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date: 15 August 2020

(p. 363) Embodied Worlds, Reconfigured Agencies

This section includes nine essays that consider the manifold ways in which Shakespearean texts participate in and foster a range of understandings of embodiment. These essays continue the previous section’s exploration of the human and the non-human as well as agency and temporality, while also examining norms of embodiment and the skills they require in terms of perception, language, disability, and play.

Presenting an expansive sense of ‘embodiment’ aligned with Raber’s use of cognitive ecology, Elizabeth D. Harvey focuses on the ‘traffic between the body’s interior and its surround’ in order to elucidate ‘the interplay among spirits, air, gender, eroticism, and the passions’ in The Tempest and Cymbeline. Arguing that Freud’s engagement with the spirit world, particularly through his concepts of the unconscious and the uncanny, echoes that of Shakespeare, Harvey’s examination of liminal states of consciousness exposes a ‘metonymic economy’ composed of animated spirits inside the body, the ambient air, and spirits existing outside the body. Just as ‘the unconscious and the uncanny continually unsettle the properties of the animate and inanimate … early modern spirits move transgressively between worlds, destabilizing the margins of self and surround’. Her analysis of ‘distinct manifestations of human consciousness’ (including ‘passional feeling, imagination, language, and gendered eroticism’) opens onto ‘the dialectic of servitude, freedom, and empathy’ in the interface between Prospero and the ‘airy spirit’ Ariel, revealing their interaction to be its own ‘weather system’. She reveals, as well, that spirits in Cymbeline—considered as (p. 364) ‘its apparitions, musical airs, the ghosts of dead family, the movements of divine will, the yearning of desire’—are ‘the most touching aspects of the play’.

Similarly interested in historically specific modes of emotion and consciousness and their imbrication in collective agencies, Mario DiGangi situates his analysis of moral conscience through the lens of historicized affect theory. As Denise Albanese describes affect theory in her essay in Part VII, it

… defers larger-scale questions of investment—of passions written in primary colours and motivated by clear lines of battle—onto more minor formations, onto those elusive and quotidian adaptations that characterize mixed states of feeling in compromised times like the present, when myriad problems on a local and global scale can be seen clearly enough but when the means of remedying them—indeed, of even imagining how they might be remedied—seem to recede ever further from our grasp.

DiGangi’s reading of the intersubjective, homosocial merging of ‘weak’ affects, which structure Shakespeare’s depictions of assassins’ ethical ruminations prior to committing homicide, conjoins the notion of affects as a shared structure with a historicist exploration of ‘conscience’. DiGangi thereby exposes the ‘modes of political agency’ available to the two Executioners in Richard III and Hubert in King John, offering their plights as paradigmatic instances of the recursive, material exchanges that structure the kind of agency ‘available to those on the margins of power’. While the ‘entanglements’ eventuating out of these negotiations are strikingly different, both plays reveal ‘how intimacies between men can shape ethical and political choices in ways that do not always serve the ends of those who wield the most power’.

DiGangi’s goal to expand notions of political agency dovetails with Amanda Bailey’s posthumanist analysis of the politics of consent, personhood, and personification in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Using early modern legal texts, especially the common law of contract, to examine the ‘philosophical stakes of personhood’, she presents legal personification as ‘an enabling condition of the collective rather than a crisis of the individual’. Like Hubert and Arthur’s past intimacy in King John, the memory of ‘incorporation’ narrated by Helena about her prior bond to Hermia renders their attachment ‘a collective formation comprised of hands, sides, voices, and minds melded into an assemblage that reaches beyond the boundaries of the autonomous human’. Read in similar terms, Bottom’s metamorphosed body becomes an ‘artificial assemblage’ due not only to its ‘translation’ into something else, but because his desire for attachment extends outward towards multiple affiliations. Given the ‘transactional force of bonds’, consent becomes a ‘redistributive site’ unbounded by a single human body.

