione’s The Courtier as a political model for negotiating status within the court can be seen impacting the English imagination throughout Tudor England. This ideal humanist courtier even makes an appearance in Sir Thomas Elyot’s Governor, which was published only three years after Castiglione’s dialogue. Thomas Hoby translates The Courtier into English by 1561, and its influence on contemporaneous works is reflected in Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570).[2] The ideal humanist courtier, as composed by Castiglione, began circulating throughout England during Henry VIII’s reign, carried into Elizabeth’s England, and became the preferred mode of conduct for English gentleman.[3] Within this context, Twelfth Night provides evidence that the form of the courtier exceeds textuality; the courtier draws upon past models of comportment, textual and performative, to elicit a sense of wonder and desire from sovereigns.

Viola carries on from the shipwreck at the opening of Twelfth Night towards a better life only after she disguises her appearance, such that others perceive her as a male courtier. Attempting to resuscitate a vestige of her lost brother, Viola draws upon Sebastian’s comportment for her employment as a courtier, “in this fashion, color, ornament/ For him I imitate” (3.4.322-23). Viola nostalgically draws upon the comportment of her lost brother as the model for her citational performativity “in this fashion” not only to succeed in securing her fortunes, but also to collapse the temporal separation between Sebastian and herself.

The figure of the gentleman in Viola’s performance of Cesario mirrors Castiglione’s ideal humanist courtier. Employed by Orsino, Cesario/Viola is sent to Duchess Olivia’s court to deliver the Duke’s declaration of love. Olivia, shocked at the eloquence of Cesario/Viola’s speech and comportment, asks him about his social status. Cesario describes himself to Olivia as a gentleman that has done well. His assurances to Olivia that he has already succeeded as a courtier – in that he is “above” his “fortunes” – is reminiscent of Cesare Gonzaga’s summary in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier: “he who has grace finds grace” (Castiglione 30). Cesario’s use of the word “fortune” is indicative that it is through his grace of speech, beauty, and conduct that he has been able to ascend this far.[4]

Cesario has done so well because he has already captured Orsino’s interest with his graceful abilities. Cesario taunts Olivia with allusions to his prior success of becoming Orsino’s beloved, inflaming his prestige as a courtier in her imagination. Olivia rehearses to herself, almost trancelike, Cesario’s many favorable attributes such as his “tongue” for his rhetorical powers, his “face” for his youthful and feminine appearance, his “limbs” which are of lovely shape, his “actions” that are demonstrative of his capabilities, and his “spirit” that proves his morality. Strikingly, Olivia embeds Cesario with the same corporeal physicality and neo-platonic idealism that is found of Castiglione’s ideal humanist courtier. Indeed, Olivia admits that she gives a “fivefold blazon,” connecting Cesario to the chivalric tradition that the courtier and English gentleman pulls upon.

Viola’s disguise as her brother is a form of performative nostalgia that provides the material basis for her hope of a better future and puts into effect the circulation of queer desire. Olivia’s desire for Cesario brings the Duchess out of her mourning, hopeful for a future in which she is wed to this female dressed as male courtier. The promised, yet unfilled, union between Cesario and Orsino at the end of Twelfth Night suggests an alternative queer future as well. The Duke summons the male courtier, “Cesario, come -/ For you shall be, while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.” (5.1.362-65). Orsino lingers over the idea of having Cesario as a beloved, and refuses to call, or perceive, Cesario as female until he has changed back into Viola’s clothes. As long as Cesario stays within the garb of a courtier then there still exists an alternative queer ending to Twelfth Night, one in which Viola’s clothes are never found and Cesario remains Orsino’s beloved.

[1] All references to Twelfth Night are from Bruce Smith’s edited edition.

[2] Linda Salamon reads affinities between The Courtier and The Scholemaster to argue that The Courtier influenced its design in “The Courtier and The Scholemaster.”

[3] See Bryson, Anna. From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England; Kelso, Ruth. The Doctrine of The English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century.

[4] Shakespeare uses the word “grace” as defined by good “fortune” in Two Gentlemen of Verona (3.1.146) (OED 6)

New Netherland Colonial Beavers

[10 minute read]

The seventeenth century was a moment of exploration and imperial expansion for European powers; the Dutch were of no exception. In 1609, Henry Hudson landed in the New World after the East India Company’s failed attempt to find passage to India. Years later, the West India Company (WIC) would be founded in 1621, and played a crucial role in Dutch economic expansion during its Golden Age. As a chartered company primarily intended for economic extension and the accumulation of capital, the WIC set up outposts along the coasts of North and South America, as well as the Western African Coast. However, it was also politically motivated, with semi-sovereign colonial powers in these same locations. In North America, the WIC established a venture colony with Dutch merchants between the English colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts. Beaver pelts constituted their primary trade with the Algonquin Indians along the Hudson River Valley. The Dutch participated in a global trade of pelts, shipping furs to Muscovy and France to be processed into hats or liners for coats.

Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland was first published in the Dutch Republic in 1655, and reprinted in 1656, with the hopes of attracting emigrants to New Netherland. A Description of New Netherland is presented to the reader-observer not as an account of the conquest of the New World, but rather as a mix between an ethnography of the indigenous populations, and a natural history of the new world. An earlier travel account by Johannes de Laet allowed Van der Donck to move beyond descriptions of the coastline and water passageways and instead develop a more in-depth survey of the land’s resources. This survey covers the different rivers, the vegetables and minerals, the animals, and even the elements as they are found within the New World. It then moves on to deliver an ethnographic-like account of the indigenous population; their food, dress, living quarters, medicine and religion, among other facets of their societies. This cartography of resources extends to encompass the beaver, that semi-aquatic animal so highly prized for its pelt. Curiously enough, Van der Donck spends more time describing the temperament of the beaver and its medical properties rather than where to find it, how to capture it, and the process of removing its fur for circulation.


Van der Donck devotes one of the four chapters out of his travel narrative to the beavers of New Netherland. This chapter is entitled, “Of the Nature, Amazing Ways, and Properties of the Beavers.” It refences the global fur trade while examining the agency and complex rationality ascribed to the living beavers. However, the absence of the Dutch from van der Donck’s description of the beavers’ magnificently colored fur used in the hat trade is suggestive that the beaver meant more than a commodity to the New Netherland colonists. The text lingers over the beauty of “the very fine fur,” as it can exhibit the colors “ash gray” and “pale blue,” as well as exhibit “brownish” or “russet” tones, even fading into a “chestnut” or “reddish” warmth (118). The magnitude of colors that the narrator surveys is seductive for the reader-observer as they imagine what types of commodities that they can be fashioned into. The fur hat is the most desired, and the text claims that its popularity has extended across all of Europe stating, “The fur is made into the best hats that are worn, named beavers or castors for the material they are made of and by now well known throughout Europe” (118). Missing from this, however, is the explicit recognition of the involvement of the Dutch in the killing the beavers. The absence of the Dutch as a central node within the network of the capture of beavers, payment of the indigenous peoples, as well as the processing and transport of the pelts divests them of any responsibility in the violence inflicted on the beavers.

Throughout the rest of the chapter, the beavers are given human-like temperaments that eventually blur the human and non-human dichotomy. They are described as “timid” (117, 118, 119), “nonviolent” (120), and “gentle” (123), as well as being concerned about being “secure” and “safe” (118), “seeking refuge” (121) when danger is present. Beavers are, for example, likened to the most vulnerable members of the New Netherland community: “As soon as the young beavers come into the world, they cry like newborn children, so that a person coming to where there is a young beaver, and not being forewarned, may think that a small child is near” (123). Here, van der Donck relates misidentifications between beaver kits and newborn babies. In a similar fashion, beaver mothers are described like women, “the beaver has two teats as women have…the mother then raises herself like a human being sitting up and gives a teat to each of the kits, who lean against the mother’s body like children who stand and suck” (123). Beavers are ascribed the same physiology as women and their behaviors are only understood in relation to humans. This wording associates beavers with certain members of the New Netherland body politic such that the distinction between beavers, children, and women becomes unclear.

The beaver within van der Donck’s travel narrative is unique because it is the only animal given an anthropomorphic description. It has a certain type of excessive liveliness in its demeanor that prevents knowing the beaver as simply the fetishized fur commodity. Travel writing, such as van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland, suggest that new forms of relationality between humans and animals are possible at the edge of empire.


Gainsford’s “Glorious” England

[5-7 minute read]

A quick look at popular TV programming might lead a person to think that Americans are obsessed with Britain. We watch sci-fi shows like Dr. Who? to feed our imaginations about the possibilities of alien life and technology, as well as shows like The Great British Bake Off that combine culinary delights with intriguing locales. Then there are the historical dramas that have their own allure. We’ve watched the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII in The Tudors (or maybe we were just watching Henry Cavill?), followed the lives of the Crawley family in Downtown Abbey, and fell in love with Margaret in The Crown.

While these programs may implicitly be trying to tell us that there is something about Britain that should be revered, earlier broadcasting was not so subtle. In 1618 Thomas Gainsford published a text titled, The Glory of England, or A True Description of many excellent prerogatives and remarkable blessings, whereby she triumphs over all the Nations in the world. This travel writing does just that; it outlines, in Gainsford’s opinion, why England was so magnificent in comparison to other polities in the world.

One might ask, “Who is Thomas Gainsford that he would write such a text?” Well, Gainsford was born in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, he was never very good with his money and tended to owe people a lot of debt. This led him in 1601 to join the English army in the Nine Year’s War, a campaign against an Irish rebellion. He travelled across Europe after his time in Ireland was completed, and in 1607 made the trip to Constantinople. Upon his return to London, sometime after 1614, he prepared the first edition of The Glory of England to be sold at Saint Paul’s Churchyard.

Saint Paul’s Churchyard provides us context for thinking about who may have encountered the text, and how many copies may have circulated. St. Paul’s was considered the place to go to hear news and gossip concerning the state. It attracted people from all classes. It was a place that people could go to hear news from afar as well as news from the state itself. Selling The Glory of England at St. Paul’s means that not only did the text circulate between the people on the streets, but also that it had the opportunity to come into contact with, and travel to, members of the Elizabethan court.

The text’s note to the reader, that the narrative is an “oculatus testis” (Preface), is the reason why The Glory of England can be categorized as a piece of travel writing. Oculatus testis, or an eyewitness testament, signals to the reader that the information in the narrative is intended to be interpreted as real observations. Like all forms of travel writing, Gainsford’s text is precipitated by the fact that he actually went somewhere, out there. The purpose of travel writing is to record the experience of encountering either unknown, or unfamiliar, lands and people. Hence, as we find in the title, it is call a “True Description.” It is through this first-hand account that The Glory of England is branded as an unbiased comparison and evaluation of other nations against England.

While travel writings proffer descriptions of different peoples and places, they can tell us something about the culture of the person who composed it as well. I am interested in the ways in which this military man’s narrative sculpts and courts its readership. The text, assured enough in itself to not doubt what it says is true, describes the type of reader that might doubt ‘th glory of England’ above other nations:

1.either you are a stranger: 2. Or have been a Traveler: 3. Or look no further, than on the scarred and deformed face of antiquity as Authors have wounded the same: 4. Or live discontented through particular grievances in your Country: 5. Or are willful and irregular by the impostures of superstition: 6. Or affrighted at the power and greatness of other Princes: 7. Or transported with a poor opinion of our wealth: 8. Or to conclude, are merely ignorant (para. 1).

A quick look at this list begins to form an image of the type of reader who would agree with the premise of Gainsford’s narrative. We see that it is someone born within the country who has not traveled far, and so from the start we might think that the text is oriented towards insular nationalism. Categories three and five suggest a more Protestant reader, as the ancients were Pagans and the Catholics were involved in hocus pocus. And finally, with category eight, we see that the reader who believes in the glory of England is an educated reader. Or at least, they are not ignorant. It is interesting to me how the circulation of this book, with the contemporaneous rise of literacy, may have functioned to produce ‘proper’ citizen-subjects who were able to embody the glory of England themselves.

The Eco-Zombie: Using Biology to Imagine Zombies Beyond the Human

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts on Metathesis, I have discussed the metaphorical uses of contagious disease and examined the figure of the zombie in some popular late twentieth and twenty-first-century texts. In my final post of the month, I would like to turn to a unique sub-genre of the zombie narrative that unsettles the survivor-centered perspective of zombie outbreaks: the eco- zombie.

Zombies present an interesting study in the metaphor of contagion because they embody contradictions and create questions that disturb our sense of self and communal identity. The most obvious of these contradictions, of course, is that zombies are the “living dead”: two oft-mutually exclusive terms in the human experience. One is generally alive or dead, but not both simultaneously. The biological science of how zombies actually work is often left somewhat fuzzy in zombie science-fiction, which tends to give more emphasis to the latter portion of the hyphenated genre, rather than the former. These complex biological questions are typically subsumed by the drama and urgency of the survival story. One stunning example of this is in the 2105 film World War Z, when the viewer is introduced to a brilliant young epidemiologist who only minutes later slips unceremoniously in the rain and accidentally blows his own head off.

In terms of popular story-telling, this emphasis makes sense: the redemption narrative of survivors makes for a more emotionally engaging and compelling drama with which readers, viewers, and players can identify. Part of the power of the survivor’s narrative is that we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. This perspective aligns with the zombie’s function to horrify and disgust the reader, viewer, or player in an act of dis-identification with the dead. In short, the horror of the zombie is centered upon the fact that nobody wants to become one! In fact, it is impossible to even imagine what it is like to be a zombie, given the way zombies embody a complete lack of supposedly distinct human capacities – including a sense of individuality, empathy, personality, and sociality. This narrative dynamic makes thinking outside of the standard human vs zombie conflict relationship difficult.


However, two recent zombie narratives have given us a new spin on the zombie narrative by taking inspiration from biology, and imagining the dead living in symbiosis with the natural world. In both The Last of Us (2013), a highly-cinematic survivor horror videogame from developer Naughty Dog, and The Girl With All the Gifts (2016), a novel and feature-length film developed from M.R. Carey’s short story “Iphigenia In Aulis,” a rampant fungal infection of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infests the human population. Known colloquially as the “Zombie Fungus,” Cordyceps is a true-to-life fungus that consumes and takes control over the bodies of ants and wasps. It manipulates genetically determined behavioral patterns of the ants it infects, compelling them to climb high above the forest floor, where they then clamp their jaws on a leaf, and remain as the fungus grotesquely protrudes from their body.


A “zombie ant” infested with Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis


Joel battles an “infected” human from The Last of Us

The Cordyceps-infected humans in these stories aren’t specifically identified as “zombies” in either text – they are referred to as the “infected” in The Last of Us and as “hungries” in Carey’s story and its film adaptation – but they can be easily identified as such by their appearance and behavior, especially their cannibalistic rage. Because the “zombie ants” that host the Cordyceps fungus in real life are, if anything, less violent than their healthy counterparts, the violence of the human Cordyceps victims in these texts can be interpreted as making reference to “genetically determined behavioral patterns” recognizable in the aggressive human species.


