Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Early modern English culture was marked by a prolonged and multi-faceted struggle with uncertainty. This epistemological crisis took place on several fronts, crossing elite and popular discourses: in the clash of confessional convictions, the ramifications of Calvins doctrine of election, the long complications of Elizabethan succession, and the threat to traditions of natural philosophy by the burgeoning field of experimental science, to name a few sites of disturbance. A restless cultural awareness emerged that certainty, whether in earthly matters or those of God, might not be possible. In Spectacular Skepticism: Visual Contradiction on the Early Modern English Stage, I show that this general engagement with skeptical irresolution found a place on the English stage: the theater induced doubt in its spectators by staging visually paradoxical spectacles.
I argue that the theater was an essential tool for the development of a set of skeptical ethics in popular discourse. Using Richard Popkins The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (1979) as a philosophical basis, recent works by William Hamlin and Anita Gilman Sherman, for example, place the theater alongside the renewed interest in classical skepticism that, Popkin shows, transformed Continental intellectual culture in the second half of the sixteenth century. Though the intellectual culture of skepticism is crucial to my own work, I find that these studies miss an opportunity to consider what specific cultural practices acquainted spectators of the theater with uncertaintymost of whom, after all, were unfamiliar with the skepticisms of Cicero and Sextus Empiricus. But I mean to do more than to recalibrate our sense of the cultural background of theatrical plotting; my purpose is to show more clearly how doubt is spectacularized. Since the publication of Jonathan Dollimores Radical Tragedy (1984) and Graham Bradshaws Shakespeares Scepticism (1987), as well as Stanley Cavells magisterial Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (1988), scholars have examined uncertainty in drama by studying charactersHamlet is the most celebrated examplewho themselves experience the anguish of doubt. I argue that conventions of confounding visual spectaclefor example, the incorporeal ghost of Hamlets father played by a live actor, the materiality of his body all the more emphasized by his heavy armorto a greater degree than the uncertainty of characters, put skepticisms systematic assault on appearances on theatrical display, and in so doing, invited an imaginative experience of doubt on the part of its spectators. Visual contradictions on the early modern stage constructed a skeptical spectatorship in the theater.
Chair and Committee
Musa Gurnis, Robert Henke, Wolfram Schmidgen, Steven Zwicker,
Robertson, Lauren, "Spectacular Skepticism: Visual Contradiction on the Early Modern English Stage" (2016). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 810.
Available for download on Wednesday, May 20, 2026