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Performing at the Block: Scripting Early Modern Executions

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey Performing at the Block: Scripting Early Modern Executions

Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey (The University of Montana)

Master of Arts in English Literature, The University of Montana Missoula, MT May (2013)


This thesis explores the executions of noble men and women in Tudor and early Jacobean England and the theatrical representations of executions that mirrored real life spectacles of deadly punishment. Historical scaffold confessions followed a formulaic pattern and condemned traitors performed their final moments before a crowd of witnesses with the power to judge the quality of the actor‘s deportment, costuming and words. As a public stage, the scaffold allowed the traitor a chance to assert and define his or her own individuality in the face of death and formulaic requirements, which I outline in the first chapter. Dramatic representations of executions both reflected and subverted the depictions of real life performances at the block. Playwrights employed the scaffold confession in a variety of ways. Execution spectacles within plays could—depending on the intention of the author—uphold the power of a just monarch, defy conventions and reveal societal ills, or show the agency of the individual characters facing execution.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, executions of noble men and women dominate the historical record. During the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, and James I, numerous members of the aristocracy lost their heads at the Tower of London. Most of these individuals gave last dying speeches, which their contemporaries recorded and judged. According to custom, the demeanor and words of those dying on the scaffold provided their audience with the means to determine the nobility and goodness of the executed. This introduction looks at contemporary views of death and the rituals surrounding deaths—both natural and unnatural—as a way of understanding the performance of executed individuals found in both historical and dramatic representations.

Click here to read this thesis from The University of Montana Missoula

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