Melanie and a group of “hungries” in The Girl With all the Gifts


A very zombie-like “Infected” human from The Last of Us

In both texts, the symbiotic relationship between the infected humans and the Cordyceps fungus allows the infected to maintain a scientifically stable relationship to the natural world. This relationship is also markedly distinct from the fuzzy biological uncertainty of most zombie films. Cordyceps really exists, and it only takes a small logical leap to envision humans under the organism’s control. Rather than being presented as monstrous doubles of humanity, these versions of Cordyceps zombies represent an ecological and biological world which is rebounding against human civilization and industrialization. In both The Last of Us and the film adaptation of Carey’s story, visuals which depict the overgrowth of nature into formerly urban spaces play an important role in signifying how the viewer and player should interpret their monsters.


Overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Overgrown Salt Lake City in The Last of Us

The encroaching vegetation in these scenes infests the urban landscape and reclaims the landscape for nature, turning the city into a space both uncanny and sublime. The vegetation subsuming the metropolis transforms it into a dilapidated, ivy-embossed maze filled with ghostly relics. Similarly, the Cordyceps infection presents itself on the human body through grotesque, bubbly growths, signifying a biological excess overtaking both the human body and society. The overgrowth of nature on the infrastructure of the city and the Cordyceps fungus on the human body call attention to the material excesses of human cities and urban life. By reclaiming the city and the human body for the natural world, these infestation suggest that humanity has also overgrown, and as a result disrupted biological homeostasis and ecological balance.


Melanie and survivors navigate overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Interestingly, in both The Last of Us and The Girl With All the Gifts, the Cordyceps infestation creates a scenario in which a young woman with a unique resistance to the infection presents an opportunity for a “cure.” However, in order to process the cure, she must be sacrificed. In both texts, characters must weigh the life of the innocent individual against eradication of the human species. In the dramatic conclusion of the narrative arc in The Last of Us, the player must decide if they will save Ellie, the young girl that they have spent hours of gameplay guiding and protecting through a maze of zombies, with the knowledge that her survival means the end of the world. In The Girl With All the Gifts, Melanie makes this choice herself, choosing to transform the whole world with Cordyceps and found a new zombie society based on the teachings of Miss Justinaeu, the only person who treated her sympathetically.


A doctor attempts to convince Joel (the player) to sacrifice Ellie for the greater good of mankind in The Last of Us

By using biological science to reimagine the biological impact of the fungus among us, these texts break the mold of the standard zombie narrative. The Last of Us and The Girl with All the Gifts imagine zombies through a perspective of biological symbiosis and ecological balance, rather than racialized contagion or scientific terrorism. In doing so, these texts reshape how the metaphor of the zombie can be interpreted in an age when an excess of humanity and human impact threatens to push the ecosystem out of balance.

Zombies are harbingers of an inverted natural order and the embodiment of the redistribution of power. While this disruption of the order of life and death is violently disturbing for survivors, there are signs in many zombie narratives that the collapse of human society might actually be to the benefit of nature and the organic world that zombies inhabit. If we begin to reimagine zombies not as a gross corruption of humanity, but as organisms that are a balancing force of an interconnected biological world moving towards homeostasis, we begin to get a different picture of zombies and their relation to the metaphor of contagion. Eventually, they come to represent not a teleological progression from life to death, but a seasonal, circular, progression reflecting a desire for environmental balance, and a commitment to imagining the world through the changes and returns of life and death on a larger and longer scale.

‘Build That Wall!’: Studies in the 21st-Century Plague Zombie

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts for Metathesis, I have been looking at how the metaphorical deployment of epidemic disease operates, and how we might understand the metaphorical function of plague zombies in contemporary texts. Why is it that the figure of the plague zombie features so prominently in the twenty-first-century imagination? If the plague zombie is a vehicle for addressing social issues, how have plague zombie narratives confronted the zombie threat? Of course, the traditional method for dealing with zombies is simply to kill them. While this method might work when zombies are a minority, when the zombies outnumber survivors, they can be dangerous and difficult to deal with. Often, the best solution for survivors is to find or build structures to separate themselves from the living dead. These structures are reinforced with the belief that those within are safe, and those outside are threats. This week’s post focuses on the construction and failure of such barriers, and their centrality to the plague zombie narrative.

This use of the zombie as a simple “vehicle” for larger social critique is central to many of the texts that comprise the explosion of “plague zombie” narratives in the new millennium. Some of the most acclaimed texts of this period include Robert Kirkman’s 2003 comic book series The Walking Dead and its AMC television series adaptation that began in 2010; Max Brooks’ book The Zombie Survival Guide, also published in 2003, along with its follow up novel World War Z (2006), which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Brad Pitt in 2013.[1] In each of these “plague zombie” universes, how survivors choose to socially respond to the zombie epidemic occupies the central narrative concerns of the text. In such stories, zombies themselves appear as deadly environmental hazards to be mitigated; they operate as a collective metaphor for existential threats to society and humanistic values in modern society, as well as threats to the lives of individual survivors.


