Differing Returns: On History, Bodies and Early Modern Lives

David Hillman. Shakespeare’s Entrails: Belief, Scepticism and the Interior of the Body. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Elena Levy-Navarro. The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity: Body Image in Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Skelton. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Laurie Johnson
University of Southern Queensland

Laurie Johnson. “Differing Returns: On History, Bodies and Early Modern Lives” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 14.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/johnretu.html>.

  1. Two books out of the same publishing house within a year of each other, and both concerned with bodily matters in Shakespeare and early modern literature: this is an opportune moment, perhaps, to take stock of the state of play in the “return to the body” in early modern literary studies. During the past two decades, Shakespeare and his contemporaries have been busying themselves with becoming reconstituted in the work of scholars seeking to restore to the literature of the time its fleshy grist. Out of the historicist moment of the 1970s and 1980s, marked most prominently perhaps by the work of the two Stephens – Greenblatt and Orgel – scholarship began to concern itself less with viewing the literature of the early moderns from the standpoint of the critic and more with relocating the words on the page in the lived practices of early modern life. In Shakespeare studies, of course, this involved getting the words very clearly off the page and placing them back into the theatre, with all of the attendant concerns for the role of the theatre in early modern social life that this entails. This historicist moment gave rise, I think, to a related interest in the mid-1990s with the bodies of the early moderns: once we found ourselves roaming around the Globe and the surrounding streets, we could not help but bump into people – actors, audiences, merchants, monarchs, a myriad of city dwellers, and of course playwrights – whose bodies fleshed out these spaces in which we had become so very interested. I make such observations not to decry this “return to the body” in early modern studies; on the contrary, I have found myself drawn compellingly toward this field after years of turning away from Shakespeare studies, precisely because of a keen interest in issues of embodiment. Indeed, I make these observations to point out that scholars have been doing body work in early modern studies for some time now and, more importantly, they have been doing history work for even longer. The bar has been well and truly set, and the standard that any author now working in this area must aim to achieve is high.

  2. The reader may sense that this opening claim is made in order to set both books up for a fall. This is not my intention; rather, I want to frame any criticisms of either book, from the outset, within the context of these high expectations that I imagine an academic reader of work in this field will now possess. To be fair to the authors, too, the tasks they have set for themselves are no small matter, and so the reader is given ample grounds to have high expectations. David Hillman, for example, begins in quite modest fashion by stating that Shakespeare’s Entrails is “about the place of ‘visceral knowledge’ in Shakespeare’s plays” (1) but moves quickly over the next few pages to establish a project of far greater reach: to identify in “paradigm shifts taking place in religious, national, architectural, philosophical and, especially, medico-physiological spheres” evidence of what Norbert Elias dubbed homo clausus, or “the transition from a porous humoral model of the body to the circulatory one which gradually displaced – and indeed finally eviscerated – it” (7). Were Hillman’s project ultimately about the place of visceral knowledge in a number of plays, the task would be straightforward, to be sure, but this expanded goal of establishing proof of the widespread uptake in Renaissance culture of a concept that then remained unnamed until Elias’s History of Manners (1978) gives to the book its broad reach. Similarly, Elena Levy-Navarro’s The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity captures a broad historical reach in the terms spelled out here in the title: early and late modernity. Her goal is to write a “fat history” in competition with a “modern history” written by and for those who adhere to a progressive view of history “according to which obesity becomes that which obstructs us from achieving our idealized end” (19-20). Her approach, as the subtitle suggests, is to orient this fat history toward its early modern origins in Body Image in Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Skelton.

