Embodying Shakespeare: Introduction

David McInnis
University of Melbourne

Brett D. Hirsch
University of Victoria

David McInnis and Brett D. Hirsch. “Embodying Shakespeare: Introduction.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 1.1-13 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/intro.html>.

  1. Is the body under siege in early modern literary studies? Despite being apologists for the study of the early modern body, Holly Dugan recently felt compelled to attempt a reconciliation of “Shakespearean studies” with “sensory history” as if the two could be mutually illuminating, but were still intuitively perceived as discrete fields (735), whilst Sean McDowell addressed concerns that “the physiological context has achieved the status of primary reading” (787). Few would claim that studies of the body are without merit; the contention is rather the issue of how relevant such studies are to the study of literature. Critical concerns about valuing the crutch more than the leg are hardly unique to the new phenomenological studies; indeed, similar concerns have been raised about each and every school of literary criticism that extends its purview beyond strictly Formalist practices. However, in the case of the new body scholarship in literary studies, we would argue that the distinction between the leg and the crutch, between literary text and physiological context, is essentially artificial. “Because human beings are not angels,” as Jerome J. McGann has noted, the “network of symbolic exchanges” that comprise “the practice and the study of human culture”—the “intercourse that is being human”—is “materially executed: as spoken texts or scripted forms” (3). Texts are materially constructed and consumed: whether by reading, writing, performing, observing, or listening, the body and its senses are the interface by which we enact and interact with texts. The new body scholarship brings to literary studies the recognition that texts are not only mediated by history or culture, time and space, but ultimately by individual (and collective) sensory perception, by the bodies of those that engage with them.

  2. We see the following collection of essays as serving a dual purpose: on the one hand, to continue (in a modest way) the pioneering work of early movers in this field in uncovering new directions for inquiry and explicating under-attended cultural phenomena that inform the literature of the period; on the other hand (an equally important aim), to consolidate that pioneering work by naturalising its assumptions and utilising them as the foundation for investigation. In other words, the following essays offer further evidence (if any were needed) that the new phenomenology studies have become so absorbed into early modern criticism that essays which could not have been written without our new understandings of the humoral body or ecologies of passions (for example) can now take this knowledge as a given and utilise it as a productive basis for less explicitly ‘body-related’ theses.

  3. Whilst all of the essays assembled here belong in some way to the domain of histories and theories of the body, they are by no means limited to explications of cultural phenomena and the work of social historians, but lead us (hopefully) to a deeper understanding, in diverse ways, of the literature of the early modern period. Jean E. Feerick’s reconsideration of generic mixing in Fletcher’s tragicomedy, The Island Princess (1621) addresses the domestic politics and “vexed social relations” (2) of a Jacobean England engaged in colonial exchanges as much as it attends to the East Indian Spice Islands of the play itself. Premised on a discussion of how the affects and bodily passions can transcend class boundaries—a discussion which would scarcely have been possible without the groundbreaking work of Gail Kern Paster et al, but which exceeds its critical indebtedness in forming its own sophisticated thesis—Feerick’s paper suggests that “the formal preferences that Fletcher’s plays embody serve to challenge the principles of difference underpinning the English social hierarchy” (2). Without falling into the pitfall of universalising, Feerick’s work implicitly shares Paster’s conviction that “there must be epistemic limits to the possible sweep of idiosyncratic thought” (Paster 23). Her argument is underpinned by a cautious assumption of a degree of bodily uniformity that allows people of all rank and station to be subject to the governing sway of affective passions; but Feerick progresses beyond the insights of the new body scholarship to build an argument from the physiological to the social, advancing (in the process) a thesis about the mutually-constructive roles of generic mixing and class-mobility in late Jacobean society.

  4. Bruce R. Smith’s contribution to this special issue begins boldly with a very literal embodiment of Shakespeare: video footage of Californian actor Chris Garcia performing a sonnet in American Sign Language. Smith’s provocative use of ASL provides the basis for his claim that gesture precedes speech (and thus signals the embodied nature of language); a claim supported by the alternative interpretation his article offers of Bulwer’s classic diagrams. Smith’s fascinating new take on the semiotics/somatics relationship demonstrates an innovative way for the study of the body to lead to new interpretations of literary texts and a reconfigured understanding of reading practices.