In both The Walking Dead and Max Brooks’ World War Z, as with many other zombie narratives, physical infrastructure is important for managing survivors and zombies alike. Zombies, for all their persistence, tend to have problems with doors and walls. In the AMC adaptation of The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes and his rag-tag band of survivors ramble about the Georgia landscape in search of architectural as well as social stability. In most cases, the former is prized over the latter. The Southern U.S. setting plays a prominent role in The Walking Dead, and the racial and economic tensions of the South are reproduced in the movement of Grimes’s migrant group. Whereas the urban center of Atlanta has been completely overrun by the dead, the plantation-esque farm is enveloped in a surreal calm.


An overhead shot of the zombie-infested Atlanta streets in The Walking Dead Season 1


The main residence of Hershel Greene’s Farm in The Walking Dead Season 2

This survivalist reimagining of the urban-rural racial and economic divide values isolationism and segregation. In season 3 of the series, Grimes and his group find sanctuary in a prison, whose labyrinthine walls provide layers upon layers of security from the zombies who stalk its fortified perimeter. However, after developing a feud with a nearby town of survivors, the prison becomes a constant reminder of the limits and dangers, as well as the constant state of isolation, that survivors face because of the outbreak.


Survivors contemplating the prison in The Walking Dead comic series

This narrative inversion turns the prison from a place of punishment and entrapment into a place of refuge and freedom. However, when a flu outbreak within the prison coincides with siege from without by a competing group of survivors, the prison and must be abandoned.

The centrality of security to The Walking Dead’s exploration of the urban-rural/town-prison divisions underscores a key theme of zombie narratives: population control. The threat of the zombie isn’t just in its mindless cannibalism or its role as a vehicle for a deadly contagion – the zombies’ power, and their threat, is in their overwhelming numbers. The disease they carry, whatever its fictional genesis, harbors a nearly universal ability to transform individuals—people with their own individual lives and narratives—into singular, homogenous, monsters. The epidemic empties the infected person of their identity and replaces their individuality with the terrifying singular hunger of the zombie. Through this process, zombies become a figure of contagious otherness; they are the once-minority that has become the now-majority threatening the stability of society and the existence of survivors. The plague zombie becomes a way to play out the fearful tensions of a society terrified of being overrun by those beyond our borders.

This is especially true when ethnic and racial tensions are made an overt aspect of the zombie narrative. In Brooks’ World War Z, Israel’s controversial partition wall is reframed as a barrier against the zombie outbreak, and the Palestinian people are invited into the protected space of the settler colonial nation that once denied their political existence. In the novel, the significance of the partition wall is inverted. That which once stood as a symbol of division and colonial expansion quickly converts into a nation-encasing quarantine barrier, and becomes a symbol for unity and reconciliation.


Survivors entering Jerusalem in World War Z (2013)

This is a condescending and problematic rendering of the Israel-Palestine conflict in that it places Israeli military-nationalism in a role to act as the benevolent saviors of the unprepared Palestinians. This unbalanced rendering is made more apparent and troubling in the 2013 film adaptation. During one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, the sound of singing Palestinian refugees incites the zombies outside of the wall to pile over and subsume both the wall and those it protects. The zombies construct their own structure, a sort of zombie-ladder, which allows them to quickly overrun the now-trapped citizens of the city. The organic, shifting, and adaptive structure of the zombie-pile is markedly distinct from the solid and immovable infrastructure of the partition wall, and attributes a certain vivacious, almost instinctual creativity to the zombie menace. The failure of the partition wall to stop the organic flow of bodies from one space to another is rendered as catastrophic, and the zombies themselves seem to move not as individuals, but as a massive singular organism.


Enraged zombies form their own type of structure to climb the reimagined partition wall in World War Z (2013)

By imagining the racial and ethnic “other” as a zombie or potential zombie, these narratives illustrate the stakes of the social issues lying just below the surface of plague zombie narratives. If we understand plague zombies as vehicles for larger social issues, narratives like The Walking Dead and World War Z show us the problems that attend the safety of isolation and exclusion. The walls within these texts represent the faith our society places in structural safety –be that the division of nations and ideologies as in the partition wall of World War Z, or in the medical capitalism of the Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil (see last week’s post for more about Resident Evil). When societies build walls to keep imaginary threats at bay, it comes at the cost of innocent lives. Taking another look at the plague zombie narrative asks us to consider the extremes to which society will go for an ultimately false sense of security. These stories also ask us to imagine how we might treat each other under the worst of circumstances, and how we might reimagine society differently in the wake of its collapse. Of course, these narratives also show us how visions of utopia inevitably turn into twisted realities of isolationism, segregation, and violence.

These texts show us how systems and structures designed to isolate us from the problems of the world may comfort us in times of existential crisis. But ultimately, the metaphorical and material walls appearing to protect us become the cages that keep us from moving beyond the boundaries of our own fears and comforts.

