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Evidence and Epistemology in Early Modern English Drama
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Evidence and Epistemology in Early Modern English Drama focuses on ways of knowing in a period before the disciplinary paradigms that we use today crystallized. Operating in a period of epistemological flux, writers in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England were faced with two competing knowledge systems: late Renaissance humanism from their schooling and early empiricism emerging in the works of Francis Bacon and others. Throughout their writing, commercial playwrights— Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton among them—attempted to work through these competing knowledge structures and presented spectacles using methods from both paradigms. These dramatists, I argue, adapt strategies of mixed method verification and use their dramatic art as the overarching mediating mode to unite oftentimes competing modes of knowledge. I first examine oral reporting in Hamlet as a dramatic tool that conveys information not only about the plot, but also the speaker’s ethos and reliability. I argue that Shakespeare exploits the convention of the anonymous messenger-character (or nuntius) to create a skeptical space wherein the murderer Claudius is ironically the most reliable reporter. Next, I contrast “ocular proof” in Othello with Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling. In Othello, the visual is made verbal through ekphrastic and logical proofs as Iago offers rhetorical evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity that Othello internalizes as concrete. In The Changeling, the verbal becomes visual as Beatrice-Joanna embodies the expectations of virginity both in her speech and n fabricating the results of the virginity-revealing potions. Then, I posit that in Bartholomew Fair, Jonson uses Justice Overdo as a negative exemplum of the poor interpretative practices criticized in the play’s Induction. Blending the sensory, rhetorical, and historical modes of inquiry, I finally explore how Shakespeare translates methods of knowing the past into dramatic tools that present history as a dynamic continuum that simultaneously touches the past, present, future, and imaginative spaces in-between in 1-3 Henry VI and Richard III. Ultimately, this dissertation clarifies the historical context needed for comprehending how playgoers may have understood the transition between humanism and empiricism, and illustrates the methods playwrights used to negotiate this understanding.
Early Modern Drama
1-3 Henry VI
Hagstrom-Schmidt, Nicole E. (2019). Evidence and Epistemology in Early Modern English Drama. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from