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Recovering the Irrecoverable: Female Figurative Distillers in Three Shakespearean Plays

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license


Ashley Herum


This dissertation explores the efforts that particular female characters in three of Shakespeare’s plays make to revive and to perpetuate sensations related to experiences in the past: sensations that are, strictly speaking, in the mundane world, irrecoverable. Adepts at the sustaining or reviving of memory, these female characters are figured as distillers. As figurative distillers, these three female characters engage with the fragrances and tastes of particular “corpses,” exhalations, exudations, and secretions of plants and animals (including humans), whether in “raw,” or unprocessed, form or in (figuratively) distilled or otherwise processed form. These characters’ fostering of memory is linked within the plays not just to specific tastes and fragrances, nor just to specific plant and bodily emissions, but also to specific locations, in a particular way: another character than themselves describes the locations. These locations, together with the event or the habitual action reported to have taken place—or still continuously to take place—within them, then serve as the foundational source for the reader or audience in terms of contextualizing what the three female characters remember and seek to restore. The locations that provide context for the three female characters’ implied memories, moreover, conform to the trope of the hortus conclusus, albeit with variations. The hortus conclusus may be understood within each play as the womb of the corresponding female character. These three female characters’ variously generative and restorative creative powers are connected to the authority of female (near-)divinities, such as the earth, the goddess Isis, and the Virgin Mary. At various points throughout Shakespeare’s oeuvre, including in these three plays, he refers to distillation as a metaphor for the creation of poetry. Distillation in Shakespeare’s time was defined in a widely circulated book as an alchemical process. Through these three female figurative distillers’ implied bodily memories, they become both the (re-)creator of what they seek to recover and the embodiment of alchemical metaphors of poetic creation.

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