Theses Doctoral

Virtual Motion: Dance and Mobility in Early Modern English Literature

Williams, Seth Stewart

"Virtual Motion” asks how early modern literature may be apprehended as a choreographic medium. It explores the relationship between literature and dance across plays, poems, ballads, and political and religious treatises, in order to show that dance manifests to different ends in each. It treats dance as aesthetic patterns of movement that span a range of virtual and actual spaces, from the imagination of readers to specific material and textual phenomena, which include the human body most consequentially, but also scripts and libretti, moving scenery, engravings, and manuscript miscellanies. It argues that as dance circulates between such media, it helps to emblematize broad forms of social upheaval characterized by motional effects, for example the migration of people and the spread of religious beliefs.
Its four chapters study four such social upheavals. The first chapter studies theological controversies that arose during the Reformation, and argues that the graceful dancing body became implicated in theories concerning the circulation of spiritual grace between divine and mortal bodies. In points to the ambiguous place of the body in the writings of John Calvin and Baldassare Castiglione, and argues that William Shakespeare drew on dance theory in order to grant women a specifically choreographic form of devotional authority. The second chapter demonstrates that the classical interests of prominent humanist scholars, especially Julius Caesar Scaliger, included reviving the dances of antiquity. It traces the influence of such scholarship on two productions that sought to revive satyr dances as a form of embodied satire: Ben Jonson’s masque Oberon, and an anonymous Jesuit play staged at the English College in Rome, Captiva Religio.
The third chapter argues that literature used New World “Indian” dance as a means of theorizing the tensions of colonial ventures both past and present, and traces Indian dance across several media: a single engraving altered to produce new kinetic effects as it was reused by multiple travelogues, the scenery and bodies in William Davenant’s “history ballet” about the Spanish colonization of Peru, and the ballads that Aphra Behn drew upon to stage the collision of Scottish and Indian dance in Virginia. The fourth chapter examines how English country dance, as both a physical practice and a political metaphor, circulated between actual households and those depicted in plays, for example through manuscript miscellanies like that maintained at Monkland manor in Herefordshire. It studies country dances that occurred in performances devised by Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, Henry Purcell, and Thomas Betterton, in order to argue that this genre played an underappreciated role in cultivating political identities across some of England’s most turbulent decades.


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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
October 24, 2017