By Emily G., Adrianna M., Evan P., Melissa S., and Hannah V.
The research shaping our series of posts examines the social issues addressed in English Renaissance literature and drama. We have found that what was considered largely unacceptable in the “reality” of Early Modern England was welcomed onstage or in a work of literature, and that the job of art was not only to replicate a semblance of reality, but also to comment on what that social reality lacked. Since strict principles of hierarchy and subordination structured the culture of the time, playwrights and writers had the opportunity either to challenge or to uphold the public’s expectations. They did this through the inclusion of half-human creatures and magical beings such as fairies, ghosts and spirits, androgynous humans, and werewolves.
All of the half-human creatures that we studied arose from social anxieties about the body; and they reflected a popular desire to separate “the human” from “the animal” and “the non-human.” Humans elevated some creatures above themselves, including as magical beings and fairies; meanwhile they shunned others as lesser, placing in this category spirits, androgynous humans, and werewolves. What tied these categories together is that many of the figures in both challenged anthropocentric views of humanity. What’s more, writers attempted to mitigate some anxieties by positioning non-human figures as plot devices: ghosts were commonly created for the purpose of revenge, androgyny was often depicted in a comedic light, and werewolves were considered human minds doomed to life in the body of an animal as punishment. These issues guided our research and led to questions of how non-human creatures alleviated or heightened the preexisting anxieties and how they were employed by or against humanity. A deeper understanding of these questions shaped our view that literature and drama used these half-human creatures to define humanity.