Staging childhood and youth in early modern drama
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This dissertation examines the representation of children and youths in early modern English drama within the context of the social, economic, and religious changes English society experienced during the sixteenth century. Previous studies of early modern drama have neglected the historical contexts that bear on representations of children and youths. This study argues that youths constituted a crucial locus of tension for adults and parents in early modern English culture. Theatrical representations of children and youths in mid- and latesixteenth-century England dramatize several profound anxieties adults felt about psychic and material transmissions to the young. In this period, natural tensions between adults and the young were amplified by radical shifts in religious policy, a growing and increasingly mobile vii youth population, and a more fluid social mobility that unsettled traditional hierarchies of rank and status. Constructions of youths as allegorical, most often idealized, objects in mid- and late-sixteenth century dramas respond to, and work to alleviate, early modern culture’s keen sense of change and instability. Chapter One situates this study’s approach in relation to previous studies of early modern children and youths and introduces the historical contexts that subsequent chapters elaborate. Chapter Two argues that the representation of youths converted to Protestantism in Edwardine Reformation interludes reflects a crisis of parental authority brought about by radical, religious change. Chapter Three argues that Shakespeare’s first tetralogy constructs elite male youths as idealized, obedient sons as a response to contemporary concerns about inheritance, rank mingling among apprentices, and Elizabeth’s succession. Chapter Four argues that turn-of-the-century domestic tragedies employ tropes of child murder to critique late Elizabethan culture’s exploitation of the young. Early modern culture defined youths as essentially dependent beings but both plays and the historical record indicate the relative freedom and agency of youth, despite ideological scripts and structures. This study eludicates how the gap between gerontocratic, patriarchal ideology and the actual complex interchanges between adults and the young become a vessel for the many investments of hope, fear, and displaced anger in early modern dramatic texts.
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