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Shakespearean Sensations: Experiencing Literature in Early Modern England.

Shakespearean Sensations: Experiencing Literature in Early Modern England

Edited by Katharine A. Craik and Tanya Pollard

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013

Shakespearean Sensations joins an ongoing conversation in the field of early modern studies about the logic of the senses, the affects, and conditions of embodied subjectivity in and around the plays and poems of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The volume offers ten new essays by distinguished and innovative scholars that consider, collectively, the "sensations aroused by imaginative literature" (3) or more concretely, how Shakespeare and his contemporaries may have understood the impact of drama and poetry on audiences and readers. The editors, who have each produced sustained studies of literature and forms of sensory response, Katherine A. Craik (Reading Sensations in Early Modern England) and Tanya Pollard [Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England), seem an ideal team to open up new directions in this field. Indeed, in the company of several thoughtful edited collections in recent years, including Knowing Shakespeare: Senses, Embodiment and Cognition, edited by Lowell Gallagher and Shankar Raman (2010), Embodied Cognition and Shakespeare's Theatre: The Early Modern Body-Mind, edited by Laurie Johnson, John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble (2014), and the earlier Reading the Early Modern Passions, edited by Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson (2004), Craik and Pollard's volume offers a timely contribution to scholarship on intersecting histories of literature, affect, and embodiment.

Shakespearean Sensations, however, sets itself apart from this developing body of scholarship by calling for an intensive focus on "literature's effects," or imagined effects, on early modern audiences and readers. "How did early modern writers," ask Craik and Pollard at the outset of the Introduction, "imagine the effects of plays and poems on minds, bodies, and souls?" (1). They further refine the scope of the volume by asking their contributors to consider, or reconsider, "the period's investment in imagining literature's impact on feeling" (1). While re-familiarizing readers with early discourses concerned with both literary impact and "the physiology of affect," including classical and renaissance rhetoric, philosophy and medicine, debates about religion, and treatises on the powers and dangers of theater and poetry, Craik and Pollard ask their contributors to consider early modern discourses of literary impact in new ways. For in light of both the "affective turn" in a number of disciplines within and beyond the humanities and the need for scholars to articulate the value of literary study, the editors stress the importance of historicizing "literature's shaping impact on audiences" in order to deepen our understanding of "the period's beliefs about how and why literature mattered" (25). By emphasizing the urgency of excavating "the historical specificities of the period's vocabulary for describing consumer's experience of literature, and the ways in which these descriptions challenge our own assumptions of what literature is and does" (5), they further raise the stakes of the collection.

The ten essays that follow in many ways cohere around concerns with fundamental issues of "affect" and "effect" while differing substantially in topic and argument. Essays range from Allison P. Hobgood's analysis of the effects of fear (or "fear-sickness") in and around Macbeth to Matthew Steggle's study of the rhetoric and dramatization of clapping in and around Shakespeare's theater. Both essays examine the interrelationship of actors and audience, but open up completely different pictures of "sensation" at work in the early modern theater. Hobgood's lead essay, "Feeling fear in Macbeth," examines fear as a form of affective contagion linked with physical illness in and around Macbeth (including the notoriously precarious production history of the play). Exploring medical and psychological approaches to fear in the period, she points out that while playgoers were vulnerable to catching "fear-sickness" by simply viewing Macbeth, they were also prompted to reflect on what it might mean to be afraid of "fear itself." Macbeth, she suggests, offered playgoers an invitation to "gain knowledge and control over fear, while simultaneously inviting them to surrender to its power" (46). Steggle's "Notes toward an analysis of early modern applause," by contrast, considers the practical aspects of applause in, in response to, and as performance. In doing so, he asks just what early modern men and women thought they were doing when they struck the palms of their hands together in unison, producing explosive sounds during as well as at the ends of plays? While stressing the surprising frequency and comparative amplitude of clapping in the early modern theater, Steggle's essay culminates in an analysis of four epilogues (to Henry VIII, All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest). Here Steggle exposes the wide range of "imaginative relationships between stage and audience" mediated by applause, "in which the audience can be as powerful as a Prospero or as confused as a Bertram" (137), and in which the dual structure of audience participation--negotiating individuality and collectivity, passion and reason, and the virtual and the actual--comes most clearly into view. With strong exploratory essays, Hobgood and Steggle open up fascinating avenues for understanding the experience of drama in and beyond early modern England.

