Beautiful Scars: Jewels in English Renaissance Drama

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In An Englis[h[ expositor[:] teaching the in[ter]pretation of the harde[st] words [vsed] in our language, John Bullokar notes that the word carbuncle ‘hath two significations, namely a precious stone, and a dangerous sore’.(sig. D2r) Generally speaking Renaissance texts keep these two meanings separate: in ways which are inevitably conditioned by the nature of their subject matter, Renaissance authors tend to be interested in exploring either the idea of carbuncle as jewel or the idea of carbuncle as tumour without ever registering the possibility of the alternative meeting for the word. Nevertheless the ambiguity is there: a jewel, a thing of beauty intended for the adornment of the body, is also in some sense potentially a disfiguring mark, a scar on the body marking the site of a trauma. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway asks “Why should our bodies end at the skin?” (online); in this essay, I shall argue that as far as Renaissance jewels are concerned, bodies do not in fact end at the skin, for jewels mark not the end of the body but an edge, a hinge between body and mind as much as between body and dress, in ways which activate fears about permeability, boundary blurring and the monstrous. One of the rare instances of evoking both senses of carbuncle comes in The Comedy of Errors, where Dromio of Syracuse, having defined the kitchen-maid Nell as “spherical, like a globe”, says that “America, the Indies” are located in her nose, because it is ‘all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain’ (III.ii.120, 140-3). To varying extent, the horror of the gross, the extreme and the unnatural which is implicit here can be seen as potentially lurking in all Renaissance descriptions of jewellery.

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