The Infant Phenomenon: Shakespeare, the Mimetic Child, and Nineteenth-Century British Literature

Hansen, Caitlin R. The Infant Phenomenon: Shakespeare, the Mimetic Child, and Nineteenth-Century British Literature. 2013. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation defines the figure of the mimetic child, and traces its progression and development from the works of Shakespeare through the nineteenth century. The power of the mimetic child depends upon the striking historical parallelism of anxious reactions to the theater and to the figure of the child; both are inherently mimetic, holding a mirror up to nature, but in these imitative processes of representation and creation, both become their own sometimes disturbingly individual entities. This suspicion of the mimetic capacities of the theater and of child's play is found in Plato, but is most provocatively explored in Shakespeare's plays, and in their subsequent cultural reverberations.

This work, therefore, traces the intersections of children, theatricality, and Shakespeare, guided by the figure of the mimetic child, through the nineteenth century--a period anxiously concerned with the purpose, presentation, and propriety of all three. The opening study of Shakespeare's child characters as mimetically empowered extends into an argument for the parallelism of the developing figures of the child and of Shakespeare himself, as they secure social significance and inspire comparable reactions of both delight and anxiety through their imaginative and mimetic powers. These kinds of responses, and the related division of approaches to juvenile educational practices into encouragement of fancy and didactic promotion of morality, leads to analysis of nineteenth-century adaptations of Shakespeare for children (and, more broadly, "domestic" audiences), and eventually to the generic shift which allows for consideration of Frankenstein's monster, and other characters from nineteenth-century novels, as defining their narratives through their status as mimetic children and their related links to Shakespeare. The final chapter looks first at the development the mimetic child from literary motif and novelistic incarnation to living breathing body in the study of nineteenth-century child actors, before moving into analyses of theatricality, generic variation, and Shakespearean influence in the Peter Pan narrative. By recognizing and examining the figure of the mimetic child across such a broad temporal and generic range, both within and outside of literary texts, this dissertation argues for the ongoing significance of the interrelations of Shakespeare, children, and (anti)theatricality to understanding the development over the course of the nineteenth century of each of these areas, as well as larger questions of education, parenting, genre, and mimesis.

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