MA Thesis Literature Review

Over the coming months I intend to formulate an MA dissertation on the representation and staging of gender in Thomas Middleton’s city comedy A Mad World, My Masters (1608). My first priority was to obtain a good critical edition of my primary text. I am currently reading the Boole Library’s Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (Oxford University Press, 2007), edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino and I have also ordered a more portable edition; A Mad World, My Masters and Other Plays: A Mad World, My Masters; Michaelmas Term; A Trick to Catch the Old One; No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s (Oxford World’s Classics 2009), edited by Michael Taylor. It is my hope that these editions will provide contrasting and useful critical material.

Thomas Middleton 1887 etching

Thomas Middleton

At this early stage of my research I have begun to assemble and assess a body of criticism on which to draw. The collection A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare (Blackwell 2001) edited by Dymphna Callaghan contains a number of chapters which I believe will prove useful despite the book’s focus on Shakespeare; ‘Women and Boys Playing Shakespeare’ by Juliet Dusinberre provides a good grounding in boys’ companies such as the Children of Paul’s (the company who first performed Middleton’s play), while other chapters such as ‘”Made to write whore upon?” Male and Female Use of the Word “Whore” in Shakespeare’s Canon’, by Kay Stanton and ‘Misogyny is Everywhere’ by Phyllis Rackin will inform my ideas more broadly. I believe Rackin’s chapter will be very applicable to the character of Mr. Hairbrain and his attitude towards his wife.

I am particularly interested in the figure of The Courtesan in A Mad World, My Masters. An extremely useful collection, particularly in exploring the depiction of such a figure is Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (Routledge 1992), edited by Susan Zimmerman, which contains such chapters as ‘Disruptive desire: artifice and indeterminacy in Jacobean comedy’ by Susan Zimmerman and ‘Transvestism and the ‘body beneath’: speculating on the boy actor’ by Peter Stallybrass. The work of Peter Stallybrass will have a marked influence on my central thesis. I will also be using his essay ‘Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed’ from Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago University Press 1986), edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers. A further text on embodiment which I think is very promising, is Writing on the body: female embodiment and feminist theory (Columbia University Press 1997) edited by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury. I am also currently reading Thomas Middleton in Context (Cambridge University Press 2011), edited by Suzanne Gossett much of which will be very informative, particularly ‘Gender and sexuality’ by Caroline Bicks, ‘Women’s life stages: maid, wife, widow (whore)’ by Jennifer Panek and ‘Middleton’s comedy and the geography of London’ by Darryll Grantley. Additionally, in tracing the movements of characters within city comedy, I believe The Map of Early Modern London will be a valuable resource. I will discuss further sources on city comedy below

As my research will focus on gender performativity, a central piece of critical material will be Judith Butler’s foundational text Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge 1990,  a work I have touched on in the past but will be re-reading closely. Critically, this subject is at the intersection of Feminism and Queer Theory and thus I will also draw upon foundational Queer Theory critics such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.  I will be reading her book  Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia University Press 1985) as well as familiarising myself with her broader body of work.

Although there will be some elements of pure theory that I myself will apply, most of my critical material will deal with sexuality and gender in an early modern context, works such as Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature (Oxford University Press 2011) by Melissa E Sanchez and some elements of Celia R. Daileader’s Eroticism On The Renaissance Stage: Transcendence, Desire and the limits of the Visible (Cambridge University Press 1998). The works of Jonathan Dollimore will also be extremely useful, particularly Sexual Dissidence (Clarendon 1991).

Deanne Williams’s forthcoming Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood (Palgrave 2014), if I can access a copy, may be applicable in some respects to my arguments, though I believe the figure of the “Girl” is very specifically defined.

Similarly, Herbert Jack Heller’s book Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton’s City Comedies (University of Delaware 2000) seems, according to its title and table of contents, very germane to my research but it is difficult to obtain. I may purchase the work at a later point in my research. I have read some peer reviews of the book and have not yet decided if I think it will be useful.

In order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of city comedy I will read Jacobean city comedy (Methuen 1980) by Brian Gibbons; Plotting early modern London: new essays on Jacobean City comedy (Ashgate 2004) by Dieter Mehl, Angela Stock, and Anne-Julia Zwierlein; and Theater of a city: the places of London comedy, 1598-1642 (University of Pennsylvania Press 2007). I am also interested in contemporary sources depicting the habits and fashions of the time such as Phillip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses (1583), though Stubbes is a little early for discussion of city comedy.




Textualities ’14


Friday March 28th saw the School of English’s MA student conference; Textualities ’14. The conference was organised by the MA students themselves, with the help of some kind lecturers, particularly Maureen O’Connor, Orla Murphy and Jools Gilson.

Each of us presented, Pecha Kucha style, on a topic inspired by our respective MAs. Some topics were closer to our proposed theses than others. A few of us juxtaposed pop culture with literary criticism. Some shared artists, forms of literature, and tropes close to their hearts.

I found the Pecha Kucha form challenging and rewarding. On reflection, I can say that I learned a great deal from the experience. I have never been a confident public speaker but the rigid structure of the presentation style was somewhat reassuring. I always knew what was coming next.

Were I faced with the same task a second time I would approach a few elements differently. I would stand rather than sit; Pecha Kucha being a more engaged presentation style it requires the speaker to be a little more physically present than she would be if giving a paper. I’d speak from a set of points rather than script my entire presentation. I’d be a little braver with my slide show and in my general style.

I was inspired by my classmates’ output. I thoroughly enjoyed the creative visual jokes many of the students included in their work. The variety of topics made the conference a refreshing and dynamic experience. I regret that it was our only opportunity to share such work. It gave me great pleasure to listen to my peers speak on subjects about which they are so passionate.

Although giving a Pecha Kucha presentation was a useful exercise in many respects, it is perhaps not an ideal form for literature students. When engaging with texts, we often wish to pick out particular passages for close reading – these instances may take up a number of “points” in Pecha Kucha. It is evident that the form was conceived by designers, whose communication style is primarily visual. Timed presentations certainly give the speaker a sense of purpose, and I would certainly use one again in the future.

My presentation, on Terry Pratchett’s appropriation of Shakespeare, was warmly received by my peers and I delighted in the opportunity to explore material that I’ve enjoyed for many years in my personal reading in a more academic context.