Painted Devils, Siren Tongues

The Semiotic Universe of Jacobean Tragedy

by Justyna Galant (Author)
©2015 Monographs 208 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 5


The book outlines the semiotic universe of Jacobean drama, examining both canonical tragedies by Thomas Middleton, John Webster and less known dramas such as Anonymous Lust’s Dominion, Markham and Sampson’s Herod and Antipater or Thierry and Theodoret by Beaumont and Fletcher.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • Advance Praise
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: The semiotics of revenge.
  • The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton. Permutations of revenge.
  • The True Tragedy of Herod and Antipater by Gervase Markham, William Sampson. Wayward semiosis.
  • Lust’s Dominion or the Lascivious Queen, Anonymous. Semioticising blackness.
  • Chapter II: Playing with sentiments.
  • The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. The uses of mimicry.
  • Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton. Love, game, and bargain.
  • The Maid’s Tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Upgraded grief and romance regained.
  • Chapter III: Virtuous heroines and the world of the carnivalesque.
  • Thierry and Theodoret by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Double semiosis of female nature.
  • The Wonder of Women, Or The Tragedy of Sophonisba by John Marston. Grotesque avatar and carnivalesque justice.
  • Chapter IV: Topographies of possible worlds.
  • The (Second) Maiden’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton. Landscaping meaning.
  • The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. The semiosis of private worlds.
  • The White Devil by John Webster. Discourse in limbos.
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index


Most of the surviving tragedies of the Jacobean era either enjoy recognition and popularity almost rivaling that of Shakespeare’s works, or remain consistently ignored, with no edited reprints and sparse, insubstantial mentions in volumes dedicated to Early Modern drama. The few texts which belong in neither of the categories gain selective attention and are examined most often as literary illustrations of social changes, frequently serving to support the theses on the interconnectedness of theatre and history. Whereas the vital contributions of such insights are not to be undervalued, such approaches may develop the fault of focusing predominantly on the critical perspective as such, and treating the text as an exercise in proving its plausibility. Subsequently, despite a variety of astute observations they generate, the analytical angles may fail to give primacy to the work itself. In view of the abovementioned critical predispositions, Zgorzelski’s claim is valuable in its appreciation of a work’s self-contained worth:

a literary text is an autonomous whole, an autonomous entity, and it means that, as a work of art, it is not a representation or a symptom of anything, that its sense and significance can be explained without any direct references to phenomenal reality, that such a text does not serve anything, but is significant in itself. (11)

The semiotic close-reading has the rare advantage of excluding no critical angles; due to its universal preoccupation with the formation of meaning, it is perfectly capable of supporting feminist, Marxist, historicist, et al. interpretations. What is more, the inclusive neutrality it offers is based on a substantial foundation of sign-system analysis pertinent to all levels of textual universes, being able to reveal the latent logic of characterisation, plot and setting. ← 9 | 10 →

The critical liberality typical for the semiotic method informs also the choice of plays discussed in the volume. In an attempt to avoid widening the gap between the canonical dramas of the era and their overlooked “others”, the book’s design aspires to encourage interest in the forgotten or less thoroughly examined texts of the period. By setting them alongside the renowned Jacobean tragedies by Webster and Middleton the study instigates the reader to review the dramas as attractive and meritorious.

The following brief overview of the critical approaches to the Jacobean tragedy provides a useful background for the analyses presented in the book which, though directly informed by none of the following angles, attest to the contribution of each in the long process of the recognition of the drama as a fertile and fascinating analytic territory. The survey of the previous critical trends serves also to validate the semiotic reading of the texts as an approach significantly different and particularly helpful in accounting for their complexity and (re)discovering their appeal.

The history of critical responses to Jacobean tragedy can rival the volatility of many contemporary dramatic plot lines. It seems that the gradual reversal of fortune had to be preceded by the informed distanciation from the striking features of the drama – its apparent negativity and inconstancy in construction and characterisation – a feat too challenging for the early analysts of the texts. In effect, the initial reactions tended to range from tepid to demeaning, a trend strengthened by the temporal proximity of the texts to the intimidating Shakespearean bonanza of genius.

