Dangerous Ornament: The Figure of the Veil in Early Modern English Literature Open Access
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This dissertation argues that the veil was an important tool for negotiating linguistic, religious, ethnic, and gendered identities in the early modern period. Chapter 1 considers the veil as a figure for apocalypse (literally, "unveiling") in Protestant theology and in allegory, particularly as it is employed in Book One of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene and George Herbert's "The Church Militant" to represent the English Church and its adversaries within the long durée of Christian history. Chapter 2 also considers the veil in Christian tradition but this time with an eye to its untold (or seldom-told) story: rather than desiring to transcend the material veil, the tradition of mysticism embraces it, seeing the veil as the thing through which the entire narrative of Christian redemption is founded; I analyze St Teresa of Avila's account of divine rapture alongside its reformulation by Richard Crashaw (in poems such as "The Flaming Heart") to interrogate the ways that the veil enabled alternative experiences and understandings of the divine, and of desire itself. Chapter 3 explores anxieties about veils and veiling as they are performed onstage; I argue that Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Thomas Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy employ the veiled discovery space at the back of the early modern stage to materialize experiences of abjection, to stage what is unstageable or, literally, ob-scene. Chapter 4 collects the varied uses and histories of the veil discussed in the preceding chapters and considers the ways these traditions informed English engagements with Islam, particularly with the Muslim woman. I explore the manner in which, over the course of the seventeenth century, the veil began to shed some of its domestic and Christian valences and to solidify into a metonymy for the Orient as a space of mystery, darkness, and desire. As these varied readings show, the veil is a symbol whose "truth" is never singular or fixed; an understanding of the veil as both metaphor and object during the early modern period helps us account for its persistent allure in the Western imagination, as it continues to shape horizons of possibility in the present.