  5. Intervening in a recent debate about Jewish identity and the role of conversion, Brett D. Hirsch begins, like Feerick and Smith, with the physical body: as a site of contested social meaning. As with a significant amount of recent scholarship on Jews in England, the focus here is less theological than physiological; the dominant context for Hirsch’s claims is the contested mutability of Jewish bodies. Disputing the purported exceptionality of the Jewish daughter-figure through appeal to “the blood logic and incipient racial thinking that cemented Jewish identity as immutable and essentially different” (4), Hirsch expands his purview to a polemical argument about socially constructed categories of difference, and religious / proto-racial concerns in early modern English culture and drama. Unlike Feerick’s premise that bodies (or bodily affects) can transcend class difference, Hirsch’s article offers an historicised account of how socially constructed difference is reinforced by perceived bodily difference.

  6. Two essays re-read Hamlet whilst attuned to early modern phenomenology issues, providing very different analyses in both scope and direction. In “Hamlet, the Pirate’s Son,” Mary Floyd-Wilson continues her ground-breaking work on geohumoralism with a new reading of the supposedly absurd episode of Hamlet’s capture by pirates en route to England. In contrast to the immutable Jewish body discussed by Hirsch, Floyd-Wilson argues that Hamlet’s “recuperation of his ethnic identity” in the assertion, “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.250-51), may be connected to the unstaged (though reported) pirate episode (7), and that “external forces—environmental and historical—transform the prince outwardly” in temperament during this excursion (11). As with her earlier work (2003), the model on which this paper is predicated consists of a “fluid and malleable” body which is subject to alteration by its environment (Paster et al 5). Through the application of new phenomenology, Floyd-Wilson’s reading proposes an alternative to the “awkward contrivance” of the “pirates’ off-stage appearance” (1) that so troubled generations of earlier critics who were concerned with the clumsiness of this seemingly unnecessary plot device.

  7. Where Floyd-Wilson re-reads Hamlet with an eye on geohumoral concerns from the period, Jennifer Rae McDermott re-reads Hamlet with an eye on early modern sense-theory. Her study is concerned with “the senses as attentive intelligencers” (1) and how “philosophers, poets, anatomists, and religious orators conceptualize the senses as subject to an internal rule known as attention” (2). This nuanced understanding of how the senses function in Hamlet (used here as an exemplary instantiation of early modern thought on the subject) yields an historically-informed analysis of the relationship between spying and spectatorship (and the need to remain “attent”), as McDermott’s article “traces the idea of sensory attention as it is made manifest in Hamlet in order to interrogate the nature of attent spectatorship” itself (2).

  8. In response to concerns that the new phenomenology may be construed as “primarily an investigation of cultural phenomena” (McDowell 787), it might be acknowledged that certainly, where a topic has received inadequate attention, there is a tendency to overcompensate by fleshing out the cultural context before a more traditional literary analysis is asserted; but where this is the case, it should serve as a gentle reminder that there is still so much left to learn about the complexities and nuances of early modern conceptions of the body. Treating relatively under-appreciated topics in this fashion are the studies by Edward J. Geisweidt and David McInnis. In “Horticulture of the Head: The Vegetable Life of Hair in Early Modern English Thought,” Geisweidt divides space between new inroads into cultural phenomena (plants as “hairy forms of life” [8], and thus hair as vegetative) and subsequently the literary interpretations yielded thereby. Combining elements of the new historical phenomenology with ecocriticism, Geisweidt pursues the “affinity between human bodies and plants” (1) that have been overlooked in favour of attending to the perceived human/animal divide. In “Mind-Travelling, Ideal Presence and the Imagination in Early Modern England,” David McInnis investigates reading practices in conjunction with early modern theories of the imagination. Taking its cue from the unusual affliction of Peregrine Joyless in Brome’s The Antipodes, who is obsessed with reading accounts of fantastic travel and has grown demented through his own involuntary inertia, McInnis’s article poses such questions as: How does the immaterial self relate to its material surrounds? How does the imagination manifest itself physically in the body? What kind of activity is reading—mental or bodily? And is it possible to ‘travel’ without ‘travail’?

