Last ActsThe Art of Dying on the Early Modern Stage

Last ActsThe Art of Dying on the Early Modern Stage

Maggie Vinter

Print publication date: 2020

ISBN: 9780823284269

Publisher: Fordham University Press

Abstract

Last Acts: The Art of Dying on the Early Modern Stage argues that the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater offered playwrights, actors, and audiences important opportunities to practice arts of dying. Early modern plays also engage with devotional traditions that understand death less as an occasion for suffering or grieving than as an action to be performed, well or badly. Active deaths belie the narratives of helplessness and loss most often used to analyze representations of mortality and instead suggest ways that marginalized and constrained subjects might participate in the political, social, and economic management of life. Some of these strategies for dying resonate with ecclesiastical forms or with descriptions of biopolitics within the recent work of Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito. Yet the art of dying is not solely a discipline imposed upon recalcitrant subjects. Since it offers suffering individuals a way to enact their deaths on their own terms, it discloses both political and dramatic action in their most minimal manifestations. Rather than mournfully marking what we cannot recover, the practice of dying reveals what we can do, even in death. By analyzing representations of dying in plays by writers including Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson alongside both devotional texts and contemporary biopolitical theory, Last Acts shows how theater reflects, enables, and contests the politicization of life and death.