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Tracing the Roots of Modern Inequalities


The roots of modern social issues can be traced to any given corner of world history, provided one knows how to follow them. White supremacist and patriarchal ideas, for example, might underpin the dynamics of 17th-century English court ceremonies — at least that’s what Hannah Petersen ’22 is considering in her Emerson grant research project on the presentation of “otherness” in Stuart period antimasques.                    

About Hannah Petersen ’22

Major: Sociology

Hometown: Reading, Pa.

High School: The King’s Academy

 

read about other student research projects 

Antimasques were “comic” or “grotesque” performances put on before or between the acts of masques — court entertainment ceremonies consisting of, among other things, dancing and singing. The antimasque, said Petersen, was “a world of disorder that would eventually be overcome by the world of the masque,” which would restore “goodness” and “truth” to the court. 

Typically, she added, the figures that introduced into the performance these undesirable qualities would be representations of the “other” — women (as witches) or Black people, for example. In many cases, Petersen believes, these negatively framed figures would be vanquished and dispelled by a “white, male, elite [or courtly] body.” This pattern, she explained, “is not entirely different from a lot of things we see nowadays.”

Petersen’s research is grounded mostly in the texts of the masques themselves, which are often contained in scholarly works on a given monarch or historical period. Masques were essentially just plays, she said — and as they were only performed once, the texts tend to be well-preserved in online databases. Aside from these, Petersen said she is also drawing on secondary sources that look at “the way in which race, gender, and class were seen by aristocratic bodies.” 

This project began at the start of the year, when Petersen reached out to Assistant Professor of Theatre Jeanne Willcoxon about applying for an Emerson grant. In a prior course with Willcoxon, History of Theater, Petersen learned about Blackness in Elizabethan-era drama. Hearing of Petersen’s desire to explore further presentations of “otherness” in theatre, Willcoxon told her about the antimasques of the Stuart period, which immediately followed the Elizabethan era. 

A sociology major, Petersen described how Hamilton courses have provided her with meaningful exposure to the modern issues she is now examining in a new historical context. An Inequalities in Education course, for one, introduced her to the topics of racial inequality, gender inequality, and intersectionality. “It’s interesting to see how I look at that in the modern day — but now I’m able to study it in the 17th century,” she said. 

After graduating early this December, Petersen hopes to apply her skills and knowledge at a think tank or other research-oriented institution. But beyond the particular organization itself, she is focused on finding a way to positively impact others with her work. “It’s so easy, sometimes, to just do research for research’s sake,” she explained. “I really want to be able to help solve the inequalities I’m seeing in modern life.”

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