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The Past Tense of Gender on the Early Modern Stage


“The Past Tense of Gender on the Early Modern Stage” explores how death undoes constructed binaries of gender and sexuality and levels distinctions between men and women, virgins and “whores,” gendered bodies and neuter objects. While criticism on death in the early modern period frequently explores the trope of death as a leveler, a simultaneously celebrated and feared challenge to hierarchy, this dissertation argues that theatrical performances of this trope in plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries invent what we would today understand as queer embodiment. The dissertation analyzes the diverse ways in which dead bodies are conceptualized in early modern religious, scientific, and memorial discourses while considering the cadaver’s ability to rupture all social constructs.

The introduction begins with Ophelia’s transformation into “One that was a woman.” The Gravedigger’s riddle shows how death destabilizes traditional categories of gender and sexuality as a body transitions from being a “he” or a “she” to an “it.” The first chapter shows the unacknowledged but ubiquitous queer implications of death in early modern iconography, funerary art, and anatomical texts. The second chapter considers how the cadaverous performances of skulls in Hamlet (1600-1) and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606) reveal the gender performativity of skulls in anatomical treatises and memento mori iconography. The third chapter analyzes how Othello (1604) and John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629-33) critique the conventional anatomical obsession with hymens and wombs as the sole signifiers of female sexuality by shifting focus to the heart: an anatomical, spiritual, and sexual organ that is simultaneously inscrutable cadaverous matter. The final chapter analyzes theatrical resurrections in The Winter’s Tale (1611) and The Lady’s Tragedy (1611) in relation to theological debates regarding the gender of resurrected bodies. The staging of dead bodies that return in both plays deconstructs the binary between the aesthetic animation of automata and the “natural” resurrection of embodied persons.

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