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Piteous Performances: Representations of Infanticide and its Contexts in Tudor and Stuart Literature of Stage and Street

Billingham, JE; (2015) Piteous Performances: Representations of Infanticide and its Contexts in Tudor and Stuart Literature of Stage and Street. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

This research derives from analysis of cases of suspicious infant death recorded in Sussex Coroners’ inquests between 1485 and 1688. It examines both infanticides and child murders, following the early modern practice of defining “infant” as up to age seven. The historical records, which are summarised in several theme-based tables, are combined with close readings of imaginative texts, including plays by Shakespeare, Middleton and Webster, broadside ballads, and pamphlets. Archival and literary accounts are examined in the context of early modern works concerning law, religion, and the body, alongside recent studies of women’s history, and childbirth. Anthropological theories concerning rites of passage, liminality, waste and abjection invite new ways of thinking about early modern attitudes toward infant life. They reveal the range and complexity of child murder and infanticide, and its motives. This analysis includes the involvement of men and married women and discusses the structuring of dangerous motherhood by the linguistic similarities of crime pamphlets and breastfeeding literature. It suggests that, far from being unthinkable, infanticide might have been encouraged (by mothers, friends, masters), and could be facilitated by communities’ ambivalent attitude toward young life. Communities and authors are seen to be aware of the mental conditions which might have led married, as well as single, women to kill their infants. Archival and creative texts and visual representations reveal a society imbued with ideas of infant death, and inform us about seventeenth century motherhood. While the focus is early modern, a concluding Interlude and Epilogue bring the research up to date with a discussion of recent cases and works by writers such as Bond, Ravenhill and McDonagh. These suggest that many modern behavioural patterns, and playwrights’ ways of writing about them, have remarkable similarity to those of the early modern period.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Piteous Performances: Representations of Infanticide and its Contexts in Tudor and Stuart Literature of Stage and Street
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Third party copyright material has been removed from ethesis.
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1468973
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