Affect, Abuse, Transgression: Orienting Ambiguity in Early Modern Texts
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This dissertation seeks to articulate how early modern texts formalize their affective qualities in instances of ambiguity. Positioned within the recent turn away from humoral theories of the passions and toward the rhetorical underpinnings of affect in early modern criticism, my project offers an interpretive strategy that privileges the perspective of the text by attending to the vulnerabilities of first-person perspectives in ambiguous rhetorical structures and figures. I argue that these forms signal more than sites of critical debate encoded in the text, as Shoshanna Feldman has suggested; they also privilege textual perspective and reveal affect to be a feature of form. I argue that textual ambivalence may be approached through the logic of catachresis in order to examine how these instances may be read in ways that maintain the strangeness of their didactic and disruptive capability. Reorienting how one approaches ambiguity, I suggest, exposes the potential of often ignored textual elements and suggests that early modern literature models an interpretive agenda dependent upon vulnerable perspectives. Reconceiving the interpretive strategies solicited by each text, I argue that early modern literature embraces the benefits of individual and collective vulnerability. I examine how Marlowe’s Edward II disrupts the binary structure of the king’s two bodies in order to turn an accusation of weakness against authority itself. I turn to Donne’s poetry and prose to argue that it models a hospitable interpretive method that uses form to manage ambiguity from the perspectives of his textual voices while orienting readers to welcome the strangeness of his contradictions. I then pursue an analysis of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I that reorients Falstaff’s function in the play as its unlikely focal perspective, a position that stages a resistance to the play’s power structures. Finally, I briefly consider how my analysis bears on familial and rhetorical conventions in Shakespeare’s Tempest and Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Attending to the formal practices that construct literary affect, this project reconsiders the ways in which early modern English literature navigates the intersections of vulnerability that articulate a text’s orientation to the cultural networks in which it was produced.