With the opinion of a bleak and entertaining testimony to the excesses of the degenerate era of political and moral crisis, Jacobean tragedy would suffer from critical bias which discouraged detailed and thorough examination. Often defined negatively, it appeared as an exercise in theatrical decadence, failing wholesale to build a coherent fictional universe or provide satisfying answers:

Tragedy could no longer offer the totality of vision and transcendence so necessary for man’s sense of being. The mirror became a carnival glass, mocking in its reflection of depraved men, an absurd world of no values, and an unintelligible cosmos. Any search for meaning in life yielded hostility, indifference, or bewilderment; there was no existential causality of events. (Clay 215) ← 10 | 11 →

Unavoidably, the nefarious or depressive ambience predominant in the texts customarily linked with the frustrating longing for the past golden age1 encouraged the focus on the ethical aspect of the playworlds. Thus the early critical evaluations of the dramas would oscillate between the demoralisation of the society presented in the texts and the moral condition of individual characters therein.2 The emotional responses of the time are still remarkable for the memorably graphic castigating comments.3 At the same time, tending to acknowledge the Jacobean playwrights as, at best, poets4, critics failed to fathom their dramatic skill or the plays’ theatrical potentiality5. In great contrast to current scholarly ← 11 | 12 → leaning, later Victorians such as Gosse, Ward, Saintsbury, Symonds or Archer disparagingly viewed the key figure of the drama, John Webster, primarily as an expert at fashioning dramatically efficient scenes rather than a composer of a coherent text.6

The ambience of the tragedies as well as the common tone of the early critical responses were concisely expressed by Clifford Leech in 1951. According to him, in the first decade of 17th century “[a]long with the preoccupation with the abnormal, the peripheral in human experience, there was far less sense of an established cosmic pattern. There was diversity among men, and this was, moreover, a diversity of sickness” (31). The logic of dramatic construction became, according to many, crippled and subordinated to the sensational and the garishly sentimental. The decadence apparent on the level of ethical constitution and characterisation to some scholars appeared reflected in the inconsistencies of plot. In this respect Beaumont and Fletcher featured prominently as playwrights notorious for constructing worlds where “pure villainy entirely usurp[ed] the normal interest in revenge as a motivation for tragic action” (Bowers 169).

The “gradual move from the heroic to the romantic and from the political to the psychological” (Ornstein 44) with regard to the preceding mood of the theatre also seemed to reinforce the inclination to dramatise the uncertain, the ungraspable and the ambiguous. While scholars of the previous decades often equated the plays’ artistic value with their capacity to present a coherent moral structure, later analysts were ready to acknowledge the texts’ moral complexity as a virtue in its own right. Irving Ribner (1962)7 and Robert Ornstein (1965) were the two critics to provide full-length comprehensive studies evaluating the moral standards in Jacobean tragedies and introducing variety into the largely uni ← 12 | 13 → formly condemnatory view of the corrupt dramatic worlds. Gradually, the plays began to be praised for their unconventional moral structure: “Jacobean tragedy discloses ideology as misrepresentation: it interrogates ideology from within, seizing upon it and exposing its contradictions and inconsistencies (Dollimore 1984: 8). In the increasingly favourable critical spirit the dramas were now viewed as experimental and bold in their treatment of ethics while their ambivalence and complexity were identified as responsible for the texts’ uniqueness.

Generically, the drama’s complexity was echoed in the extensive usage of masques and masque-like elements as well as in the habitual proclivity to the metadramatic. Sarah P. Sutherland rightly recognised masque as a phenomenon particularly expressive of the distinctively Jacobean mood in the tragedies, “[yoking] violently together the decorum inherent in celebratory court entertainment with the indecorum of madness, mayhem, and murder” (xii). Similarly, the theme of self-construction through role-playing8, already well established in the Elizabethan drama, continued to develop and morth, manifesting itself in the “growing sense of the theatrical nature of personal identity” (Henderson 61).

In the 1980s, the appearance of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning not only marked the initiation of New Historicism, but also paved the way for a scholarly assessment of the representations of femininity in the changing socio-political reality. Subsequently, the decades of the 80s and the 90s abounded in feminist interpretations of Jacobean drama by Lisa Jardine, Dymphna Callaghan, Celia Daileader, Aileen Allman, Alison Findley, Catherine Belsey, Ania Loomba, Dana Goldberg and others.

Mary Beth Rose’s The Expense of Spirit. Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama was one of the earliest studies acknowledging the prominence of female figures and the microcosmic private worlds in the plays: ← 13 | 14 →

Centred on political and military struggles, tragic action consigns women, eros, and sexuality to the periphery of its concerns. In striking contrast, Jacobean plays emphasize the heroism of personal endurance, creating tragedies of private life [...]. The prominence of women as tragic heroes and/or of eros as a tragic subject increases remarkably in Jacobean plays. (95)9


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Semiotik kanonische Texte Drama 17. Jahrhundert England
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 208 pp.

Biographical notes

Justyna Galant (Author)

Justyna Laura Galant is assistant professor in the Department of English Studies at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. She publishes on Renaissance drama, utopia and dystopia in literature, on film and the new media.


Title: Painted Devils, Siren Tongues