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Words made of breath: Gender and vocal agency in King John

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Chapter
Beatrice’s outburst in this epigraph pithily incorporates the thematic triad at the heart of this study—masculinity, friendship, and violence— and even glances at medical discourse, which binds them together.2 These lines, and the larger passage from which they come, invite questions about the proposed correlation between manhood and violence, and the repercussions this equation has on men’s foundational relationships: in a culture privileging male-male homosocial amity as fervently as in early modern England, how could one friend contemplate challenging another friend to a duel, as happens with relative frequency in plays of the time? And once they have reached that level of emotional intensity, what determines whether they can ever return to or even improve upon their previous state of friendship, or whether one will kill the other? How, in short, might we re-read early modern friendship in such a way that violence becomes, at least upon occasion, a necessary ingredient for preserving that friendship rather than a purely literary invention introduced in order to intensify the dramatic situation in such plays as John Fletcher and William Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy?3
Chapter
“Write these words:” begins one early modern medical spell, “ ‘Arataly, Rataly, Ataly, Taly, Aly, ly,’ and binde these wordes about the sick mans arme nine dayes, and every day say three pater nosters in worshipp of Saint Peeter and Saint Paul, and then take of that and burn it, and the sick shall bee whole.”1 A combination of prayers and nonsense syllables, oral and written, this formula is typical of a widespread set of magical healing practices. The immense popularity of these spells, or word-medicines, offers a window into early modern beliefs about the effects of language, and the body’s susceptibility to it. Medical spells involve treating words, or even letters and syllables, as physical entities that interact directly with the body, primarily through external application or internal digestion. In doing so, they demonstrate the curiously liminal nature of words: although they derive power from their status as abstract symbols, this power becomes associated with their material form, embodied in physical substances such as ink, paper, and the vaporous particles of breath. Building on recent work on the porousness of the boundary between the body and its physical environment, attention to spells demonstrates the body’s corresponding permeability to its linguistic environment.2
Article
The transition from Richard III to King John reveals a daring artistic or ideological development on Shakespeare's part, and the latter play represents an experiment remarkable in its ramifications, which include political and psychological consequences so "progressive" that the playwright in one sense retreats from them again at the beginning of the second tetralogy. King John desaturates both Catholic and Protestant platforms of their spirituality, insofar as such spirituality compromises individual moral and rational agency. This striking emphasis on personal agency and masculinity is expressed most significantly through the character of the Bastard. If Shakespeare in Richard III ultimately emphasizes the uncertainty of signs, in King John he further transforms an exploration of the often treacherous capacity of role playing into a startling exposé of the uselessness of any "moral" position, no matter how fine or correct, without individual agency to substantiate it in the context of pragmatic social interaction.
Article
Holger Syme presents a radically new explanation for the theater's importance in Shakespeare's time. He portrays early modern England as a culture of mediation, dominated by transactions in which one person stood in for another, giving voice to absent speakers or bringing past events to life. No art form related more immediately to this culture than the theater. Arguing against the influential view that the period underwent a crisis of representation, Syme draws upon extensive archival research in the fields of law, demonology, historiography and science to trace a pervasive conviction that testimony and report, delivered by properly authorized figures, provided access to truth. Through detailed close readings of plays by Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare – in particular Volpone, Richard II and The Winter's Tale – and analyses of criminal trial procedures, the book constructs a revisionist account of the nature of representation on the early modern stage.
Article
This essay offers a new way of interpreting Shakespeare's King John by showing that amity is one of its central themes and is inextricably connected with the play's construction of sovereignty. In the play, amity primarily refers to political accord or harmony within a country or between countries, but is conceptualised in and through the rhetoric of idealised male friendship and sworn brotherhood. The essay demonstrates the way in which the play contrasts a friendship between two reigning sovereigns, which ends in enmity and war, with hierarchal friendships between King John and his two most trusted followers, Hubert and the Bastard, that create amity and peace within England.
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