Numerous essays in the volume operate by defamiliarizing common assumptions about how audiences may have responded to particular works, genres, and characters. Douglas Trevor's powerful essay, "Self-love, spirituality and the senses in Twelfth Night," for example, demonstrates how audiences would have had good ethical as well as theological reasons to respond to Malvolio with a good deal of admiration and compassion by the end of Twelfth Night, not the least because "the machinery put into motion to discredit--even destroy--him is revealed to be less playful, and more hostile to Christianity in general, than originally advertised" (65). Trevor situates Malvolio's naive reading of Maria's letter and his response to subsequent torture at the hands of Feste in terms of both the somatic dimensions of religious hermeneutics and the complicated (and often caricatured) status of the Puritan on stage. Malvolio's humiliation and folly are followed by a redemptive response to torment, so that Shakespeare's play "gives way to a more complicated, broader assessment of what is required to defend one's Christian beliefs in the face of abuse and (sensory) deprivation" (65). Trevor thus calls for a reassessment not only of audience response but also of Shakespeare's response to Puritanism as source of comedy.

Four essays in the volume deal explicitly with issues of theatrical catharsis. Through an analysis of physical and emotional pain in Lucrece and King Lear, Michael Schoenfeldt's thoughtful "Shakespearean pain" reveals Shakespeare's skepticism of the theologically salvific or medically curative dimensions of experiencing or witnessing pain. At the same time, Schoenfeldt demonstrates Shakespeare's engagement with the idea that to focus on the pain of others through aesthetic means could function as a temporary anesthetic or momentary relief rather than a curative purge. With specific attention to purgation as a medical and religious idea (particularly through representations of Purgatory in anti-Catholic polemic), Thomas Rist's "Catharsis as 'purgation' in Shakespearean drama," revises our understanding of theatrical "catharsis" in another way. Reconsidering tragic drama generally and Hamlet in particular, Rist argues that "the theater's emotional effects on audiences were inflected by ... medico-religious ideas of purgation" and that the theater was "a space in which audiences experienced purgations as medical, religious, and potentially neo-Catholic" (152).

Conversely, it is the denial of catharsis in Othello that Allison K. Deutermann argues for in "Iago's withheld confession." "What happens," she asks, "when Shakepeare's audience--which like Othello, has been invited to drink in Iago's speeches throughout the play--is denied the purgative relief by proxy of the stage revenger's confession?" (58). The oft-expressed audience experience of claustrophobia or discomfort at the end of Othello, Deutermann suggests, results in part from the withheld confession. "Stillness and silence," she writes, "supersede speaking and action in their ability to move, or to affect," so that the withheld confession denies "purgative release" and leaves an audience experiencing discomfort and an all too close proximity to the "poisoned verbal economy" and tragic action of the play (63).

Exploring issues of catharsis and generic expectation in tragic drama as well, but with a central focus on genre and gender, Tanya Pollard's "Conceiving tragedy" opens with attention to the gendering of expressivity and theatrical impact in a Hamlet "unpregnant" of his cause. Such a phrase, she argues, speaks to "early modern associations between tragedy, affective power and the fertile female body" that Hamlet must turn toward in order to release his emotions (87). Situating Hamlet's comment about being "unpregnant" alongside his invocation of the grieving "Hecuba," Pollard argues that Hamlet moves away from a paternal model of response grounded in the Senecan revenge and moves closer to the grieving "passionate maternal Hecuba, and the female-centered Greek tragic cannon that she represents," ultimately embodying "a hybrid model of both gender and genre." This produces, she suggests, "a new model of tragedy, offering an alternative to the extreme passions of both revenge and grief and suggesting instead more subtle, fragile tragic effects."

If early modern dramas had the capacity to affect the bodies, minds and souls, could they could they have done so through organs as potentially comedic as the stomach? Hillary M. Nunn's illuminating essay, "Playing with appetite in early modern comedy," focuses on the rhetorical and spectacular dimensions of food, arguing that comic dramas often position the spectator as a kind of neo-Tantalus by provoking "an insatiable and often unreasonable desire to eat what lies beyond reach" (107). She situates the experience of hunger prompted by comic drama as a financially invested mode of theatrical impact, stimulating desire for items in fact distributed by vendors at plays. More substantially, however, Nunn argues that as audience members identify with forms of hunger or deprivation experienced by characters on stage, and find themselves all too close to temptations or satisfactions nearby, they are brought into the drama as participants in moral dilemmas integral to representations of food onstage.

