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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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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...

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