Generative metaphor: filiation and the disembodied father in Shakespeare and Jonson

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2009-12

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Penuel, Suzanne Marie

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This project shows how Jonson and Shakespeare represent dissatisfactions with filiation and paternity as discontents with other early modern discourses of cultural reproduction, and vice versa. Chapters on six plays analyze the father-child tie as it articulates sensitivities and hopes in remote arenas, from usury law to mourning rites, humanism to Judaism, witchcraft to visions of heaven. In every play, the father is disembodied. He is dead, invisible, physically separated from his child, or represented in consistently incorporeal terms. In its very formlessness, the vision of paternity as abstraction is what makes it such a flexible metaphor for Renaissance attitudes to so many different forms of cultural cohesion and replication. The Shakespeare plays treat the somatic gulf with ambivalence. For Shakespeare, who ultimately rejects a world beyond the impermanent material one, incorporeality is both the father's prestige and his punishment. But for Jonson, the desomatization more often indicates paternal privilege. Jonson wants filiation and fathering to counteract the progression of history, and since time destroys the concrete, abstraction and disembodiment are necessary for the process to work. His plays initially envision a paternally imagined rule of law achieving permanence for those under it. But Volpone undermines Every man in his humour's fantasy of law, and The staple of news dismantles it still more. Ultimately, in Staple's schematically represented father and son, a pair whose reunion allows them a courtroom triumph, Jonson resorts to an abstractly figured paternity itself to justify other abstractions, legal and literary. As with law in Jonson, so for religion and the supernatural in Shakespeare. Shakespeare's body of work eventually renounces the religious faith whose representation it interweaves with portraits of children and fathers. It does so first in Merchant's intimidating Judaism and hypocritical Christianity, then in Twelfth night's more subtly referenced Catholicism, mournful and aestheticized, and finally in The tempest's various abjurations. Monotheism vanishes altogether in the last play, replaced by a dead witch and multiple spirits and deities who do the bidding of a conjuror who plans to give them up. Both playwrights ultimately reduce their investment in other forms of cultural transmission in favor of more intimate parent-child structures, embodied or not.

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