Bodies emblazoned
in Bodies complexioned
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This chapter aims to fill a small but critical lacuna in the consensus among scholars about how the Stuart theatre both appraised human difference and drew social distinctions thence. This consensus recognises, on the one hand, that drama taught audiences how to discriminate among themselves and why they were different from non-English or non-European peoples. On the other hand, scholarship now acknowledges that there were several axes of discrimination, not all intersecting neatly. While skin colour, or physique in general, may have been increasingly important, religious confession, language, nation, manners, and class remained very significant. This chapter concentrates on the last factor but suggests that we should be careful of importing a modern social distinction into the seventeenth century. England’s social hierarchy was defined by distinctions in social status, itself inherited. In spite (or often because) of socio-economic and political change promoting a reconfiguration according to wealth (or class), society stubbornly recognised status inequality; emphasised a division between a well-born, genteel minority and a meanly born majority. Relatively little attention has been given to how drama perpetuated a powerful, socially inflected fiction regarding humoral physiology, namely, that the elite had better-tempered bodies or, vice versa, that the complexions of plebeians were always marred by their obscure origins.

Bodies complexioned

Human variation and racism in early modern English culture, c. 1600–1750


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