The notion that political agency might be distributed through artificial means is evident as well in Gina Bloom’s exploration of why The Tempest thematizes dynastic marriage by means of a game of chess. She argues that the audience’s embodied knowledge of the game, both in the early modern period and today, can alter understandings of temporality and, by extension, the ‘progress’ narrative of dynastic marriage. The logic implicit in dynastic marriage, she notes, is that ‘the conflicts of the past can be remedied in the present through a marriage that will ensure peace in the future’. Both Shakespeare and Walter Benjamin, she observes, offer ‘chess as a material analogy for an alternate conception of history’, one that challenges the understanding of history as teleological progress. When viewed in terms of phenomenology, the depiction of the chess game between Miranda and Ferdinand (p. 365) ‘troubles conventional historicist approaches’ insofar as it ‘invites theatregoers to approach history as they would a game of chess, wherein players and spectators inhabit multiple temporal frames simultaneously’. Her approach offers ‘insights that a literary symbolic reading (which focuses on chess as primarily a metaphor or abstract representation) can miss’. When Ferdinand cheats at chess and Miranda pauses their game to accuse him, ‘she interrupts the steady march of Prospero’s plot to marry her to Ferdinand and thus makes space for theatre spectators to rethink Prospero’s conception of dynastic marriage as progressive, teleological history’. Spectators, in turn, are solicited to ‘repurpose’ their gaming competency to develop skills in both interpreting history and consuming theatre.

That chess is not only an assemblage but a kind of prosthesis connecting bodies and minds to those of others is an idea that links Bloom’s analysis to two essays informed by disability studies, both of which take up, if only to leave behind, the foremost ‘standard bearer’ of disability, Shakespeare’s Richard III. Observing that ‘Richard represents more than a character to be interpreted. He sets into motion an allegory of interpretation without which the existence of disability studies would be hard to imagine’, disability theorist Tobin Siebers considers whether other Shakespearean examples of disability might provide more analytical traction. Offering a primer on five ‘tenets’ of this field, Siebers shows how Falstaff and Ophelia could be employed to advance a theory of ‘complex embodiment’ that defies the ‘diagnostic reading’ characteristic of both social and medical models of disability. His proposed theory ‘allows for the acknowledgement of negative meanings among the multiple values of disability representation’ as well as recognition that the social model of disability is inadequate to ‘disabilities that cannot be managed by making changes in the built or social environment’. As figured in Falstaff and Ophelia, a theory of complex embodiment evolves from the specific knowledge born of experiences of disability: Falstaff’s ‘theatricality’ is a survival technique that stems from passing as able-bodied, while Ophelia’s ‘madness’ is a response to the ‘disablement’ of gender. The knowledge born of disabled embodiment teaches ‘that disability is both affected by environments and changed by the diversity of bodies’, and this knowledge can be used to theorize ‘the ways that environment and embodiment mutually transform one another’. Disability, from this perspective, ‘is a body of knowledge—a collection of skills, qualities, properties, and characteristics, among other things—both driven by the built environment and transformed by the variety and features of bodies’.

Vin Nardizzi also challenges some of the limitations of disability studies, arguing that a too narrow focus on obvious bodily impairments reduces understanding of the meanings of disability in the early modern era. Treating ‘disability’ and its cognates as keywords, he reveals their function in the Shakespearean corpus by demonstrating their co-articulation with ideas of gender, sexuality, social rank, and nationality. Disability ‘figures’ in Shakespeare both rhetorically and as a form of figuration. ‘Disable’ is used to mark ‘an incapacitation of masculine self-assurance and a sapping of vigour’; it typically is not imposed from without, but depends on male characters voluntarily ‘disabling’ themselves through creative acts of prosthesis: ‘ “to be disabled” is, with one exception in the dramatic canon, a state that male characters wilfully bring upon themselves’. Relatedly, the image of the crutch, so important to today’s discourse of disability, is in Shakespearean drama primarily a figure that conveys concerns about genealogical continuity.

