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The rhetoric of poison in Marston’s and Webster’s Italianate drama
Yan Brailowsky

In early seventeenth-century English plays, it is fashionable to portray Italianate locales as rife with intrigue, featuring Italian female characters often depicted as dangerous, living emblems of venomous passion, confederates in complex plots which ultimately destroy the body politic. But the plays also tell another story, as the frequent talk of poison distils its venom through words as much as it does through deadly ointments, perfumes or liquids. In these plays, poison is as much a rhetorical process as it is a deadly substance. Focusing on Marston’s The Malcontent and Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, this paper proposes to study the relationship between poison and rhetoric in early seventeenth-century Italianate plays to show how poison works in a specular fashion, using derivation and discontinuity for dramatic effect. Associated with Italianate passions, talk of poison suggests an underlying socio-political criticism which had (at least partial) topical resonance for Jacobean audiences. These tragic or satirical plays could serve as inverted mirrors for princes, portraying counter-examples of good government, depicting in spectacular fashion the effects of a body politic poisoned by unchecked, warped Italianate (i.e. foreign and Popish) perversions. By highlighting the masculine nature of these fantasies of evil, this paper will also challenge the customary link between women and poison, highlighting instead the vicarious nature of poison. The chapter will ultimately suggest that topicality, gender bias, xenophobic and anti-Catholic sentiment contribute to making poison more a perversion of the Word than a deadly substance in these plays.

in Poison on the early modern English stage
Shakespeare’s challenges to performativity
Yan Brailowsky

This chapter questions early modern conceptions of the supernatural from a linguistic perspective: can language produce supernatural effects? How is the supernatural expressed through language? First, it considers the context of early modern theatre in which prophecies were problematic, as church and state tried to avoid the spread of seditious rumours. The evocative power of prophecy resisted these regulatory efforts, and monarchs recognised the close link between prophecies and poetry, attested since antiquity in the figure of the poet-prophet. Then the chapter discusses how the language of prophecy (in Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard II or Richard III) could trick audiences into believing in the supernatural power of prophecies, despite the fact that the language used turns out to be non-performative. Instead, prophecies make language ‘stutter’ (a concept borrowed from Gilles Deleuze), rather than advance the plot. Prophecies posit a number of hypothetical futures, questioning our interpretation of historical narratives and supernatural phenomena. By producing the supernatural through language, rather than through characters or special effects, prophecies challenge our interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays.

in Shakespeare and the supernatural

Shakespeare and the supernatural explores the supernatural in Shakespearean drama, taking account of historical contexts and meanings together with contemporary approaches to these aspects in performance on stage, screen and in popular culture. Supernatural elements constitute a significant dimension of Shakespeare’s plays, contributing to their dramatic power and intrigue: ghosts haunt political spaces and psyches; witches foresee the future; fairies meddle with love; natural portents foreshadow events; and a magus conjures a tempest. Although written and performed for early modern audiences, for whom the supernatural was still part of the fabric of everyday life, the plays’ supernatural elements continue to enthral us and maintain their ability to raise questions in contemporary contexts. The collection considers a range of issues through the lens of five key themes: the supernatural and embodiment; haunted spaces; supernatural utterance and haunted texts; magic, music and gender; and present-day transformations. The volume presents an introduction to the field, covering terminology and the porous boundaries between ideas of nature, the preternatural and the supernatural, followed by twelve chapters from an international range of contemporary Shakespeare scholars whose work interrogates the five themes. They provide new insights into the central issues of how Shakespeare constructs the supernatural through language and how supernatural dimensions raise challenges of representation and meaning for critics and creators. Shakespeare and the supernatural will appeal to scholars, dramatists, teachers and students, providing valuable resources for readers interested in Shakespeare or the supernatural in drama, whether from literary, historical, film or performing arts perspectives.

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Shakespeare and the supernatural
Victoria Bladen
Yan Brailowsky

The introduction constitutes a comprehensive overview of the field of Shakespeare and the supernatural, covering terminology, historical ideas surrounding magic, witchcraft, ghosts and demonology, responses to the supernatural in the space of the theatre, and the ways in which Shakespeare’s work is located between discourses of enchantment and emerging scepticism. It also highlights the porous boundaries between ideas of nature, the preternatural and the supernatural. Providing relevant contexts for the issues explored in the book, it outlines the volume’s five key themes: the supernatural and embodiment; haunted spaces; supernatural utterance and haunted texts; magic, music and gender; and present-day transformations. The introduction also presents a summary of the contributions by each of the authors and explores the dialogues that open up between the various chapters.

in Shakespeare and the supernatural