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Profane Shakespeare: Perfection, Pollution, and the Truth of Performance

Shakespeare profane : perfection, pollution, et la vérité de la représentation
Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise, Karen Britland et Line Cottegnies


Ce recueil d'articles procède d'un double sentiment d'urgence: d'abord un contexte international marqué par la résurgence de discours religieux fondés sur la pureté et la condamnation de l'impureté supposée, ensuite un contexte critique qui a mené à la polarisation du débat autour de questions liées à la religion de Shakespeare. Ce recueil montre que pour le dramaturge et poète la vérité se situe ailleurs, dans le temps et l'acte de la représentation, et non dans une hypothétique question d'affiliation religieuse ou d'horizon eschatologique qui impliquerait les notions de perfection et d'accomplissement comme la foi dans une vérité ultime. Si Shakespeare nous "parle" encore aujourd'hui, c'est peut-être justement parce que son art est éminemment profane.

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  • 1 Complete Sonnets and Poems, ed. Colin Burrow, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, Oxford University Pr (...)

“But no perfection is so absolute
That some impurity doth not pollute”.1

  • 2 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, London and New York, Routledge, 2002 [1966], p. 44-45.
  • 3 Editors and commentators have underlined that Shakespeare’s image is descriptive of the phenomenon (...)

1Penned in all likelihood during a time of plague epidemic, The Rape of Lucrece (pub. 1594) articulates perhaps more clearly than any other of Shakespeare’s works contemporary obsessions with the questions of purity and impurity and the lurking, polluting effects of infection. Lucrece’s complaint, whose importance as one of the longest female monologues in the Shakespearian corpus is often overlooked, enables Shakespeare to dramatize the continuum between physiological impurity and moral corruption or taintedness that existed in a variety of early modern discourses, whether medical, social or religious. Thinking of Lucrece as an analogue to a character on stage rather than an embedded poetic voice, helps gauge how powerful an embodiment she is of purity and impurity at one and the same time. As the chastest of wives, she epitomizes the encoded, patriarchal structures of the society to which she belongs. In so far as she is abused – to speak in anthropologist Mary Douglas’s terms – she materializes that “residual” body or that “matter” which lies “out of place” in relation to the same coercive structures. According to Douglas, “pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications”.2 In The Rape of Lucrece, the poetic narrator’s voice comes into play to support the heroine’s enactment of a ritual of separation, by which her heart might be cleansed again from pollution: “And bubbling from her breast it doth divide / In two slow rivers […] / Some of her blood still pure and red remained, / And some looked black, and that false Tarquin-stained” (l. 1737-1738, 1742-1743). However, “ever since” this act of “self-slaughter”, the medically aware poet explains, “Corrupted blood some watery token shows; / And blood untainted still doth red abide, / Blushing at that which is so putrified”.3 In other words, Lucrece’s sacrifice and the spectacle of the two fountains of blood serve, in the very moment of their severing, to remind the reader that the pure and impure coexist. This truth is only displayed in the performance of the sacrifice. While Lucrece earlier fears that “no perfection is so absolute / That some impurity doth not pollute”, it is Shakespeare’s intuition that such stains in fact furnish the poet and playwright with the rich creative material for an aesthetic experience communicating an awareness of human belonging beyond culturally sanctioned divides.

  • 4 For an overview of the turn to religious studies in early modern scholarship, see Ken Jackson and A (...)

2The focus in the present collection of articles was born from a double sense of urgency, one prompted by a global context marked by the resurgence of religious discourses on purity and forcible attitudes towards alleged impurity, and, on a smaller scale, by a critical context which has lead to the polarization of the debate around Shakespeare’s religious beliefs.4 Though Shakespeare belonged to a deeply Christian culture and though his language is in part shaped by all-pervasive Christian texts, evidence of Shakespeare’s “true faith” remains necessarily inconclusive. The playwright and poet situates his own truth elsewhere, in his art of poetry and drama, and in the time and act of performance, rather than in any sort of religious affiliation or eschatological horizon, which imply the notions of completion and perfection as well as a belief in unchanging truth. If Shakespeare so broadly and keenly “speaks to us” to this day, it is perhaps because of how profane his art is. This does not mean that Shakespeare does not engage in an implicit debate with the religious and moral imagination of his time. His contemporary world and contemporary language are still too intrinsically imbued with the religious for him to step into the neutral ground of the “secular”. He cannot draw the contours of a profane world without using the language of religion, in which holiness and wholesomeness overlap, and deflecting it to a new purpose. His poetry and his theatre can be read as specifically literary responses, addressing, and, more importantly, displacing, or even “polluting” (in the etymological sense of “desecrating”) the contemporary ethical and religious debate over purity, especially purity of heart – a burning issue at the time – to turn it into an aesthetic, hermeneutic, and possibly anthropological question.

3Though the essays in this special Shakespeare issue of Etudes Epistémè adopt a variety of critical approaches, all of them look at cultural discourses to better “re-textualize” Shakespeare. They favor close examination of the text and the cultural implications of the poetic word over religious or biographical speculation, to bring out the complex interplay between the notions of perfection, pollution and performance.

