Anxieties of deception in English morality plays and Shakespearean drama

Torrey, Michael David, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kinney, Clare, Department of English, University of Virginia
Barolsky, Paul, Department of Art, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the representation of deception in English morality plays, Shakespearean drama, and various early modem discourses. Previous studies of morality plays have focused on didactic and allegorical themes; by contrast, I argue in my first chapter that the moralities cultivated anxieties about both spiritual and social life. They dramatized conflict within the soul, but they also revealed the perils of social experience; their depictions of deception in both the inner and outer worlds fostered anxiety about each, encouraging auditors to view both themselves and others in a fearful, even paranoid way.

Subsequent chapters discuss how the moralities' suspicious outlook was reproduced in Shakespearean drama and in early modem culture. The second chapter relates Richard III’s representation of dissimulation both to the moralities and to physiognomy, showing how the two influences work against one another. Richard's deformity makes his internal corruption clearly visible, but through deceit he repeatedly circumvents this visual "fact" so that others overlook his deformity's significance. In blinding others to what his body signifies, Richard exploits the ambivalence of physiognomy and shows how dissemblers can distort what seems obvious and indisputable.

The next chapter analyzes Othello in relation to early modern notions of male friendship. Though friendship is usually thought to have been idealized in early modern England, I show that, in advice texts of the time, the opposite was actually the case: admonitory miscellanies frequently warn their readers that enemies will masquerade as friends. In similar fashion, Othello reveals, in Iago's deceit and hidden malice, as well as in its patterns of betrayal and revelation, that the most trusted intimate--the "other I" of Cicero's De Amicitia—could prove to be a treacherous foe.

Macbeth I consider in relation to early modem psychology, which stressed that many of the soul's functions occurred beyond the scope of rational control. This psychology specifically expressed extreme distrust of the imagination, describing it as a rebellious agent within the soul and urging that its promptings be resisted. By showing its protagonist become fascinated by the products of his ''heat-oppressed brain" (2.1.40), Macbeth transforms the morality plays' warnings against self-deception into a tragedy of imagination.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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