  3. My concern for both of these books is that neither fully delivers what it sets out to achieve, given both the existing levels of expectation for what we might call history work in scholarship within this area and the goals each sets for itself. The overarching problem that presents itself for both authors is what to do with the present in working with the past. Levy-Navarro begins this book, whose title claims for it a concern with both early and late modernity, with an extended diatribe against the culture of obesity in latter day America and elsewhere. She does not shrink from the fact that her goal is to write counter to the current trend of identifying body image with a capacity to make a viable contribution to society, where larger is always viewed as less valuable. After a full chapter devoted to debunking many modern myths about obesity, Levy-Navarro turns her attention to the figure of Gluttony in the fourteenth-century Piers Plowman by William Langland, only to preface her reading of the text with the disclaimer that modern confusions about obesity “make it likely that we will misread iconographical figures such as Gluttony” in early modern literature (35). It is at this early juncture in the book that a reader might be forgiven for wondering why so much space had been devoted to the culture of obesity in late modernity if the end result was going to be a likelihood of misreading the early modern texts with which the book was going to be primarily concerned hereafter. We remind ourselves, however, that the book claims to be concerned with both early and late modernity, so perhaps the manoeuvre is quite a necessary one, albeit a little awkward, to enable the traversal from the late to the early modern focus of the book. Yet in what follows – in the readings of body image in the work of Shakespeare et al – the reader will become gradually mindful that there will be no equally necessary manoeuvre from the early back to the late modern. The book finishes with a chapter on Ben Jonson’s multiple constructions of body images whose meanings are always open for negotiation and manipulation based on the immediate context in which they are deployed, and only on the last page do we find a similarly awkward step back into late modernity, with the observation that modern readers will do well to learn the lesson from Jonson by responding to the bodies we see before us in a more “human way,” with a view to appreciating our multiple “weights” (191).

  4. Such an ending does not do justice to the level of insight and rigour on offer for the greater part of this book. The reader will no doubt be left wondering why an extra few pages were not devoted to a more detailed conclusion to flesh out the relationship between the cultures of the early and late moderns – I use the pun here deliberately, of course, with good reason: given that Levy-Navarro rails against late modernity’s view of largesse as a bad thing, to round out the book so abruptly with such a “thin” ending seems like a late modern approach to the issue of bringing things to a conclusion. The lack of a detailed conclusion is also a problem for Hillman’s book – instead of having a separate concluding chapter, as such, there is simply a brief page-long Coda inserted at the end of the final chapter on The Winter’s Tale – although the issue is not exactly the same as for Levy-Navarro. With Hillman, there is no claim to be writing counter to an established cultural myth, and so the polemical imperative is not as strong. Yet it is the case, as I noted above, that the book claims throughout to be seeking proof in the early modern period of the general applicability of the concept of homo clausus. There are moments, indeed, when the book simply begs the question: in mapping the presence of sceptical thought in The Winter’s Tale in the final chapter, Hillman looks to the prevalence of homo clausus as a guarantor of the necessity of a newly emergent scepticism at this time and writes, “if I am right about the prevalence of the notion of homo clausus in early modernity, then the historical insulation of the body’s interior is inseparable from the diffusion of profoundly sceptical modes of thought in this world” (155). That this premise hinges on a speculative “if I am right” is overlooked in what follows, as the link between the insulation of the body’s interior and sceptical thought is assumed thereafter as having already been established. The argument really needed to be more conclusively developed, in my opinion, with more comprehensive closing discussion of the nature of historical evidence, the relationship between the literature covered in the book and its social function, and so on. Admittedly, these are tropes of historicist literary studies that may be overly familiar to the reader, but given the case that Hillman wants to make here, they nevertheless form a necessary methodological terrain.

