‘That skull had a tongue in it’: Skulls, the Flesh, and the Individual in Early Modern Drama


A mottled brown human skull

In early modern drama, skulls are not only a symbol of death, but a reminder of the living person. Chloe Owen (King’s College London) gets beneath the skin of an important dramatic device in her essay in the new issue of Postgraduate English

This essay considers the role of skulls in developing a sense of the individual in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600), Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), and Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Bloody Banquet (1609). Through a consideration of the memento mori tradition, the danse macabre, charnel houses, and early modern anatomy theatres and studies, this essay explores the various ways in which skulls and bones were viewed in the early modern period in both iconographic images and in discussions of the physical human body. While acknowledging the symbolism of the skull as an anonymous sign of the overarching power of death, which must come to us all regardless of social rank, this essay considers the ways in which the skull comes to stand for the individual in these pieces of early modern drama. As Shakespeare, Middleton, and Dekker subvert these well-known images and discourses surrounding the skull, and as they reconnect the bones to the flesh through language and visual images, they remind the audience of the character as they were in life. This essay considers the ways in which these playwrights work with the property of the skull to encourage the audience to see, not only an anonymous symbol of death, but the individual to whom it was once connected.

This article is available to download free in issue 32 of our open access Postgraduate English journal, where you’ll also find a complete archive of research dating back to 2000.

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