4The first articles explore the ways in which the impure fuels the creative process. Profane Shakespeare opens with an article by Harvey Wiltshire, which offers a rich and intricate reading of Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece and Thomas Middleton’s subsequent Ghost of Lucrece (1600), carefully relating the former to contemporary Galenic theory. Not only does Wiltshire show how both poets embrace the staining qualities of blood, but he takes the analysis of the imbrication of pollution and poetic creation a step further by shedding light on the deep continuousness between infection (etymologically a “stain”) and calligraphic and typographic imagery in both texts. Reading Lucrece’s narrative as penned by Shakespeare constitutes, he argues, an act of “diagnostic reading of blood”. Middleton’s poem intensifies the drive towards the gory embodiment of poetic writing and publication, and the converse textualization of the body. Wiltshire concludes that, while “Shakespeare’s Lucrece and Middleton’s ghost are exposed to a masculine literary system that frustrates their efforts to become authors of their own text”, both poems nonetheless “put forward an alternative, and in some ways sympathetic, vision of female authorship, which attempts to thwart the masculine and objectifying textual convention”, turning the visceral, or residual (female) impurity, into tentatively empowering forms of creative pollution.

5In our second article, “Shakespeare’s Poetics of Impurity”, Sophie Chiari expands the aesthetic implications of smears beyond their associations with the written or printed text to what she calls “dramatic spots and stains”. She suggests that Shakespeare’s art participates in a broader redefinition of the role of fantasia during the Renaissance. On the level of imagery, Shakespeare’s poetry and drama endorse a similar valuation of natural labile stains as a sort of gross material which would be congruent with the invention at work in the artist’s mind as that found in Da Vinci’s definition of the painter’s art. After a brief reminder of Shakespeare’s ambivalent understanding of stains in Lucrece, Chiari then moves on to the uses of stained cloths in a number of Shakespearean plays, which function as material analogues for what she defines as dramatic “Lacanian stains”, that is to say structurally estranged moments in the plays when a character makes a “smudge” or “mark” on the play, obliging the spectator to look from an oblique point of view at marginal or spectral spaces that usually go unseen. More generally, Chiari remarks, “spots, stains and smudges” are devices that provide “poetic and dramatic access points,” and she concludes her essay with an analysis of Antony and Cleopatra, in which slime and nothingness (or the nihil of Egypt), matter and spectrality, are disconnected from their debasing or destructive potential and converge to become the “airy stuff” out of which the theatre is made.

6Stella Achilleos’s and Sophie Battell’s essays build on the aesthetic potential of the impure, weaving references to Lucrece’s creative spots and polluted blood into an exploration of Shakespeare’s understanding of human relations. In “(Im)perfect Friendship and the Metaphor of Grafting,” Achilleos addresses the early modern image of grafting, showing how it was popularly associated not only with the idea of union of the souls, but also with notions of dangerous hybridization or monstrous bastardization. Arguing that Shakespeare desacralizes these associations, she demonstrates how he turns this popular early modern horticultural image into the expression of the simultaneous fragility and artistic fertility of friendship. Drawing on examples of friends in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets “who function as imperfect grafts” or parasites, she argues that “Shakespearean plays thus expose the grafted union of friendship as a possible site of dangerous pollution, violence, and domination”. Shakespeare, she concludes, skeptically rewrites the Renaissance ideal of amicitia perfecta while still recognizing its role in processes of artistic production.

  • 5 See, for example, Maria Prendergast’s thought-provoking article, “The Aesthetics of Railing: Troilu (...)

7Sophie Battell’s article, “‘[L]ike a fountain stirred’: Impure Hospitality in Troilus and Cressida”, takes us in a different direction from the eco-critically inspired essays by Achilleos and Chiari in its turn to Derridean theory and cultural anthropology, while continuing to investigate the powerful ambivalence of dirt and pollution, as well as the “aesthetic potential of the contemporary association between contaminated fluids and sexual adultery”. Her article centers on Troilus and Cressida and enlarges the circle of human relations that are at stake in our topic by looking beyond the bonds of friendship to hospitality, especially in the context of war and the encounter with strangers. Studies of Troilus and Cressida have often dwelt upon sexual pollution in the play.5 Battell’s reading takes on a more political turn by revealing the importance of interactions between strangers in the play, the cultural associations between foreignness and pollution, and Shakespeare’s suggestion that these associations need to be deconstructed by the recognition of “the complexity of the hospitality relationship”. The intriguing preface to the 1609 edition of the play, which, as Battell notes, draws attention to the playhouse as a space polluted “with the smoky breath of the multitude”, ironically also draws attention to the theatre as a privileged space for an enquiry into the complexity of our interactions with strangers and that “matter” which lies “out of place”.

