"Cracked within the ring": the spillable female body in Shakespearean tragedy

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University of Alabama Libraries

This thesis explores the myriad ways in which the invocation of the female body enriches Shakespearean tragedy. Beginning with an Aristotelian definition of tragedy and then moving through a survey of Elizabethan and Jacobean scientific and cultural beliefs, I will show how both depictions of the female body and connotations given to the female reproductive system enrich tragedy through the stimulation of pity and terror, both of which are key dramatic emotions for Aristotle. In an examination of several of Shakespeare's tragedies, I would like to suggest that the intrinsic connection between the female reproductive system and tragedy stems from the idea of the womb as a container, a container whose contents and continence, whether perceived or actual, are of utmost economic importance to the hero. The open womb, whether evoked literally in the bodies of mothers and daughters, or figuratively in the weak and failing bodies of tragic heroes, by virtue of its vessel-hood, becomes an embodiment of the possibility of spillage, of loss, of an ever-threatening tragic change of fortune. The theoretical foundation of my argument comes from the works of Gail Kern Paster and Thomas Laqueur, and over the course of the paper, I focus on Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Othello, touching on other Shakespearean tragedies in a less in-depth manner.

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British & Irish literature