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The individual and self -destruction in Renaissance drama: The examples of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Tourneur, and Ford

Pompa Banerjee, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Renaissance drama, viewed against the new, fame-obsessed restlessness of Petrarch, Cardan, and Montaigne, engenders an imperial selfhood that fashions itself with narcissistic aggression and simultaneously undermines itself by becoming an agent in its own destruction. Selfhood issues in a restless self-overcoming in which the individual struggles to outdo himself in dizzying jousts of self-rivalry. "Victims" often follow a self-destructive career; self-fashioning and self-cancellation are not really that far apart. Doctor Faustus examines the Reformation impulse toward self-fashioning in relation to an "other." It signals not the fullness but the dissolution of identity through pride, despair, and death. Faustus internalizes Mephastophilis, the great "other" of Marlowe's age; this results in satanic parody. His quest for self-knowledge mimics the Protestant's journey toward God. But in parody, selfhood and self-cancellation become interchangeable. In King Lear, Lear's actions are almost death-driven. His libido moriendi is connected to his quest for self-knowledge; finally, it is death alone that teaches self-knowledge. Aided by thumos, Plato's "high rage," Lear acknowledges his mortality, and knows himself through rage and madness. Awakening to find Cordelia, he repossesses everything that makes life worthwhile. In The Revenger's Tragedy, Vindice takes Renaissance self-fashioning to a sinister extreme, enacting several roles in a revenge drama written, directed, and performed by himself. He transforms his dead mistress into his grisly doppelganger whose charms rival those of Petrarchan beauties. He usurps the divine function and metes perfect poetic justice, initiating his own death, and laying claim to a perverse fame. In 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Giovanni perverts the laws of kinship and social exchange through incest. Unable to give the "gift" of his sister to another, he loses his place in the kinship structure. Her repentance indicates that her heart has been "stolen" by a higher deity, and she becomes a defiled object in his eyes. To purify her and to recover his lost heart, Giovanni offers a violent sacrifice where he is both an enraged god and a sacrificer seeking to placate that god with the "gift" of Annabella's heart. ^

Subject Area

Theater|English literature

Recommended Citation

Banerjee, Pompa, "The individual and self -destruction in Renaissance drama: The examples of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Tourneur, and Ford" (1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9316615.