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The Belly and the Beast: Obstetrics, Monstrosity, and the Heroic Legacy from Classical Myth to Shakespeare

  • Author(s): Burdorff, Sara Frances
  • Advisor(s): Nagy, Joseph F
  • et al.

This project employs an interdisciplinary combination of mythology and medicine to interrogate depictions of the masculine heroic self in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, 1-3 Henry VI and Richard III, and Coriolanus. My readings of these plays complicate traditional perceptions of woman as threat or impediment to heroic achievement, with a focus on motifs of pregnancy, childbirth, and the material fate of the human corpse. In particular, I trace a category of images I have designated “gastēr-monstrous,” from its origins in ancient Greek epic and classical drama, through its medieval evolutions, to prominent early modern manifestations in Shakespeare's dramatic works.

The first chapter establishes the socio-medical basis of the gastēr-monstrous category—named for a Greek lexical hybridization of womb and stomach also evident in several other Greek, Latin, and English terms—which encompasses a persistent, material (con)fusion between gestation and digestion. I also address the ways in which my designation of this gestating-digesting belly as "monstrous" relies on a critical concept of monstrosity that emphasizes ambivalence, hybridity, and semiotic multivalence over more purely negative connotations of monstrosity.

The second chapter establishes key figures (e.g. Hecuba, Helen, and Clytemnestra) and motifs (e.g. dogs and corpse scavenging, gestation and breastfeeding) that comprise the gastēr-monstrous category, with close readings of several ancient and classical sources. These elements unite the apparently disparate figures of mother and warrior under a shared aegis of monstrosity: a collective expression of semiotic multivalence and sociocultural liminality defined by appetite, bloodshed, and violence.

The third chapter examines some ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries might have received these gastēr-monstrous motifs, as well as some key sociocultural contexts—especially the longstanding reign of Elizabeth I—that would have made such motifs particularly appealing in Shakespeare’s time. Chapters 4-6 comprise my close reading of several of Shakespeare's plays, exploring the ways in which Shakespeare adopts and adapts these gastēr-monstrous tropes of the classical past. Finally, Chapter 7 reviews Shakespeare’s uses of these transhistorically persistent motifs to (con)fuse the categories of maternal and heroic, female and male, and the ways in which such strategies reflect and express an English collective cultural identity profoundly impacted by the monarchy of Elizabeth.

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