What it takes to move a reader or an audience is an issue relevant to all of the essays in the volume. Two essays in particular, however, take the topic of movement on as a central focus. A vivid mixture of motion, emotion, and commotion marks the culture of the satiric epigram in William Kerwin's wonderful "Epigrammatic commotions." This essay argues at the outset that the epigram in the 1590s and early 1600s was "defined by two recurring patterns of movement," affective and social, or the movement of the humors in a vividly somatized environment (where poems used the force of wit to "bite and burn," "wound and purge," "infect and cure") and the movement of bodies in the urban space of London. This double structure results in "a compelling fusion in which humoral affect becomes inseparable from urban affect, the corporal body blending with the corporations of London," and the reader is welcomed to move and be moved in bodily as well as city space (158). Epigrams, moreover, "show a crucial contradiction in early modern culture: they assert autonomy manifested in a desire to move at will, but also demonstrate how movements are caught in the boundaries of the body and the city" (158). Framed by attention to the satire and the epigram in Much Ado About Nothing, the essay proceeds to demonstrate how the epigram in various forms ("as public institution, as journey, as ritualized protest, and as Inns of Court poem") "presents the competing forces of tightly controlled social boundaries and new habits of aggressive movement" (166).

Shifting from the motions of the body and the city to that of the soul, Margaret Healy's "Poetic 'making' and moving the soul" turns to theories of the poetic imagination with particular attention to the power rather than the dangers of the frenzy or furor as a force of literary invention. Resisting earlier narratives that focused on the dangers of imagination unhinged from reason, Healy argues for the intensely passionate, suprarational powers of poetic inspiration as it was understood to possess "superior powers to affect the bodies, minds, and behavior of readers and listeners" (175). She considers the influence of continental Neoplatonism on writers including George Puttenham and Philip Sidney as it led to the promulgation of "divine fury," and explores links between ecstatic devotion, Neoplatonism, and poetic inspiration that informed works by authors ranging from the Henry Vaughan to Thomas Wright, despite the difficulty of finding "a constructive middle way between the intellectual and the affective in this period" (181). Indeed, "courtesy of early seventeenth-century Neoplatonic aesthetic theory, poetic genius and prophecy could only emanate from the suprarational psyche--it necessitated passion and frenzy which, in spite of nice distinctions, must have seemed troublingly close to madness" (190).

The volume organizes the essays into three discreet parts, "Plays," "Playhouses," and "Poems." Since those categories do not necessarily hold and because they are not quite as helpful to the reader as they may at first seem, I have discussed the essays in this review out of sequence. That said, the editors' preference for sections that denote objects of analysis rather than conceptual continuities or problems may well be a function of the rich and variable range of approaches to sensation across the essays. The brilliant afterword by Bruce R. Smith suggests as much. In "Senses of an ending," Smith re-constellates the essays according to various cultural fictions of sensation, and the ends thereof, with which they are engaged. Sensations might be understood to end, that is, "in an act of intellection, judgment or control," "in persuasion to action," "in a state of heightened passion," "in purgation or cure," "in pleasure," "in poetic furor or sublimity" (210). Smith's essay elaborates on these stories of the senses and the affects and the fictions of teleology that frame them. His afterword works, on the one hand, to make sense of our contemporary fascination with "sensation," and on the other, to resist subjecting a complex, multidirectional, polyvalent world of sensation to linear logic or teleologically based forms of argumentation. "Sensations and affects demand that we deal with them on their own terms, and those terms do not fall easily into the linear logic of syntax." Smith thus gives retrospective structure to the volume while also expanding the genre and directionality of an "afterword," implicitly affirming the "flow" of sense throughout the volume. Shakespearean Sensations should be of interest to students and scholars of Shakespeare, emotion and early modern literary, philosophical, medical, religious, humanist, and urban cultures.
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Author:Mazzio, Carla
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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