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Painted Devils, Siren Tongues

The Semiotic Universe of Jacobean Tragedy


Justyna Galant

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.
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Aware of the variable nature of meaning and the potential for wish-fulfilment and self-expression it offers, Vindice, Antipater and Eleazar undermine what seems as fixedness in their worlds by opposing royal, social and parental powers. Their violent actions against the world order they live in are reflected on the level of signs which are destabilised and undergo either re-semantisation, or radical expansion of meaning. Vindice morphs into a number of personas created in response to the semiotic needs of the world he is opposing. Synechdochically connected to the world he is destroying, he in turn personifies its sins; becoming a pander, murderer, malcontent, and, in the guise of “Gloriana” – a treacherous incarnation of simultaneously a victim, a revenger, death, and lust. Through his enhancement of the motifs of evil, Vindice provided the corrupted world with an oversaturated self-describing centre of violence, murder and deceit. Antipater challenges the steadfastness of signs by looking to erase any natural connection between signs and their referents. His rejection of the bond with the father and the drive for independent self-expression is visible in language which here functions as a symbolic space of freedom. Eleazar the master-director in almost complete control of the play’s semiotic processes offers us a glimpse of a subjective universe of dictatorial semiosis until his role is reduced to an actor, a signifier for his previously larger-than-life villainous self.

Middleton’s Beatrice-Joanna approximates the courtly love convention, and Bianca falls back on the discrete gameworld of business when...

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