  5. Instead of traversing this terrain, Hillman’s approach to the question of what to do with the present leads him to undertake some significant shortcuts. Whereas Levy-Navarro is deeply committed to writing counter to modern thought, Hillman regularly seeks refuge in the thought of more modern thinkers in order to explain phenomena of the early modern period. Much of the first chapter is dedicated to psychoanalytic ideas about the body and its relationship to the mind, as though the post-Cartesian project of resituating mental phenomena inside corporeal processes brings us closer to thinking in ways that can approximate a pre-Cartesian mindset. Throughout the book, then, the work of more recent thinkers is used as a way of gaining access to early modern ideas. The result is that readers may frequently find themselves imagining that the proof of the prevalence of homo clausus in early modern thought is not to be found in the early modern texts Hillman reads; rather, the proof can be derived from the thought of post-Cartesian thinkers. This proof seems to be even most insistent for Hillman at moments of misreading of early modern texts by more modern readers: the chapter on Hamlet is framed by a concern with Nietzsche’s mistaken claim in The Gay Science that Hamlet swallowed “men like oysters” (qtd. 81). The point is, Hamlet did not say “oysters,” to be sure, yet Hillman’s reading of Hamlet is then guided by wanting to find out what in the play might have prompted the mistake by Nietzsche. What is not established with any degree of certainty is why the answer to this question would bring us any closer to the prevalence of homo clausus in early modern thought, although this is precisely the significance that Hillman attaches to this slippery parapraxis: “Nietzsche’s enigmatic alimentary choice seems to imply a whole world-view, one that reflects what I have been describing as the sceptic’s corporeal understanding of selfhood” (81-82). I would not wish to be decrying the practice of framing our understanding of the early modern world with newer modes of thought. After all, the very practice of history requires the author to think the past according to a more recent methodological framework. Yet it is worth noting that the vast array of eminent thinkers deployed by Hillman to access early modern thought do not in any way constitute a coherent framework of this kind. Even amidst the deployment of psychoanalytic luminaries such as Freud, Lacan, and Winnicott, there is no mention of the significant differences between these thinkers on fundamental aspects of psychoanalytic theory and the approach each takes to matters of corporeality. Instead, all modern thinkers are imbued with an amorphous authority or truth value and then turned toward an early modern text.

  6. To be fair to Hillman, and indeed to his credit, these are issues that are attendant on a doctoral dissertation undertaken in fragmented fashion over a long period, and in his prefatory comments, these very issues are raised by the author with humility. The project began in the 1990s, when the return to the body in early modern studies was in utero, shall we say, and was left to one side while a new career pathway was pursued. Rather than critique the book on the basis of an inability of the sum of its parts to pull together with the full force of the argument which frames it, perhaps we may do well to read the book as an artefact of its fragmented production, and appreciate it for the opportunity it provides to witness a snapshot of a project undertaken throughout the duration of the return to the body in early modern studies. Hillman admits that “These pages undoubtedly show evidence of the layering of different periods and the writing selves that went into their making,” and the second chapter, “in particular (on Troilus and Cressida), seems to me now to bear the marks of youthful indiscretion, but I have decided to leave it more or less alone, in part as an acknowledgement of the passage of time and of my intellectual trajectory during the project as a whole” (x). The marks of youthful indiscretion and the passage of time are, I think, also neat allegories for the intellectual trajectory of the broader project of returning the body to the reading of early modern texts throughout this same period. That the Troilus and Cressida chapter tends to focus on corporeality in quite general terms as a broad-ranging concept with equally broad questions attached to it – in order to argue for the link between corpora and philosophy writ large – and that the body is treated for the most part as an integral whole by virtue of its presentation as that which is wholly threatened by the practice of cannibalism are symptomatic to some extent of many of the early studies of bodies in Renaissance play texts and stagecraft from the early 1990s. Other chapters of this book bear witness to a more subtle understanding of the need to critically examine the very terms by which we seek to understand the relationship between body and mind, as is equally true, I suggest, of more recent work since the late 1990s on early modern cognition, language and textuality by Jonathan Gil Harris, Gail Kern Paster, Michael Schoenfeldt, and even Hillman himself (see, for example, his own work in The Body in Parts from 1998, of which he was a co-editor and which was drawn from the work that is now reproduced in its entirety as Shakespeare’s Entrails), and others.

  7. To pull together these critiques of two recent books on bodies in early modern thought, then, it may be worthwhile returning to the point about the high standards that readers will by now expect in relation to both body work, as it were, and history work. I have focused for the most part here on the problems encountered by each of these books in their approach to handling the present in its relation to the past. Levy-Navarro, by virtue of seeking explicitly to write a “fat history” that opposes modern history, is of course doing history work everywhere in The Culture of Obesity, but it often is deliberately of a kind that may at times be unrecognizable to the reader. For Hillman, by contrast, the pathway to the past is often to bypass history altogether by reading historical texts through the lens of a latter day theoretical framework. It is for these reasons that I suspect readers accustomed with the modes of historical inquiry embraced in early modern studies over the last three to four decades may be at least disappointed by both books, to some extent. In Levy-Navarro, perhaps, they may find more cause for celebration on the basis of an explicit historiographical undertaking. If we focus instead on what may be called the body work undertaken in these two books, I suspect the reader may find more merit in both, and if enlisted to rate them might be inclined to give the gong to Hillman. If we discard the beginnings and endings of both books, I suggest, and focus on the bodies of each – another deliberate pun – the reader will find an abundance of useful information to support rereading some canonical and not so canonical early modern texts on the basis of a desire to suspend the Cartesian reading that puts mind before body. Thus, I do not wish to dismiss either book on the grounds that each struggles in its own way to successfully frame revisionary readings with the conundrums posed by modern thought. I simply forewarn the reader of these shortcomings so that it might be overlooked in favour of closer scrutiny on what each book does with its primary texts, for it is in this aspect that each book has many gems to offer.

