Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Title

Sacrificial Acts: Martyrdom and Nationhood in Seventeenth-Century Drama

Date of Award

2011

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D. in English

First Advisor

Karen Raber

Second Advisor

Joseph Ward

Third Advisor

Jason Solinger

Abstract

Sacrificial Acts: Martyrdom and Nationhood in Seventeenth-Century Drama posits that the importance of sixteenth-century martyrologies in defining England's national identity extends to the seventeenth century through popular representations of martyrdom on the page and stage. I argue that drama functions as a gateway between religious and secular conceptions of martyrdom; thus, this dissertation charts the transformation of martyrological narratives from early modern editions of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments to the execution of the Royal Martyr, Charles I. Specifically, I contend that seventeenth-century plays shaped the secularization of martyrdom in profound ways by staging the sacrificial suffering and deaths of female heroines in a variety of new contexts. In addition to illustrating how the expansion of martyrological rhetoric and imagery revealed numerous channels for female influence, this dissertation asserts that narratives of suffering generated national models for reclaiming the stability and unity that Foxe's martyrs had seemed to inspire. I first analyze John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and Thomas Drue's The Duchess of Suffolk, which overlap the vocabularies of martyrdom and motherhood to valorize women's roles in the creation and continuation of the religious and political states. By studying their dramatizations of virgin martyr legends, I consider how playwrights like Thomas Dekker and Phillip Massinger highlight the expediency of narratives of passivity in defining the subject-ruler relationship. In chapter 3, I focus on Caroline debates about anatomical and metaphysical inwardness to argue that martyrologies provide a script for accessing the conscience through interpretations of the material body. My final chapter argues that the self-presentations of Eleanor Davies and Henrietta Maria establish a necessary link between Foxean models of passive suffering and the militant language of sacrifice used during the Civil War period. These narratives make visible the diffusion of martyrological language and imagery into the multiplicity of spheres--domestic, popular, religious, and political--that comprises communal identity. Moreover, this exploration reveals that popular discourse profoundly engaged and influenced the secularization of that rhetoric and significantly shaped how England continued to define itself in relation to its martyrological past.

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