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The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England.

Bold in its foundational imaginative acts, this book brings the physical body and bodily functions as represented in early modern drama to the center of a creative inquiry which blends feminism, historicism, materialism, anthropology, sociology, and psychoanalysis. Paster's initial assumption is that we experience our bodies - being in them, what and how they mean - differently from people in early modern England. Her overarching thesis is that the latter's culture "increasingly sought to regulate and regularize a subject's experience of his/her own body and relations with the bodies of others" (164). She takes as qualified guide for this claim the argument of Norbert Elias in The History of Manners (1939) concerning what she glosses as "the advance of the threshold of shame as a control mechanism of the civilizing process" (2). Paster explores humoral theory and uses it to organize her chapters around topics only apparently diverse - such topics as urination, breasts and breast-feeding, bleeding, and birth. A commitment to psychoanalysis leads her to focus on situations of embarrassment as instances of characterological trauma significant of larger cultural tensions, tensions produced by the historical solidification of bodily shame as "control mechanism."

There are dazzling readings here of plays and, especially, of particular dramatic moments. If the author of this study is a feminist Shakespearean who had reason during the 1980s to look upon the New Historicism without the aid of admiration, The Body Embarrassed is a rich response that addresses topics which new historicist critics have been slow to take up - and does so, ironically, by employing reading practices deeply influenced by such critics as Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Montrose. Indeed, Paster has learned from the New Historicism's habit of "close reading" (itself, of course, an inheritance of New Criticism), and sustains focus on textual passages to parse out meanings that many historicists have passed over. Already influential in article form and as lectures, Paster's arguments about the "leaky" women of Jacobean comedy and about issues surrounding the Nurse's embodied past with Juliet stand out. It should be remarked that the body of her title most often turns out to be female, or feminized - as in her reading of Julius Caesar, and perhaps in her treatment of the potential body reference, for its adolescent audience, of the missing "needle" in Gammer Gurton's Needle: "we discover that the proverbial phallus may be, like the proverbial needle, worthless, nonunique, and too tiny to find" (117).

Partiality like this is perhaps necessary to any groundbreaking study, and this is one such book. It might be worthwhile, however, to ask what gets left out. At first it seems inexplicable why the development of "humours comedy" (Chapman, Shakespeare, Jonson) in the late 1590s is not mentioned; when one considers that Paster's interests lie in the female or feminized body, however, the omission of the (frequently male-centered) comedy of humours is explained, though not entirely justified. Certainly there is much work to be done on how the construction of an embodied-subjectivity in the drama was affected by this genre. (And Jonson's "purge" of Marston in Poetaster ("Horace" purging "Crispinus") would have been a clearer example of the shameful emetic than Paster's provocative but finally less persuasive reading of Titania and Bottom.) Here Valerie Traub's challenging essay on Falstaff's grotesque and feminized body seems like a curious omission in Paster's text. In fact the author seems reluctant, generally, to cite critics who are less well established in the profession, something that gives this study strong links to a generation of Shakespeareans that often seems eager to talk amongst itself but less willing to engage in dialogue across generational lines.

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Author:Bruster, Douglas
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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