I work at the intersection of literary criticism, cultural studies, and theater history and am interested most broadly in popular entertainment cultures. Below are some of my current and future research projects. For published work, see my publications.
Imitating Difference: Renaissance Entertainment Culture and the Ethics of Popular Form
My dissertation and first book project, Imitating Difference, broadly considers how formal theatrical technologies have ethical stakes by examining the role of imitation in English Renaissance popular culture. Studies have considered popular culture in relation to the commercial drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but little attention has been paid to the equally popular forms of puppetry, clowning, and animal performance that rivalled and outlasted it. By recentering them, I resist the dominant Bakhtinian mode that separates “the popular” from the everyday as festive or transgressive. Instead, I argue that popular culture structures everyday life by sharing a socially subordinate position with marginalized identities and with technologies of imitation—all typically degraded in early modern rhetoric. Imitation itself is a hierarchizing process that enforces difference, distinguishing an original from a diminished copy, and thus maps onto other social hierarchies. As I consider how representational technologies encode power structures, I aim to both widen our definition of Renaissance theatricality and consider the cultural stakes of imitation in everyday life.
As the project unfolds, I consider the venues of popular performance as always haunted by the shadows of other object, human, and animal bodies that share its spaces (Introduction). I track the overlap of these bodies with structures of imitation and difference in six chapters—on religion, class, objectification, disability, gender, and race—that combine new archival discoveries with more familiar texts in Renaissance theater and culture. Liturgical puppets of Christ that bleed wine confuse imitation with idolatry in Reformation polemic about religious difference (Chapter 1). Later disrobing puppets in Ben Jonson compound religious identity with class aesthetics (Chapter 2) and clown props in Shakespeare orchestrate moral degradation (Chapter 3) as both trouble the line between human and object. The second half shifts focus to marginalized bodies, studying celebrity clown actors appropriating disabled bodies for imitative virtuosity (Chapter 4) and bears emblematizing gendered difference in misogynist discourse (Chapter 5). Finally, performing primates racialize mimesis itself; as figures for both imitation and racial alterity, they illustrate how forms of difference—between theater and life, animal and human, blackness and whiteness—become inextricable (Chapter 6).
Performing Popular Medicine on the Renaissance Stage
My second planned book project, tentatively titled Performing Popular Medicine, expands my interest in popular theatrical technologies into the history of science to consider the slippage between magic and medicine as embodied theater. Magic and medicine overlap in several different kinds of performances that chart how changing bodies are represented on stage. In late medieval drama, the stock figure of the quack doctor revives dead characters on the stage, destabilizing the theatrical conventions that distinguish live and dead bodies. In streets and public squares, mountebanks travel with clowns who perform illness to demonstrate the curative powers of the drugs for sale, but the drugs’ effectiveness is often an illusion and techniques for feigning illness—like consuming massive quantities of butter to line the stomach—could sometimes produce real illness. London hospitals also functioned as both medical and theatrical spaces as visitors paid to observe the antics of their mentally ill residents, whose presumed madness was often linked in the cultural imagination to supernatural forces. The gendered force of supernatural knowledge is embodied by the witches that populate Renaissance drama and the literature surrounding the persecution of women as witches. Literary witches offering magic as medicine represent fantastical versions of the real scientific knowledge developed by women in domestic spaces as cooks, brewers, and ad hoc nurses. Together, these performances illustrate the overlap between magic and medicine as cultural discourses in the ways that they are deployed onstage in similar ways to similar effects.