  8. If I rate Hillman’s book more highly on this score of the body work done in each book, however, I must point out that it is largely because Shakespeare’s Entrails does not fall into the trap of uncritically elevating Shakespeare above his contemporaries and, let us be honest about this, this is because the book focuses on Shakespeare, so is not called to be drawn into such comparisons. In Levy-Navarro’s book, even the title gives away the preferential reading being afforded to Shakespeare: it identifies its key authors as Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Skelton, where the order certainly has no resemblance to the order in which the authors are presented in the book – chapters cover, in order, Skelton, Shakespeare, Middleton, and then Jonson – nor even a simple alphabetical priority. Instead, I suggest, Shakespeare is placed first as an indication of preference, and the rest are presented in alphabetical order. Alternatively, a reading of the chapters may suggest that Jonson is Levy-Navarro’s second favourite, Middleton next in order, and Skelton her least favourite author. This priority seems to be based on the capacity of each author to present a “fat” reading, over and above the trend of their contemporaries to adhere to an emerging “thin” view of the world. If Jonson has adopted a view that we moderns would do well to embrace, it is largely because he is already well immersed in a tradition of metatheatricality that enables his work to force its audience to reflect critically on the fat spectacles it presents. Shakespeare, on the other hand, stages the battle between the fat and thin views of the world through the changing relationship between Hal and Falstaff throughout the Henry plays. Yet I am not readily convinced by Levy-Navarro’s argument that Falstaff’s “fat” view is given a sympathetic treatment by Shakespeare in order to expose the cruelty inherent in the “thin” approach to progress and preferment. The word “Machiavellian” is not used in this discussion of Hal’s ruthless drive toward kingship, yet it seems everywhere to be the overarching imperative to which Levy-Navarro is referring. In both Middleton and Skelton, to be sure, there are competing discourses, yet Levy-Navarro is more willing to read in them a judgement in favour of the emerging thin morality.

  9. In Hillman’s book, on the other hand, there is less willingness to be drawn into a judgement of this kind. While it is true that the book focuses on Shakespeare, it is also important to point out that once Hillman gets past Nietzsche’s “oysters” and gets into body work in his reading of Hamlet, and when he continues apace with reading Lear in terms of the “somaticity of the language” (120) to address the notion that the play deals to a large extent to how matter and other bodies are taken in and cast out of the body, the body of Hillman’s book makes for compelling reading. Here is Shakespeare grappling with the issues of his time, rather than towering over his contemporaries by transgressing these issues in order to comment on them from a safe distance. This is, I would like to suggest, what defines good body work in modern scholarship: this is a Shakespeare in possession of entrails, for example, and deeply embedded – as well as embodied – in a world unthinkable only in terms of history work. As Hillman might suitably attest, and as his prefatory comments suggest, the need to do history well can sometimes possibly get in the way of coming to terms with early modern bodies, as or of themselves. Indeed, by far the most impressive aspects of Shakespeare’s Entrails, in the opinion of this reviewer at least, are to be located when the author focuses on the early modern primary text with a view to unravelling its rich somatic language, a language every bit as much in parts as the body on which it is modelled. This may be an opportune moment in the decades long history of the historicist movement in early modern studies – of which the return to the body seems to have been an offshoot, or even perhaps a subset – to learn the lesson that Hillman seems to have learned over the long duration of the project of writing this book: the time may well have come to be prepared to return to the body with the full force that such a return should demand, to be unafraid to bypass history where a focus on too much method might stand in the way of what was once the catchcry of the historian, to understand the past on its own terms.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).