This article places three scenes by Shakespeare within a specific architectural history. It reads the statuary female bodies of Desdemona, Hermione, and Imogen as revered and desecrated objects within the niched spaces of the indoor theatre's discovery space.
Three of Shakespeare's plays (Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale) contain key scenes in which a still female body (either dead, sleeping, or presented as a statue) is revealed and displayed in the theatre's discovery space. In each scene, the female body is viewed, described, and read for signs of life, love, or betrayal by a male voyeur circling around the fringes of the inner stage, and is in this way 'objectified into art'. (1) These scenes create a dramaturgical trope that was made possible by the new conditions of the indoor theatre. The more intimate setting of the Blackfriars and its later rivals provided a series of enclosed stage spaces which, lit by candlelight and darkened by shadow, both framed and veiled the bodies presented within them, enabling a particular kind of spectacle that would have been impossible in the outdoor public playing spaces. However, as we will argue, these spectacles also provided audiences with a visual delight and emotional tautness--at once numinous and violent--which echoed certain liturgical events that had not been available to Londoners since the Elizabethan religious settlement.
At the end of The Winter's Tale, a statue of Hermione is revealed to Leontes in Paulina's private chapel sixteen years after Hermione 'died' following her husband's condemnation. Leontes humbles himself in front of his wife's image, questioning and venerating its lifelike appearance. Upon Paulina's command, Hermione's statue miraculously transforms into flesh. At the end of Othello, the Moor vows to kill his seemingly unfaithful wife. He declares that Desdemona's 'lust-stained' bed shall 'with lust's blood be spotted' (5.1.38). (2) In the following scene, Desdemona is revealed in her bed and pushed on stage from the discovery space. Othello proceeds to venerate the image of his sleeping wife whom he describes 'as smooth as monumental alabaster' (5.2.5). Murder is still Othello's intention but, having seen Desdemona's body, he promises not to 'shed her blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow' (3-4). Once Desdemona wakes, Othello smothers her. In 2.2 of Cymbeline, Iachimo emerges from a trunk in Imogen's room to note the 'contents' of Imogen's body and her bedchamber in an attempt to win a wager against her lover, Posthumous. Like Othello, Iachimo venerates the body before him, describing it as 'fresh lily / And whiter than the sheets' (17-18). While Desdemona 'excels the quirks of blazoning pens' (69), Iachimo uses his 'blazoning pen' to write Imogen's body and its details into his tables. All three of these male characters describe, deify, and desire to touch the still female body displayed in the discovery space.
Historicist literary criticism of the last two decades has done much to situate the drama of Shakespeare and his peers in a religious landscape that was, as Arthur Marotti describes it,...