September 15, 2010

Early Modern Exclusions @ The University of Portsmouth

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Rosie Paice introduced yesterday's interdisciplinary conference on "Exclusions" in the Early Modern Period as having emerged from a conference last year on "Amity". What is included in the language of amity, community, friendship and unified society is defined not only by the positive bonds that tie people and institutions together, but also by the "other" that they define themselves against. It's a fascinating concept, and one with enormous relevance to my own project on the "Apocrypha", a group of plays unified by their exclusion from an authorised canon.

This one-day conference was, as a result, one of the most fascinating I've been to. Naomi Tadmor kicked the event off with her keynote lecture on social exclusion, a tightly historical paper attending to the rules and rhetoric surrounding certain exclusions, particularly those enacted on the family unit; tales of enforced marriage, parish "banishment" and the self-regulating practices of gossip and informing that kept communities in line.

The fascinating thing as an auditor in the first two parallel sessions was that, despite the historical specificity of the exclusion narratives discussed, the same issues and ideas kept presenting themselves: the limits of physical exclusion as a way of ultimately marginalising socially excluded figures; the ghettoising of excluded groups and the policing of those borders. Marion Pluskota's paper on prostitution in Bristol and Nantes made an observation that particularly resonated with me; that the authorities generally took action against bawdy houses only when the activities of the house impinged on the wider community; ie in case of disturbances or violence. Stories of "out of sight, out of mind" repeatedly surfaced. Elena Taddia's discussion of Genoese plans to marginalise illegitimate children, shipping them off to Corsica, perhaps best illustrated the questions of morality raised.

A fascinating panel on "Protestantism and Exclusion" followed. Daniel Trocme Latter gave an extremely interesting paper Huguenot settings of Psalms; and Rosie Paice discussed issues of translation arising from Paradise Lost, relating this to anxiety over Biblical translations and the purpose of translation itself; issues of supreme importance which I'm more used to hearing in a contemporary context, but even more powerfully relevant here. Naya Tsentourou, meanwhile, examined early modern prayer manuals and the performativity of prayer despite instructions to remove the body to the "closet"; raising fascinating questions of the intended audience - the self or God? Tsentourou plans to relate this to closet drama, and I'll be extremely interested to see where this work takes her. The idea of private performativity is, it seems, sorely under-explored.

My own panel on "Staging Exclusion" drew a small but extremely generous audience. My paper, as you might expect, dealt with textual exclusions, focussing on the 1610 additions Mucedorus; first arguing for the role of the additions in reshaping the play as an old-fashioned romance in order to distinguish it from the new tragicomedy, particularly muting the "surprise ending" of the original; and then following through the implications of Mucedorus's perceived identity for his actions throughout the play, especially those dealing with Bremo, the wild man of the woods. I think, unintentionally, I also sold the play as a great piece of theatre! I was preceded by Richard Chamberlain, previewing his new book on Shakespeare's "refusers" - the characters who refuse to "play" and exempt themselves from amity and conviviality in deliberately disruptive and discomfitting ways. The really innovative thing about Chamberlain's work is seeing these characters, not as exceptiosn to a general rule of concord, but as key to an understanding of the plays' larger conceptions of community. Focussing on Troilus and Cressida, Thersites and Achilles were offered as two types of refuser: the active and the passive. Achilles' refusal to participate, and the destruction wrought by it, makes him one of the most powerful "refusers" in the canon. Louise Denmead, meanwhile, attended to plays I'm far less familiar with (Fletcher's The Knight of Malta and Monsieur Thomas, Massinger's The Parliament of Love and Brome's The English Moore) to highlight the discourses surrounding black maids. These characters are treated as licentious, in control of their own sexual identities and frequently (intended) substitutes in bed-tricks. The fear of the other, and their degradation as sexually available and immoral, contributes to a subset of intersecting discourses that become embodied in the black, female body. I was disturbed, listening to Denmead's paper, to think how endemic this has become to the point where white characters who fulfil similar functions - Emilia and Bianca, Diana in All's Well, Margaret in Much Ado - are frequently played by black actors on the modern stage.

The really great thing about the day, though, was that it was one of the friendliest small conferences I've been to, decamping to the pub immediately after the last panel and allowing breaks to run over in order that we could continue the ongoing discussions; and due to that, I got a great deal more out of it than I could have expected. Lovely to finally visit Portsmouth, great to meet so many interesting people, and I'm now feeling newly inspired and confident to rebuild the relevant section of my chapter.

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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