Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Santa Barbara

Staging Pain in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama


This dissertation traces the staging of pain from the late medieval Passion pageants, particularly in York, into the performances of the work of Kyd, Shakespeare, and Webster. The project challenges the assumption that there is a deep phenomenological divide between late medieval plays and the stage of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I focus specifically on staged pain, using the Passion sequences in the late-medieval mystery plays as a foundation from which to understand the representation of pain on the emerging commercial stage of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Pain is the crux for me because it functions as an intersection between embodiment and imagination, physical and mental experience; it is a means by which to investigate tensions surrounding ideas of cognition and materiality as they operated before, during, and through the Protestant Reformation. My work extends from, but nuances the substantial body of critical work on the body and violence. I argue that while violence may be representable, public, and describable, its result, physical pain, exists as an inherently subjective, internal and indescribable experience.

The introduction to my project frames the issue of pain from medieval and early modern perspectives, and through the lens of contemporary criticism. I assess sermons, religious tracts, medical documents, and political statements to flesh out a picture of the ways in which pain was imagined, experienced, and utilized in the period. I then consider the work of theorists such as Elaine Scarry, Drew Leder, Hannah Arendt, and David Morris to construct the critical and philosophical framework of my project.

In my first chapter, I offer an extended analysis of the Passion sequence at York, with a focus on the Tilemakers’ Christ before Pilate (2): The Judgement. I begin the chapter with an examination of late medieval drama as multisensory, three-dimensional, dynamic performance. While this may seem a mundane objective, I argue that the mystery plays have long and often been viewed as static artifacts, and criticism has privileged the visual in assessing their dramatic and cultural functions. Further, I draw upon the work of critics such as David Aers and Michael O’Connell in hopes to redress what Aers calls the “amnesia” of early modernists about the possibility of imagining “modern” subjects prior to the Reformation. Ultimately, I suggest that the dramatic construction of pain, so essential to the didactic purposes of the Corpus Christi festival, also functions as a dynamic and multivalent exchange which performs the problem of believing without embodied experience.

The second chapter assesses the dramatic and ontological “gaps” surrounding the performance of pain in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. As we see in The Tilemakers’ play at York, Shakespeare and Kyd are preoccupied with staging pain, with the troubles posed by language as we try to articulate the subjective experience of observable facts, and with the problem of other (suffering) minds. In both The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus, the body in pain is evacuated of stable meaning, it evades verbal signification, and it gestures to the stark horror of the human cycle of violence. Each play demonstrates conspicuous and repetitive verbal attempts to communicate about pain and to request help in response to it; the body in pain in these plays introduces a significant anxiety about the nature of language.

The third chapter uses current research in cognitive theory to read John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi; the chapter examines the emergence of a conspicuously language-inspired, imagination-oriented representation of pain in the play. The mind’s capacity to imagine pain, the play suggests, far outweighs the body's capacity to feel it. Critics have often criticized Webster's play for its excessive violence and horror; indeed, The Duchess of Malfi meditates on the human condition of pain at great length. However, it also departs from a tradition of dramatic bloodbaths to reposition the specter of violence and the bodily sensation of pain in terms of mental experience.

The fourth chapter investigates the performance history of particular moments of pain, including the scourging of Christ in the Passion plays, the mutilation of Lavinia in Titus, and the gouging of Gloucester's eyes in King Lear. This history indicates varied audience response to moments of staged pain; divergent reactions to these moments in performance suggest the tenuous boundary between empathy and laughter.

The dissertation thus traces a transformation in anxiety from the dangers and vulnerabilities of the body, to those of the mind. Throughout, I draw on my broader interests in narrative theory, performance theory, the phenomenology of pain, and the cognitive and emotive ramifications of theater.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View