Last Acts: The Arts of Dying, the Good Deathbed and the Early Modern Stage
MetadataShow full item record
“Last Acts” examines the intersection between early modern understandings of proper deathbed behavior and dramatic representations of death. Dying is understood in homiletic texts as a set of postures and actions that can be performed well or badly. Dying is something to do as much as something to suffer. There are, however, widespread disagreements about the eschatological significance of deathbed behavior, and also about the specific form it should take. These controversies ensure that representations of the deathbed are rich places in which to investigate shifting understandings of the nature of, and the interactions between, the individual, the social and the supernatural. To demonstrate the importance of this tradition, I draw out the theoretical assumptions of the artes moriendi and show how they influence representations of dying in plays from mid-Tudor morality interludes and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, through Shakespeare’s Richard II and Ben Jonson’s Volpone, to Cyril Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy. I highlight playwrights’ use of dramatic deathbeds underpinned by Christian understandings of the good death to theorize different forms of agency and so to reflect changing ways of thinking about the self, about shifting political and economic power, and about the disputed nature and purpose of the theatre. Drama’s particular ability to trouble distinctions between activity and passivity, or seeming and being, makes it especially suited to think about what it means to die actively. Moreover, the perplexing notion of an active practice of dying also provides playwrights with analogies for thinking about the similarly perplexing notion of dramatic performance. Arguing for a continuous and productive (if sometimes contentious) exchange of ideas and rhetorical strategies between homiletic and dramatic writing, I intervene in debates about the role of the theater in the rise of the secular public sphere. By situating my authors’ understandings of dying within a line of thought that considers how individual and collective identities are shaped and defined by orientation toward death from Paul and Augustine through to Roberto Esposito, I demonstrate that the ars moriendi tradition has responded to and influenced wider discussions about how death is understood socially, spiritually and philosophically.