  9. The soul/body split is imagined differently by Fiona Martin, as the dynamic interaction between “spiritual concerns for the soul of the condemned and a darkly comic, carnivalesque preoccupation with the physicality of death” (7), in her study of exemplary scaffold behaviour and dramatized defiance of convention. With attention to Marston’s The Insatiate Countess (1613) and Fletcher and Massinger’s Sir John Olden Barnavelt (1619), Martin demonstrates how condemned bodies performed scaffold conventions, and how familiarity with execution rituals contributed to early modern stagecraft. Her mixture of embodiment criticism with performance criticism and theatre history yields insights that extend beyond the physical body to questions of stagecraft and statecraft alike, her article treating public executions as state-endorsed spectacles of power.

  10. The essays that follow by Darryl Chalk and Ariane M. Balizet are both in some way interested in the problem of how literally to interpret metaphoric language about the body. Beginning with the “metaphorisation of theatre as plague” (2), Chalk examines Timon of Athens in conjunction with the antitheatricalists’ assault on playing in early modern England and Artaud’s theories of the stage in the twentieth century. As with Feerick’s suggestion of “affective exchange” between characters “but also between actor and audience” (10), Chalk investigates the possibility that “in antitheatrical literature the minds and bodies of the players and spectators were not merely poisoned or altered by the potential narcotic efficacy of theatre, they were infected” (8), and thus liable to infect others. Just as the mind-travelling reader of McInnis’s paper can incur bodily travail through imagining their journey, the actors’ bodies examined by Chalk are liable to corruption through the external simulation entailed in personating a character; a contamination which can further be transmitted to the playgoer. This connection between plague and theatre, Chalk argues, exists not just in the polemical tracts of the antitheatricalists, but (surprisingly) “in the plays themselves” (3), which engage with such antitheatrical discourse—albeit in a parodic manner in the case of Timon. In this context of psychic/moral contagion, Timon’s misanthropy becomes a kind of infectious antitheatricalism or “communicable passion” (13).

  11. Ariane M. Balizet’s article is similarly concerned with the “figurative language of embodiment” (6) and the physicalisation of metaphors in early modern society, but in the context of domestic ideals rather than communicable disease. Focusing on an unexpected link between the ostensible tranquility of domesticity and the violence of dismemberment (which the author identifies as a significant tropic pattern in Romeo and Juliet), Balizet’s essay “reveals the extent to which early modern models of domestic order depend upon fantasies of corporeal violence” (2). Whilst normative views of domesticity insist on cohesion and completeness through bodily analogies, anxiety over the vulnerability of the physical body undermines the power of the metaphor as Romeo and Juliet “dramatizes the dismemberment of patriarchal domestic authority” (32) through a rhetoric and display of physical violence.

  12. Whilst Chalk and Balizet are ostensibly concerned with the tension between bodily metaphors and the literal body, the essays that follow by Joyce Green MacDonald and Helen Ostovich focus on the ways in which bodies in Shakespeare’s plays either inform or are transformed by representations in other texts. Joyce Green MacDonald’s article addresses an important and hitherto underexplored topic of the signification of Ovid, Plutarch, and Virgil in the fashioning of Antony’s body in Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s re-envisioning and deviation from the play’s classical antecedents are closely examined by MacDonald, who argues that Antony and Cleopatra is “both deeply engaged with myths of transformation” and “ deeply committed to its Plutarchan narrative source,” and that by “cross[ing] myth with its historical sources” the play constructs Antony’s body as “both fallibly human, and as aspiring toward the divine” (1).

  13. Finally, Helen Ostovich’s article offers a re-evaluation of Macbeth’s weird sisters, whom she argues might be closer in conception to the “blackly comic covens of mothers and grandmothers” that are found in Jonson’s Masque of Blackness and Middleton’s The Witch (2). By situating the witches found in Jonson, Middleton, and even (Franco-Belgian-Canadian cartoon) The Triplets of Belleville as replications of the weird sisters—as “creations which spin out of one another and return” (5)—Ostovich suggests an alternative way of viewing the witches in Macbeth, not as negative characters but “as critical responses to a community in which patriarchal disorder is so pervasive” that “only a matriarchal parody” can offer “escape to a new order” (14).


The theme for this collection of essays emerged from the 2008 meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association (ANZSA <http://www.anzsa.org>) at the University of Otago (Dunedin, NZ). In addition to acknowledging the encouragement and assistance of the conference delegates, we would especially like to extend our thanks to Lyn Tribble and Penny Gay for organising that event, and for their continued support of its print-afterlife in the form of this present issue of EMLS.

Works Cited



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).