That skull had a tongue in it: Skulls, the Flesh, and the Individual in Early Modern Drama

Chloe Owen


This essay considers the role of skulls in developing a sense of the individual in William Shakespeares Hamlet (1600), Thomas Middletons The Revengers Tragedy (1606), and Middleton and Thomas Dekkers The Bloody Banquet (1609). Through a consideration of the memento mori tradition, the danse macabre, charnel houses, and early modern anatomy theatres and studies, this essay explores the various ways in which skulls and bones were viewed in the early modern period in both iconographic images and in discussions of the physical human body. While acknowledging the symbolism of the skull as an anonymous sign of the overarching power of death, which must come to us all regardless of social rank, this essay considers the ways in which the skull comes to stand for the individual in these pieces of early modern drama. As Shakespeare, Middleton, and Dekker subvert these well-known images and discourses surrounding the skull, and as they reconnect the bones to the flesh through language and visual images, they remind the audience of the character as they were in life. This essay considers the ways in which these playwrights work with the property of the skull to encourage the audience to see, not only an anonymous symbol of death, but the individual to whom it was once connected.


Skulls; Anatomy; Individual; Shakespeare; Middleton; Dekker

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