Theses Doctoral

Weeping, Wailing, Sighing, Railing: Shakespeare and the Drama of Complaint

Shortslef, Emily

Speech acts described as forms of “complaint”—lamentations, accusations, supplications—permeate early modern theatrical tragedy. “Shakespeare and the Drama of Complaint” explores and theorizes the largely unexamined relationship between complaint and tragedy in light of the fact that in the early modern period, “complaining” was cultural shorthand for ineffective, effeminate, and shameful responses to loss and injury. Focusing on familiar Shakespearean tragedies such as Richard III, Richard II, Hamlet, and King Lear, as well as contemporaneous plays by other writers, including Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy, I argue that complaint was at the very heart of the way the genre of tragedy was conceptualized in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As I show, speeches and scenes of complaint were central to the construction of tragic plots and characters, and to the genre’s didactic and affective objectives. But the intersection of tragedy with complaint is more than simply formal and stylistic. I argue that through its engagement with a dazzling array of rhetorical modes and literary forms of complaint, tragedy recuperates “complaining” as a valuable mode of social expression and action.
The first half of “Shakespeare and the Drama of Complaint” focuses on plays that attribute ethical value and political efficacy to complaining—to articulating individual and collective grief and grievance, alone and in community with others. Its first chapter explores the ethical dimensions of the existential complaints of the characters of King Lear in relation to what I call the “complaint-shaming” rife in Stoic and Calvinist moral philosophy. My second chapter, picking up on Lear’s notion of complaining as an act of bearing witness to the suffering of others, looks at the plays of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, and particularly Richard III, as unconventional revenge tragedies in which reiterated speech acts of complaint are politically powerful and efficacious. The second half of the project pivots to plays that take up the interpellative and affective force of complaint within their narratives in order to reflect on the particular agency, and social value, of tragedy itself: my third chapter reads Hamlet as a meditation on how the structure of complaint, incorporated into tragic narrative, might strike theatrical audiences’ consciences, while my final chapter, on Richard II, shows how performances of complaint, even if they do nothing else, might move audiences to tears. As a staging ground for complaint, the early modern theater and its tragic shows oriented audiences to respond to and participate in social modes of complaining—and taught them to be more sophisticated spectators and consumers of tragedy.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 7, 2015