Making Death a Miracle: Audience and the Genres of Martyrdom in Dekker and Massinger's The Virgin Martyr


  • Nova Myhill New College of Florida



Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger's protestant saint’s play, The Virgin Martyr (1620), represents the competition over the significance of the execution of the title character not only in terms of pagan vs. Christian understandings of the world but also in terms of theatrical vs. doctrinal understandings of spectacle. In presenting signs of spiritual authenticity in explicitly theatrical terms, The Virgin Martyr puts its audience in the position of recognizing the truth of both the pagan characters who argue that the seemingly miraculous events surrounding Dorothea’s torture and execution are counterfeits and the Christian characters who claim that her death is true martyrdom. This understanding of interpretation as a product of the conventions of genre rather than the transparent significance of the spectacle raises important questions about the nature of the relationship between spectator and spectacle on both the public stage and the public scaffold: an issue the article considers in the context of antitheatrical assumptions about the power of spectacle, the discourses of treason and martyrdom surrounding the executions of protestant and catholic divines in the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth respectively, and the changing expectations of the audiences at the Red Bull in 1619-20.