The Body Performs: Anatomy Atlases and Early Modern Drama

At Rare Books and Special Collections in the Falk Library of Health Sciences


The Body Performs: Anatomy Atlases and Early Modern Drama

Author: Courtney Colligan, PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies and Making Advances Workshop participant

“Come, strumpet, famous whore! Were every drop / Of blood that runs in thy adulterous veins / A Life, this sword – dost see’t? – should in one blow / Confound them all.” Soranzo’s dragging of Annabella in an Early Modern “shaming” display in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore uses specific bodily language to describe the desired action of the speaker. In many Early Modern and Restoration plays, specifically revenge tragedies, imagery of the body, of bodily anatomy, reflect the growth of scientific knowledge of the human form.

But all of this may seem a bit obscure at the moment – let me rewind. I was honored to be part of the 2018 Making Advances workshop, focusing on performances of gender and identity on the Early Modern Stage. Aware that this research interest is quite focused, I entered the workshop with an open mind, focusing on broadening my other research areas of Museum Studies and contemporary performances of gender on stage. Yet on May 3rd, when the group visited Rare Books and Special Collections in the Falk Library of Health Sciences, my Early Modern geek-brain nearly exploded (an appropriate exaggeration as I did see engravings of semi-exploded brain). Original copies of Juan Valverde de Amusco’s Anatomia del Corpo Humano (1560), Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (1543/1555), and William Cowper’s The Anatomy of Humane Bodies (1737) exposed not only the inner-workings of the human body, but revealed the language spoken when describing bodies on the Early Modern and Restoration stage (which then continued into the 18th century). The descriptions used to describe the diagrams, the complex drawings, and the meticulous engravings were eerily familiar to certain phrases used in violent revenge tragedies like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy or the above quote from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Might the playwrights of this time have been familiar with these anatomy atlases?

Yes. I must say that this discovery is not “new” but noted in scholarly works on Renaissance Drama. However, this discovery was entirely new to me, despite having taken many courses on Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedies, and the socio-political landscape of Early Modern England. Rather than allowing this discovery to sink into the easily defeated mindset of “ah, another scholar has already done it” I aim to use this knowledge to explore the actual physicality of the mutilated bodies on stage. Since this discovery, I have come to realize that many of the works on the relationship between anatomy atlases and Early Modern drama explore the history of the transmission of these texts or offer a literary analysis of the atlas and drama. Instead, I am interested in how the language used by Soranzo describing Annabella’s body was physicalized on the stage. Furthermore, as audiences of this time attended dissections of human bodies by the Barber-Surgeons, complete with stage design and blueprints, how might this type of medical theatre bleed (pun intended) into the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Webster? What relationships would an audience member who attended both performances see?

The experience of the Making Advances workshop allowed me space to let my mind intellectually wander, to question, and to be surprised. Allowing individuals in higher education to explore and attend stimulating spaces outside of their main area feeds the human desire of curiosity and exploration. This in turn leads to the creation of new ideas and connections; by removing the burden of “being right” or producing knowledge to meet a deadline, I believe we all might find ourselves on new, but exciting paths forward.

Learn more about the Making Advances workshop here

  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh