Spectacles of Virtue: Theoria as a Framework for Analyzing Platonic Themes in Early Modern English Drama




Milam, John

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In this dissertation I argue that theoria, a form of instructive contemplation dating back to at least 5th century BCE Athens, offers a useful framework for analyzing the Platonically-informed epistemologies in early modern English drama. While there are many studies of Platonic elements in early modern English poetry, drama has received less discussion primarily, I suggest, because of the lack of a useful synthesizing framework. I first show how the concept of theoria developed from its origins in Herodotus to its Italo-Neoplatonic Christian expression in the writings of Marsilio Ficino, which form the early modern English inherited. Theoria, as a framework for analyzing Platonic-epistemologies in drama, depends on mimesis and metatheatre, which, I claim, the early modern dramatists manipulated in ways that simultaneously reinforce and destabilize theoria's ability to produce virtue. I then use the plays of Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson as test cases for this framework. I show that not only do these three dramatists engage with ideas of theoria purposively and in ways that radically retheorize the possibilities of dramatic contemplation, but they do so in a manner that brings into sharp relief what is modern in early modern English drama.