Deciphering the other: Identification, social mobility, and constructions of femininity in Shakespeare
Van Elk, Marie Albertine
Skura, Meredith A.
Doctor of Philosophy
In response to economic and social transformations of the period, early modern authors obsessively investigated the significance of upward and downward social mobility. Identification, in the sense of determining someone's identity, is a crucial measure of the permeability of class and gender boundaries: when it becomes impossible to tell who someone is, the mechanisms that keep individuals in their proper place have broken down. This dissertation examines Shakespearean scenes of misidentification. and recognition to uncover the ramifications of a dramatic situation that draws on an early modern fear of encountering the unknown other in a rapidly changing world. The Comedy of Errors and The Winter's Tale feature thematically central examples of (mis)identification in the city and at court, which I consider in relation to representations of social identity and identification in cony-catching pamphlets and courtesy literature of the period. Women and socially mobile characters are central to Shakespeare's scenes of identification. Their presence poses unsettling questions about the possibility of a secure social order and a stable subjectivity within that order. Shakespeare's plays set up a parallel between misidentification and suspicion of female sexuality, so that ultimately questions of social instability and class are resolved through the reinstatement of the family. Recognition scenes attempt to fix, or, to use an early modern term, "decipher," the unreliable other. Misidentification and recognition in Shakespeare's plays represent the social order in opposing ways. While misidentification entertains the possibility that performative acts produce identity, recognition puts forward a natural order that is merely reflected by identification. Performance is central to both, but whereas in one it is fundamental to identification and destructive of certainties, in the other it is presented as secondary and conducive to harmony. Such contradictions are marked by deliberate generic shifts that show the difficulty of resolving the questions posed in scenes of misidentification. Shakespeare's ambiguous endings point to resolution, but fail to eliminate the instability of social position, caused by a lasting problem with interpretation of the other.
Theater; English literature