[1] I would also add that Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later played an important role in the revival of the zombie, but I won’t be discussing that film here.

Know Your Zombie: Understanding the Living Dead

[7 minute read]

Last week I discussed the use of contagion and metaphor, and mentioned how zombies can serve as “vehicles” for the metaphor of contagious disease. This week I continue my discussion of zombies, but before diving in, I want to draw a distinction between the two major representations of zombies in popular culture: what I somewhat reductively will refer to as the “Voodoo Zombie” and the “Plague Zombie.”

Although zombies have become somewhat synonymous with the spiritual practice of Voodoo in popular culture, the spiritual practices many of us refer to indiscriminately as “voodoo” have a rich and complex historical, spiritual, and cultural background far exceeding their limited representation in much of U.S. culture. In many instances, Voodoo involves casting spells of protection rather than curses, although it would be equally inaccurate to say that curses and other violent intent do not play some part of voodoo. Voodoo has also played an important role in historical movements of political resistance and cultural revolution, which has led to its vilification by many colonizing populations. The zombie figure is intertwined with both of these components—magical and cultural—and, like other aspects of this complex spirituality, has been largely distorted by popular culture’s appropriation of it.


The cover of Wade Davis’s book.

The Voodoo zombie is, in many ways, the “original” zombie. This incarnation of the zombie emerges out of the traditions and spiritual practices of Haitian voodoo. It represents a person who has died, or was near death, and has been resurrected by a “bokor” or sorcerer. One of the most famous (or infamous) modern Voodoo practitioners was the late Max Beauvoir, known as the “Voodoo Pope,” who claimed to know Voodoo priests who had resurrected the dead. Before his death in 2015, Beauvoir introduced anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Harvard professor Wade Davis to a man who claimed to have been dead in 1962, but was resurrected to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) chronicles his search to understand the botanical recipe of the “zombie powder” used to intoxicate and control alleged victims of zombification. In 1988, this book was adapted into a Wes Craven horror film of the same name.


The poster for its 1988 film adaptation by famed horror director Wes Craven.

The Voodoo zombie is tied to specific cultural practices and geographies (for example, Haitian Voodoo), and so the contextual “meaning” of the zombie is specific and discrete. Unlike their contagious cousins, which began to appear in popular culture late into the twentieth century, Voodoo zombies are not aimless, shambling corpses; they are people transformed into purposeful creatures. Voodoo practitioners like those described by Beauvoir and Davis resurrect the dead for specific reasons, including but not limited to slave labor, control, or revenge. Voodoo zombies are personal, medicinal, and spiritual; they do not appear in hordes, their state is not contagious, and their place between life in death is mediated and maintained by the sorcerer who controls them. They can even recover from their state of zombification, and may return to their justifiably surprised and horrified friends and family.

Anthropological works such as Davis’s and popular films such as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead are in part responsible for introducing the zombie figure to popular culture. However, the zombie as we know it now has undergone radical mutation from its origins in the Voodoo zombie figure, becoming what I’ll refer to as the “plague zombie.”

This type of zombie emerged from, but radically alters the trajectory of the original zombie myth, and became an increasingly powerful feature of contemporary horror texts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While the Voodoo zombie’s cultural specificity and its conjuror’s intentions for it make for a rather rigid metaphorical reading, the metaphorical and interpretative pliability of the plague zombie has made it an adaptive and increasingly popular trope of the new millennium. Recalling last week’s discussion of I.A. Richard’s “tenor-vehicle” model as a way of understanding metaphor, a zombie operates as a “vehicle” allowing us to form connections between what the living dead are (the reanimated corpses of strangers, friends, and neighbors) and what they represent (hunger, contagion, mindless consumption, loss of control, and a disruption of the natural process of life and death).


The cover of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996)

The popularity of the plague zombie began to rise in the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the devastating HIV pandemic, and the emergence of deadly new viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS; it reached a fever pitch in the late ‘90s and first decade of the 2000s. One of the most popular and enduring depictions of the “plague zombie” was the third-person horror videogame Resident Evil (1996), a franchise that has spawned twenty-nine video games across multiple platforms, six feature films, four animated films, seven novels, and a comic book series. In the Resident Evil franchise, the central narrative conflict is the Umbrella Corporation’s creation and not-so-accidental release of the “T-Virus.” Players, viewers, and readers must unpack the bureaucratic and capitalistic functions of Umbrella Corp to understand why they released the virus, who helped them, and how to cure or mitigate the impending viral apocalypse. As with many plague zombie narratives, the central conflict of Resident Evil isn’t that the dead are rising from their graves to stalk the living, but that there are arcane political, medical, and economic forces that would permit (or encourage) the advent of a zombie epidemic.


An in-game promotional advertisement for the fictional Umbrella Corporation. The tag line “Quality Medical Care You Can Trust Since 1968” is not only a sarcastic jab at the advertising style of pharmaceutical corporations, but also an allusion to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was released in 1968.

