Article Title

"Killing, Hewing, Stabbing, Dagger-drawing, Fighting, Butchery:" Skin Penetration in Renaissance Tragedy and Its Bearing on Dramatic Theory


Maik Goth


This article argues that skin penetration is a significant performative, verbal, as well as critical topos in Renaissance tragedy. As part of the sensationalist stage repertoire, it has a visceral impact on the audience, which is guaranteed by the interplay of theatrical and dramatic codes, for it links stage practices that present external signs with textual strategies that evoke what is materially absent yet symbolically present. The actor's exploitation of the mimico-gesticular codes, and the use of stage properties and trickery amalgamate with the vivid depiction of stabbing in the dramatic text, which draws attention to the incision, the blood, and the piercing of the characters' interiors. Renaissance playwrights depicting such stabbings frequently resort to the surgical image of tenting to represent the probing of physical interiority and (moral) inwardness. Metaphors of surgical skin penetration also inform dramatic criticism (Sidney's Apology, the anonymous Warning for Fair Women, Shakespeare's Hamlet), where they on the one hand demonstrate tragedy’s task to lay bare human vices and aberrations with surgical precision, and on the other illustrate the remedial cathartic experience the playgoers undergo at the sight of such extreme suffering. The defining aesthetics of the dramatic genre thus determines the choice of critical metaphors: as the tragic performance represents a breach of the physical boundary, so dramatic criticism conceives of tragedy as a surgical prying beneath the skin.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.