What does the visual culture of early modern England, and the ways in which that culture articulated specific notions of corporeality, tell us about the actor’s body on Shakespeare’s stage? This article locates one answer to that question in the popular emblem books and the somewhat more rarefied cosmographical treatises of the day. Digging in these sources reveals an understanding of the body that is grounded first and foremost in corporeality – the body, before it was anything else, was matter. As such, I argue that the actor’s body on the early modern stage served as an instance of irrefutable and irreducible materiality, ‘lending’ its materiality to the abstractions and absences that Shakespeare’s theatre so readily ‘bodied forth.’
However, as a wealth of scholarship on the body has suggested over the past few decades, things are not this simple. The body appears in these arenas as a very specific kind of matter, and matter itself is shown to have a complex relationship to ‘form’, or the immaterial realities of life. I argue here that the nature of the body-as-matter, and indeed of matter itself, is fruitfully understood in terms of two related early modern concepts: prima materia, and man as microcosm. These ideas were most in circulation in the distinct but kindred fields of alchemy and cosmography, and their visual manifestations offer a perspective on the theatrical body that does not reduce the body to simplematter, but still acknowledges its profound materiality, and the effect that the body-as-matter has on stage-work as a whole.
Copyright (c) 2014 Matthew Wagner
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