Date of Award

Spring 4-3-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dr. Stephen B. Dobranski

Second Advisor

Dr. James Hirsh

Third Advisor

Dr. Paul J. Voss


In the four early modern revenge tragedies I study, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the ubiquitous depictions of corporeal violence underscore the authors’ skepticism of the human tendency to infuse bodies – physical manifestations of both agency and vulnerability – with symbolism. The revengers in these plays try to avenge the death of a loved one whose disfigured body remains unburied and often continues to occupy a place on stage, but their efforts to infuse corpses with meaning instead reveal the revengers’ perverse obsession with mutilation as spectacle.

In Chapter one, I show how in The Spanish Tragedy Thomas Kyd portrays the characters’ assertions of body-soul unity to be arbitrary attempts to justify self-serving motives. Although Hieronimo treats Horatio’s dead body as a signifier of his own emotions, he displays it, alongside the bodies of his enemies, as just another rotting corpse. In Chapter two, I explore how in Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare questions the efficacy of rituals for maintaining social order by depicting how the play’s characters manipulate rituals intended to celebrate peace as opportunities to exact vengeance; Titus demands human sacrifice as not just an accompanying element, but a central motive of rituals ostensibly intended to signify commemoration. In Chapter three, I read The Revenger’s Tragedy as illustrating Thomas Middleton’s characterization of the depiction of corporeal mutilation as an overused, generic convention; the play’s revenger, Vindice, attributes multiple, constantly shifting, meanings to the rotting skull of his lover, which he uses as a murder weapon. In Chapter four I argue that in The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster destabilizes spectators’ interpretive capacities; within this play’s unconventional dramatic structure, the main characters use somatic imagery to associate bodily dismemberment with moral disintegration.

Corpses, the tangible remains of once vigorous, able-bodied relatives, serve as central components of respectful commemoration or as mementos of vengeance, yet these dead, often gruesomely mutilated bodies also invite repulsion or perverse curiosity. Thus, rather than honoring the deceased, revengers objectify corpses as frightening spectacles or even use them as weapons.