Staging Executions: The Theater of Punishment in Early Modern England

Staging Executions: The Theater of Punishment in Early Modern England

Redmond, Sarah N.

M.A. Thesis, Florida State University,  April 2, (2007)    


This thesis, titled “Staging Executions: The Theater of Punishment in Early Modern England,” attempts to historicize the notion of the public execution and come to a deeper understanding of the spectacle of the condemned man or woman by examining the ways in which it is manifested in printed literature and drama. Public executions were popular occasions of ritual festivity, widely attended by people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Yet despite our modern notions of the brutality of such events, these ceremonies were elaborately staged and exquisitely paced ritual dramas seething with suspense, tension, crisis, reversals, and revelations. Above all, they were breathtaking spectacles. Accounts of murders and executions were sometimes printed and sold for a few pennies, and this genre of cheap print was wildly popular. These published accounts give us great insight into the workings of an early modern execution, and the ways in which the spectators viewed the event. This material is analyzed in my first chapter. In addition to cheap print, the spectacle of the condemned man or woman occurs quite often in the drama of the day. My second chapter deals with Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy as examples of onstage executions and violence that presents itself as entertainment, and this chapter examines more fully the similarities between the scaffold and the stage. My third chapter focuses on the treatment of the “dead” body on the stage. Specifically in Middleton’s The Lady’s Tragedy
and Marston’s The Insatiate Countess, the female body is treated as an eroticized object. This chapter centers on the metatheatrical nature of such plays, as well as the early modern curiosity about the inner workings of the body. In the final chapter, dealing with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, I investigate the effects of the disrupted state spectacle and the play’s direct link to the extraordinarily theatrical “execution” of the Main Plotters in 1604. In looking at the event of an execution itself, its publications in cheap printed media, and its representations on the stage, I attempt to understand more fully the extent to which public execution was a part of the daily lives of early modern peoples, as well as how the pamphleteers and dramatists utilized the spectacle to both corroborate and question the nature of authority.


Click here to read this thesis from Florida State University

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