Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Shaping the Deathly Self: Engagements with Mortality in Early Modern English Literature
by Lodine-Chaffey, Jennifer Lillian, Ph.D., Washington State University, 2017, 262; 10259481
Abstract (Summary)

During the early modern era, poets, dramatists, theologians, and philosophers seemed particularly interested in human mortality: bodies littered the English Renaissance stage, both textual and structural monuments sought to extend the lives of the deceased, and the ars moriendi showed individuals how to die well. The significance of death in this period is shown through its centrality in many works of literature, including William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, John Donne’s sermons, and John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Literary scholars have primarily interpreted early modern responses to death as reflecting a deep fear of individual annihilation and the human need to battle the indistinction of mortal ends. Indeed, the most sustained treatments of early modern approaches to human mortality suggest that Elizabethan and Jacobean society evaded the horror of death through art. I argue instead that many authors actually understood death as a vital and positive generator of selfhood and that, rather than fighting against death, many authors sought to incorporate human mortality into their understandings of themselves. While Michael Neill, for instance, contends that early modern tragedies served “as a vehicle of resistance to the leveling authority of death”, many of these works often portrayed individuals using their encounters with death as an opportunity to shape the self and learn to accept mortality as an important aspect of being human. I contend that the prevalence of death in plays, as well as prose and poetry, rather than simply highlighting fears of extinction and loss of individual distinction, could paradoxically allow for greater self-awareness and an increased ability to demonstrate “that within which passes show”.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Butler, Todd W.
Commitee: Hamlin, William M., McAuley, Louis K.
School: Washington State University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- Washington
Source: DAI-A 78/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Literature, British and Irish literature
Keywords: Death and dying, Early modern literature, Seventeenth century, Sixteenth century, Subjectivity
Publication Number: 10259481
ISBN: 978-0-355-09388-9
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