In Becoming Dead in Early Modern English Literature: A Lucretian Poetics, I engage with the Lucretian turn in Renaissance studies by suggesting that through the figural trope of the Lucretian clinamen we may reimagine scholarly reading practices. In his Latin treatise De rerum natura, Lucretius describes the physical world as consisting of two things: bodies and space. Bodies connect and detach in space even as connected, or compound, bodies contain within them space. I bring to bear upon this tropic frame the critical works of Michel Serres, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Giorgio Agamben, arguing that because literary texts are compound bodies, reading texts brings their bodies and space inside the space of our own perceptual and interpretive habits so that the texts exist in the reader, continually forming different compounds. This reading practice based on Lucretian principles helps us understand the larger stakes within which literary texts participate--the processes of living, dying, and the reconstitution of matter.
Becoming Dead begins with the literature of Reformation and Counter-Reformation England, which occupies a particularly fruitful space between and within coextensive corporeal forms--Catholic and Protestant, manuscript and print, poetry and drama, Latin and vernacular, sealed island and porous union of kingdoms. Through close readings of Lady Jane Lumley’s The Tragedie of Euripides called Iphigeneia translated out of Greake into Englisshe, Robert Southwell’s Marie Magdalen’s Funeral Teares, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and George Peele’s The Old Wives’ Tale, I argue that the dying body (textual, material, readerly) is not discrete from but is a part of the continuous, turbulent motion of compound bodies that contain and are contained within a re-forming void. Thus, dying is not a cessation of being, but a becoming other, a becoming dead.
These four texts connect in a kinship (unexpected, perhaps, but laying bare the ficticity of any taxonomies that would separate them) and give shape to a Lucretian perception of becoming dead--of bodies, as bodies, becoming something other than they were and through such becoming continuing to be. In these instantiations seemingly known categories--dead/alive, story/play, human/animal, mother/daughter--unfasten from their origins to make something new even as we are made new through the space of reception. This recognition, in turn, allows us to reimagine a literary practice by which texts become historical artifacts whose dialogic and emotive energies open onto persistent dramas of encounter and contact. We see how, in a Lucretian understanding, “no visible object utterly passes away.”