Chalk, Darryl (2010) Contagious emulation: antitheatricality and theatre as plague in 'Troilus and Cressida'. In: Hirsch, Brett D. and Wortham, Christopher, (eds.) This earthly stage: world and stage in late medieval and early modern England. Cursor Mundi (13). Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium, pp. 75-101. ISBN 978-2-503-53226-4
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Identification Number or DOI: D/2010/0085/112
Stephen Gosson, recovering playwright turned antitheatrical pamphleteer, described theatre in his 1582 tract, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, as the 'Chair of Pestilence'. In the Renaissance, London’s playhouses were forced to shut down for protracted and potentially ruinous intervals when plague epidemics raged. But writers such as Gosson, William Rankins, John Rainolds, and William Prynne suggested an association between theatre and plague that went beyond the restrictions necessitated by the real physical danger of contagion for the throngs of people who flocked to see plays. They insinuated that theatre itself behaved like a plague and was capable of infecting its audience with a disease-like quality. On recurrent occasions in anti-stage criticism theatre was not only likened to the plague but was frequently figured as a plague. The recurrence and significance of this curious metaphoric transposition of 'theatre as plague' throughout antitheatrical documentation is the subject of this paper. It will argue that the notion of a contagious theatricality emerges in the period as the theatre’s opponents repeatedly imagine that actors will become the vectors of a contagion of corruptive roleplaying capable of destroying the natural order of things. The paper will demonstrate that plague and playhouse culture became metaphorically and even pathologically congruent: not only in discourses that can be identified as anti-theatrical, but also in staged dramas like Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In the famous speech on degree and in his satirical upbraiding of Achilles and Patroclus’ imitations of the Greek generals, Ulysses self-consciously replicates and appropriates the antitheatrical identification of theatre as plague, performing a metatheatrical re-inscription of oppositional sentiment. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare appears to subtly advocate contagious theatricality even as he admits that the world, in typical theatrum mundi fashion, is utterly consumed by the plague of theatre.
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