8The following essays, by Sean McDowell and John Gillies, offer in-depth studies of the complex processes of secularization, or “profanisation”, which allow Shakespeare to turn theologically inflected ideas about impurity to different ends in support of a new form of secularized “shared experience”. In his reading of As You Like It, McDowell inquires into the infectious state of melancholy, arguing that Shakespeare uses the pervasive languages of religious melancholy and of the religion of love to move his characters away from submission to culturally encoded states of pollution. Far from “ap[ing]” “the urban humoural comedies of George Chapman or Ben Jonson”, As You Like It – through its characterization of Rosalind and Orlando – paves the way for a greater understanding of personal and interpersonal freedom, one that bespeaks the playwright’s own freedom with regards to contemporary psychophysiological articulations of cultural imperatives. Ritual purgation is replaced by a joyous investment in the art of comedy that both characters willfully perform to restore their self-assumed “interior constitutions”.

9In his exposition of the “conversational turn” in Shakespeare, John Gillies also draws attention to the playwright’s secularizing impetus. Throwing light on the neglected and yet dominant early modern understanding of “conversation” as not simply the “interchange of words, and thoughts,” but also “the action of living or having one’s being in a place or among persons” – that is, of habitus in Bourdieu’s sense of the term – Gillies charts the complex inflexions of the ideal of “civil” and “Christian” conversation in Shakespeare’s plays. He shows that Shakespeare transcends the normative oppositions between “holy” and “impure” conversation by “playing them out” on stage, revealing their implicit connection with the pioneering understanding of conversation set forth by Montaigne: that is, conversation as “at once morally autonomous and intellectually adventurous: a disinterested and unrhetorical truth-seeking that relies on and actively seeks out shared understandings of a kind capable of evolving new meanings”. The theatre becomes, as it were, the locus for a new form of conversation, a secularized sensus communis, “con-verted”, that is bent away, from what might be termed an extreme Protestant sense of exclusiveness, but still akin to an Augustinian socialis necessitudo.

10The last article in Profane Shakespeare, “Shakespeare’s Secular Theatre: A Provocative Defence of the Actor and Spectator”, helps us take a step back and consider in reflexive terms the achievement of Shakespeare’s dramatic art. Placing Shakespeare within the broad context of English and continental early modern antitheatricalism, Clotilde Thouret examines how, rather than contenting himself with defending a “virtuous exemplarity of performance” like a number of other playwrights of his generation, Shakespeare provocatively “reproduce[s] […] theatrophobic accusations against actors and the contamination of the spectator by the passions performed on stage”. Her reading of the metatheatrical passages in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and Hamlet joins McDowell’s analysis to present Shakespeare “displac[ing] the terms” of the antitheatricalist controversy “in order to think through the emotional (and thus necessarily impure) experience of theatre and give it a social and moral function”. Rosalind’s discovery in As You Like It, as Shakespeare’s, is that there is much power in the “if”, or fictitious truth, of performance – but also that there is nothing supernatural or magical about this power. Against idealizations of the virtuous power of the theatre, Shakespeare defiantly “acknowledges a portion of truth in the theatrophobic discourse” but “without adhering to its religious and stigmatizing aspect”. He more modestly “claims the status of an economic activity for theatrical practice” and “underlines the essentially sensorial dimension of dramatic experience, which makes of it a fully secularized and profane phenomenon”. In other words, he builds on the suspicion of eroticism, diabolism and the actor’s profit-seeking motivation, rather than straightforwardly rejecting these antitheatrical arguments, to turn his theatre into a more effective and affective art than it had been before. In response to his own Lucrece who feared that “no perfection [was] so absolute, / That some impurity [did] not pollute”, Shakespeare seems to acquiesce but also suggest that only the polluted can be perfected.

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1 Complete Sonnets and Poems, ed. Colin Burrow, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008 [2002], l. 852-854. All subsequent quotations are from his edition. While Burrow retains the title that appears on the title-page of the first quarto edition of the poem (1594), Lucrece, we will be referring to the poem by the running-titles in the same quarto edition, i. e. The Rape of Lucrece.

2 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, London and New York, Routledge, 2002 [1966], p. 44-45.

3 Editors and commentators have underlined that Shakespeare’s image is descriptive of the phenomenon of coagulation. See for instance Colin Burrow’s note to this line in his edition, op. cit., and Robert Ellrodt’s note in William Shakespeare. Œuvres complètes. Les tragicomedies II, Poésies, coll. Bouquins, Robert Laffont, Paris, p. 729.

4 For an overview of the turn to religious studies in early modern scholarship, see Ken Jackson and Arthur F. Marotti, “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies,” Criticism 46, p. 167-90. For an overview of discourses of purity in American religious culture, see Seth Dowland, “Gender, Marriage, and Sexual Purity in American Religious History,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, online September 2017): DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.432 (accessed 17 September 2018).

5 See, for example, Maria Prendergast’s thought-provoking article, “The Aesthetics of Railing: Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus”, Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, 31.3 (2008), p. 69-101, especially p. 78-88.

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Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise, Karen Britland et Line Cottegnies, « Profane Shakespeare: Perfection, Pollution, and the Truth of Performance »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 33 | 2018, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2018, consulté le 05 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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