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Object Lessons in Renaissance Personhood

I will be directing a seminar called “Object Lessons in Renaissance Personhood” at the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in Los Angeles, CA, March 28-31, 2018.

The concept of personhood has a long and contentious history. It dates back to antiquity and in our own time underpins debates about abortion, euthanasia, and animal rights. In early modern England legal personhood was established through Magna Carta, which guaranteed that no free man should be harmed in person or property, save in accordance with the law of the land. This seminar starts with the premise that personhood is not just inward looking, a legal expression of agency and sentience, but also outward looking, a legal fiction designed specifically to curate interactions among people, property, and institutions, and to manage the sometimes blurry boundaries between these three categories. Participants in this seminar will think about personhood from the outside in rather than from the inside out, and our work will be guided by two basic questions: (1) what new things can we learn about Renaissance notions of liberty, responsibility, consent, and other key components of personhood if we focus on how these concepts manifest themselves at the level of substance, form, and lived environment? And (2) how might Renaissance literature and theater provide a particularly compelling resource for addressing this question? Papers are invited that explore personhood through a range of materially oriented topics. These might include: stage properties; writs and other legal documents; property; manuscript and print; animals; insects; tools; furniture; food; plants; storms; jewelry; cloths; children; monsters; bodies or body parts, as well as topics such as disability, bondage, and the links between personhood and persona. Our larger aim in this seminar will be to begin generating something we might think of as a material archive of Renaissance personhood. In the process, the seminar should also model new ways for early modernists to put law into conversation with other subdisciplines, such as material culture studies, eco-criticism, animal studies, disability studies, and various philosophical approaches.

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