The threat to social stability that zombies nearly always embody is the “tenor” of their metaphor. The contagion or plague zombies carry and transmit connects the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor together, connecting the abject horror of living dead to issues of social cohesion, security, and medical ethics among the living. In plague zombie narratives, how the ever-present survivors of the zombie epidemic respond to their situation is always as important, if not more so, than the existence of the zombies themselves. Next week I will be discussing one particular trope of the plague zombie narrative: the wall. Walls separate survivors of zombie epidemics from the living dead that stalk them, but they also separate survivors from each other and create material and metaphorical divisions in post-apocalyptic society. Tune in next week for a discussion of how the walls we build to protect us can become the cages that entrap us.

“They may pass for excellent men:” Audience and Interpretative Labor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[5-7 minute read]

Last week, I discussed Hamlet’s metatheatrical play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, in an attempt to discuss what Hamlet’s attitudes towards acting could tell us about the relationship between theater and audience. This week, I would like to shift gears and discuss a different moment of metatheatricality in Shakespeare: the performance of The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with my previous examples, Midsummer has an investment in the relationship between actor and audience, particularly as it pertains to moments of interpretation relative to an imagined, unchanging ‘text.’ Here though, that interrogation would seem to lack the political stakes that characters like Hamlet and individuals like Elizabeth I associated with the theater. Rather, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are presented with the possibility that an audience’s ability to interpret a text against an implied authorial voice does not represent a threat to the theater as an institution. Instead, this moment represents an instance of productive labor that allows audience and playwright to work in unison.

Among the many subplots moving through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a great deal of time is spent with the “Rude Mechanicals,” a band of Athenian lower-class craftsmen preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens. The performance is framed as comically inept. From its treatment of the staging to the acting, the text of Midsummer’s invites mockery of the Rude Mechanicals’ stage play. The performance, which dominates the fifth act of the play,[1] becomes a spectacle of failure as the onstage audience of the performance mocks and jeers at the actors in what amounts to a four-century old version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. While the Rude Mechanicals are not Hamlet’s boisterous clowns, they seem aligned with his idea of the overly zealous actor who would threaten to “out-Herods/ Herod,” and thus cause the audience to fail in understanding the gravity of the play’s printed text.[2] The original Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy drawn from the pages of Ovid, and invokes the same vaunted high artistic sources in which Hamlet finds his text. Unlike The Murder of Gonzago within Hamlet, Pyramus fails to produce its desired effect and the narrative is transformed into farce.

Rude MechanicalsShakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals

To this end, it is important to consider not only the metatheatrical performance undertaken in A Midsummer’s, but also its metatheatrical audience. Theseus and his cohort are very aware of their role as audience members, and the beginning of Act V serves as a justification for why the Duke allows this performance to go on in the first place. Central to this is Duke’s assertion that he and his fellow audience members are serving as a magnanimous corrective to the failure of the mechanicals; they act as individuals who know the play will be awful but will watch it nonetheless, because their presence will solve the problem of the mechanical’s ineptitude, and thus ‘fix’ the play. The Duke, being informed of how awful the play will likely be, remarks “[t]he kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. / Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.”[3] Taking what they – the performers – mistake implicitly frames Theseus’s goal as one of interpretative labor, in which he and his fellow audience members will correct the problems arising from the inability of the mechanicals to ‘properly’ perform tragedy.

This is however, made significantly more complex by how the performance of A Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe does not fail in a metatheatrical sense. In other words, although the Rude Mechanicals fail to properly perform tragedy within the logic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the live audience is compelled to join in with Theseus and his royal audience. We laugh with them and the comedy of Midsummer becomes successful, even if it is at the expense of lower-class actors failing to produce real affective tragedy. We take it upon ourselves to participate in Theseus’s reinterpretation of the play and in doing so, we too find pleasure the kind of corrective interpretation that Theseus promises when he claims to “take what they mistake.” The audience is not a passive figure tasked with correctly taking in the meaning of the tragedy, as that is not the real stakes in the final moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, the on-stage audience are active participants in the construction of the play and in doing so, provide a bulk of the pleasurable comedy. We, as the audience in the theater, are brought to laugh with the on-stage audience and in doing so, we aren’t failing to properly interpret Pyramus and Thisbe; we are correctly interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the central metatheatrical tension in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s, and it is this tension between text and performance that creates the comedy of the final act.

Now, the political stakes in the reinterpretation of tragedy into comedy are much lower than the stakes of an early modern audience member reinterpreting a play like Richard II as pro-usurpation. However, the function of this examination, and the function of all my discussions this month has been to interrogate the ways in which early modern drama addresses and complicates the role of the audience as an active and passive portion of the space of the theater. I began this month in the present day, examining the suggestion that audiences failing to properly interpret the ‘meaning of a play’ might in turn serve as a threat to the institution of the public theater. From there, I spoke to two similar discourses present in early modernity, each suggesting how various audiences’ differing interpretation of a play might have dire political consequences. I close then, on a more ‘productive’ moment of misinterpretation, wherein the audiences’ ability to reject the ‘meaning of a text’ is not imagined as an undesirable response. At the conclusion of this series of blogposts, I hope to have made visible the complex relationship early modern theater had with its own interpretative communities, and the ways in which many of those vexed relationships remain present in our own relationship with the artistic productions of the past.

[1] The rest of the key plot points have been wrapped up by the beginning of the fifth act.

[2] Hamlet III.ii.x14-x15. Of note here, Bottom does pride himself in his ability to play a tyrant, an attitude he attempts to comically transfer off the stage during rehearsal.

[3] A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.95-96.

“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.

[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.

“I am Richard II, Know Ye Not That”: Drama and Political Anxiety in Shakespeare’s London

[5 minute read]

In last week’s post, I talked about the public reaction to a 2017 performance of a 1599 play featuring the execution of a Roman Consul who had been made-over to look like a contemporary politician. This week, I will be looking at the performance of a 1597 play that took place in 1601, similarly featuring the execution of a monarch perceived to look like a contemporary politician. During the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, a time now remembered as one of the heights of English dramatic production, there was a common belief that the theater was dangerous because it was a kind of art that could easily reach a broad, popular audience. The theater ripe for criticism: it was seen as a den of vice and disease,[1] and as a threat to public decency, particularly as it involved the interpretative labor of a population that might be spurred to sin or rebellion by the content performed upon the stage. This led to a wide range of so-called ‘anti-theatricalist’ literature, which sought to condemn the worst excess of the theater and its audiences. Writers denounced the theater as tempting audiences in the same way “[t]he deceitful physician gives sweet syrups to make his poison go down the smoother: the juggler casts a mist to work the closer: the siren’s song is the sailor’s wreck.”[2] The central worry was that audiences were being lured in by representations of sin, heresy and disobedience.

frontimage“The schoole of abuse contayning a pleasaunt inuectiue against poets, pipers, players, iesters, and such like caterpillers of a common wealth”

As a result of this fear – and combined with a general culture of political repression – the public theater was heavily scrutinized by the Elizabethan regime. Political authorities engaged in a number of censorship practices designed to limit writing that could be considered seditious, particularly restricting and suppressing any play dealing with “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal.”[3] Playwrights were arrested on suspicion of treason, and several, including Thomas Kyd, were tortured. Most of these convictions dealt with religious heresy during Elizabeth I’s crackdown on Catholicism. However, locating these efforts within the space of the theater suggested that individuals within positions of power shared a skepticism concerning the theater.[4] The underlying assumption that a play might incite audiences to open treason carries with it a powerful statement about the relationship between dramatic representation, interpretation and political anxieties. As a part of the public bureaucracy, this also constrained playwrights to working around censorship laws to avoid losing their license to perform.

EssexRobert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex

While these fears surrounding the theater certainly seem exaggerated, the persistent belief that the theater might be a site of political subversion did have significant real-world ramifications. The most famous case of the theater intersecting with open political rebellion during Shakespeare’s contemporary moment was likely the Essex Rebellion in 1601. One-time court favorite Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, attempted a coup in London with the intent of shifting power in the English courts towards his own party. A small part of this coup involved paying a substantial amount of money to the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (a play written several years earlier) on the days leading up to the rebellion, seemingly hopeful that a play about the deposition and overthrow of a weak monarch by a powerful usurper would win support for the imminent coup. While it seems odd to think that a performance of a play might have had any impact on public opinion, Elizabeth I shared a similar fear, once remarking “I am Richard II, know ye not that,”[5] tying herself to the deposed monarch and commenting on the frequency of the play’s production. Here, the stakes of interpretation and the willingness of a population to read Richard II as a seditious text is not merely a historical curiosity; rather, it was part of the logic justifying state control over the theater, and greatly impacted the way playwrights navigated the politically vexed world of the Elizabethan stage.

None of this is to suggest that the controversy I discussed last week carries the same stakes as it did in the Elizabethan era. What I hoped to demonstrate in this blog post is that discourses surrounding how politics are represented on the stage (and the associated issues of audience reaction and interpretation) are baked into the very DNA of early modern drama, particularly as writers attempted to navigate an outwardly hostile social landscape. Given the place that certain theatrical works, such as those of Shakespeare, occupy in the contemporary cultural landscape, it is worthwhile to think about the context in which these texts were first produced, and how it shaped their content – especially as we continue to repurpose these texts to service our own anxieties in the contemporary political moment.

[1] This was true both metaphorically, as opponents of the theater saw them as examples of public sickness and distress, but also literally, as fears of epidemics and plagues saw the closure of theaters to prevent viral outbreaks among London’s poorer population.

[2] Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579.

[3] Queen Elizabeth I, proclamation “Prohibiting Unlicensed Interludes and Plays, Especially on Religion or Policy” qtd.

[4] It is also worth remembering that to work against the teachings of the Church of England during the late 16th century was viewed as a state crime, as religion was a matter of state identity.

[5] There is debate over whether this anecdote is apocryphal, though the general distress at the political power of the theater was not invented, even if this quote was.