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The Reflexive Scaffold: Metatheatricality, Genre, and Cultural Performance in English Renaissance Drama

Nathaniel C Leonard, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The critical discussion of metatheatre has historically connected a series of reflexive dramatic strategies—like soliloquy, chorus, dumb show, the-play-within-the-play, prologue, and epilogue—and assumed that because these tropes all involve the play's apparent awareness of its own theatrical nature they all have similar dramaturgical functions. This dissertation, by contrast, shows that the efficacy derived from metatheatrical moments that overtly reference theatrical production is better understood in the context of restaged non-theatrical cultural performances. Restaged moments of both theatrical and non-theatrical social ritual produce layers of performance that allow the play to create representational space capable of circumventing traditional power structures. The Reflexive Scaffold argues that this relationship between metatheatricality and restaged moments of culture is central to interrogating the complexities of dramatic genre on the English Renaissance stage. This project asserts that a great deal of early modern English drama begins to experiment with staged moments of cultural performance: social, cultural, and religious events, which have distinct ramifications and efficacy both for the audience and in the world of the play. However, while these restaged social rituals become focal points within a given narrative, their function is determined by the genre of the play in which they appear. A play or a feast inserted into a comic narrative creates a very different sort of efficacy within the world of the play from that which is created when the same moment appears in a tragic narrative. These various types of performance give us a glimpse into the ways that early modern English dramatists understood the relationship between their works and the audiences who viewed them. I argue that the presentation and reinterpretation of early modern social ritual is utilized by many of the major playwrights of the English Renaissance, including Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, and Philip Massinger to redefine genre. These moments of reflexivity construct efficacy that, depending on the genre in which they appear, runs the gambit from reinforcing social order to directly critiquing the dominant cultural discourse.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Theater History

Recommended Citation

Leonard, Nathaniel C, "The Reflexive Scaffold: Metatheatricality, Genre, and Cultural Performance in English Renaissance Drama" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3589073.