Early modern blush: bodies and boundaries c.1590-1700
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date07/12/2022
This thesis contains four case-studies on the blush in four different genres — narrative poetry; drama; sermons; and epic poetry. My aim is to preserve the idiosyncrasies and conventions of how each genre treats the blush whilst highlighting what they have in common: namely, shared biblical and classical source texts, shared imagery and language, and a shared interest in how the meaning of the body is produced, communicated, and understood. This thesis suggests that the ubiquity of the blush in early modern literature can be explained in part by its useful ambiguity. In that ambiguity there is an opportunity for writers to explore how the meaning of the body might be created and interpreted both within and without texts. This interest in how one person might communicate with another — and in the limits of that communication — reflects a wider intellectual interest in borders and boundaries. In particular, it reflects a fixation on the ‘gap’ between the inside and outside of the body (led by a resurgence in sceptical philosophy), and an increased interest in using the physical appearance of the body to demarcate social and national boundaries (understood in terms of race, class, religion, and national identity). The ‘gap’ between the inside and outside of the body is not always a source of sceptical inquiry or existential anxiety, but a useful motif which is used to create a huge range of literary effects. Nor is the ‘gap’ always imagined as permanent. There is a significant difference between texts which use primarily classical source material to discuss the blush, and texts which use primarily biblical source material. The former imagine death as the end of knowledge, whereas the latter imagine the coming of a total Revelation when everything unknown will be revealed, and ambiguity will end. Chapter 1: ‘It will live engraven in my face’: Shakespeare’s narrative poems It is an enduring assumption that the material communications of the body are more trustworthy, true, or appropriate than its linguistic communications, particularly when that body is coded female. How, then, does the material body communicate in Venus and Adonis (1593), and in The Rape of Lucrece (1594)? In this chapter, I argue that Venus and Adonis and Lucrece explore the processes by which the meaning of the body’s communications are created, understood, and disseminated through a series of collaborations between consensual and non-consensual parties. By drawing attention to these processes, and to their many and various failures, the poems interrogate how much can ever truly be known or communicated adequately about another person. Chapter 2: Friends, Romans, Crocodiles: Feeling shame in Alexandria and London This chapter traces the legacy of the Roman blush in three seventeenth-century plays about Cleopatra: John Fletcher’s and Philip Massinger’s The False One (1619); John Dryden’s All for Love (1694); and William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607). Each of these plays stage an encounter between the blushing Romans and the non-blushing Egyptians, suggesting that the blush represents a person’s submission to Roman ethics and the shame culture through which they are enforced. There are, however, moments in each play where a different, early modern, understanding of the blush as a racialised sign of the physical and moral superiority of white Europeans emerges. In these plays, shame — which is understood as the overlapping of whiteness, Christianity, and the possession of ‘civilized’ manners — shapes both individual and group identity, encouraging the audience to sympathise with the Romans and to identify the Egyptians as ‘other’. Chapter 3: ‘What do I do now?’: Walking the via media with John Donne This chapter traces the blush through John Donne’s sermons (1618 – c.1624) to give an account of his answer to a key seventeenth-century theological question: ‘what do I do now?’ I argue that Donne uses the blush to advance a distinctively Anglican practical theology which emphasises the importance of public worship and a shared Anglican identity built around a series of bloody symbols: the Eucharist, the blood of Christ, and the penitent blush. In turn, I offer a defence of a thematic methodology in light of the recent dominance of performance-based approaches to John Donne’s printed corpus. Chapter 4: ‘Within, without, disordered in the storm’: Adam and Eve in the seventeenth century This chapter suggests that John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667-1674) and Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder (1679) each pose a counterfactual question: what kind of knowledge and communication would be possible if the material communications of the body could be trusted? In Milton’s prelapsarian Eden, the blush represents the possibility of true knowledge of, and communication with, human and divine others. After the Fall, the Miltonic blush reflects the fracturing of those relationships. For Hutchinson, it is only the eschatological body, the body that has been restored by God at the end of the world, which can bridge those divides. In either text, the postlapsarian body emblematises the distance of fallen humans from sinless standards of physical, devotional, and relational perfection.