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From feathers to fur: Theatrical representations of skin in the medieval English cycle plays

Valerie Anne Gramling, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In this dissertation I examine how skin, both human and non-human, was defined and represented on stage in the medieval English cycle plays, and more importantly how those material representations both reflected and transformed medieval understandings of skin and its relationship to the body. I consider how the creators of the medieval English cycle plays dramatized and expanded upon medieval readings of skin as a changeable and transformative outer covering that not only altered the body's physical shape but also defined its essential nature, demarcating the limits of human identity. I propose that skin was used both explicitly and implicitly throughout the cycles as a means of defining and distinguishing human bodies, and that this use enhanced the cycles' larger exploration of the creation, fall, and salvation of mankind. In addition to close readings of the play texts, I also draw on theatre history and production records to tease out an understanding of how the various types of skin depicted on stage were materially represented, as the necessities of theatrical staging required certain alterations and created a space for problematizing accepted readings and traditions. I argue that readings of skin as a literal covering and as a figurative garment regularly became conflated on stage, and the theatre's necessarily literal presentation of bodily change often amplified the metaphorical meanings. While in the gospels the Resurrection is a mystery that can be believed without being seen, on stage it must be embodied and a tangible representation of Jesus Christ's transformed body and skin depicted. In determining ways to present this body of Christ-as-divinity on stage, as well as the other human and non-human bodies within the plays, the medieval cycle producers fashioned outer skins that reflected traditional conceptions, yet also re-shaped and deepened their audiences' understanding. Ultimately, I argue that both the language of the plays and the material representations demonstrate and support a theological reading of skin as a permeable and changeable border between human and non-human, body and soul, and mortality and immortality that delineates not only the limits of the human body but of human identity itself.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|British and Irish literature|Theater History

Recommended Citation

Gramling, Valerie Anne, "From feathers to fur: Theatrical representations of skin in the medieval English cycle plays" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3589029.