Nardizzi’s historicist scrutiny of a keyword reminds us of the alterity of early modern language: despite the fact that ‘disable’ is both Shakespeare’s word and ours, the term’s early (p. 366) modern meaning does not map onto present-day concepts. Likewise focused on the alterity of early modern language, Rubright challenges the ‘myth of monolingualism’ in Henry the Fifth. Using the multiple meanings of ‘incorporation’ as a lynchpin for her analysis of ‘the interlacing of Katherine’s somatic, sexual, and linguistic subjugations’, Rubright re-examines feminist truisms about the link between sexualized bodies and the English language, finding in them ‘a powerful but too-limited sense of the relation of language, embodiment, and agency in this play’. Directing ‘attention to the play’s process of displaying different and competing models of linguistic incorporation’, she argues that previous feminist criticism installed ‘an implied, but not fully explored, conception of language that is complicit with the somatic logic that construes bodies-in-parts as bodies “broken”, “dismembered”, “disadvantaged”, and “discredited” ’. The language lesson she offers, in contrast, shows that this play construes neither languages nor bodies as ‘unified, integrated, and whole’. Terming the fantasy of such wholeness ‘presumptive monolingualism’, she tracks how it has ‘catalysed a critical tendency to think of the linguistic exchanges between Henry and Kate in terms of translation’ rather than in terms of the doubleness that is embedded in the incorporation of French words into English. Tracing this doubleness in spelling and typography as well as editorial decisions about them, she argues that English monolingualism is ‘a position Henry adopts in relation to Kate, not simply a cultural or characterological feature he displays’. At the same time, Kate’s speech illuminates ‘the fictionality of this myth, as well as the logic that subtends it’, and allows us to see ‘the ways in which the play displays language exceeding the politics to which it is put in service by history’s conquerors’.

Both Rubright and Feerick counter an unduly homogenous view of England’s populace by showing that it was understood in the period as ‘being grafted together with “foreign” kinds’. One of the most important contributions of feminist thinking about race and ethnicity—evident in the essays by Akhimie, Bartels, Feerick, and Loomba—is the extent to which, whether naturalized as inherited inferiority or celebrated as the fruit of a hybrid stock, it was yoked to understandings of reproduction. Race, in the words of Akhimie, was believed to be ‘not only natural, but hereditary, not only indelible but endowed at birth’. It is not surprising, therefore, that reproduction is also a primary technology for maintaining the social hierarchy of rank. Ari Friedlander’s reading of The Winter’s Tale details how social status is entwined with gender and sexuality by virtue of the community’s investment in regulating female sexuality in terms of the ‘legal institutions dependent on community participation’. When approached in the context of the prosecution of sexual immorality by ecclesiastical courts and the monitoring of illegitimate reproduction encouraged by the Poor Laws, the play’s treatment of elites is shown to depend on ‘lower-class communal mechanisms of sexual regulation’. Its ‘invocation of the socio-economic context of vagrancy and bastardy’, in particular, draws parallels between the sexuality of the ‘rogue’ and the noble but ‘illegitimate bastard’; in this respect, Autolycus ‘is not so much Perdita’s opposite as her dark shadow’. This parallel, which exposes noble purity of blood as a fiction, nullifies the possibility that Perdita’s chastity could be ‘the solution to the problem of securing patriarchy that the first half of the play dramatizes’. Ultimately, ‘the play produces sexualized noble bodies through lower-class rituals, a political reconfiguration of social difference that is simultaneously a critique of royal bodily privilege and a celebration of the social production and reproduction of gendered, sexualized, and classed bodies in early modern England’.

(p. 367) Also focused on reproduction in The Winter’s Tale, the final essay of this section shifts the angle of vision to unexpected connections between humans and animals in the matter of maternity. Arguing that ‘the closer kinship of humanity and animals’ in the early modern period may help us ‘understand the propriety of the singular stage direction in The Winter’s Tale “exit pursued by a bear” ’, Maureen Quilligan links three ‘spectacular’ bodies in the play: the bear, which provides the dramatic hinge between tragedy and comedy; the ‘statue’ of the final act, which brings about dramatic resolution; and the amply pregnant Hermione. She insists that the statue is a material, living body rather than theatrical artifice, and, crucially, the ‘same woman who was pregnant in the first scenes’. Tracing the use of bears as actors as well as depictions in bestiaries that link maternity to an ursine animality, she argues that the discursive associations among these three bodies create the basis for the play’s celebration of a ‘natural animality that inhabits the powerful materiality of time: birthing, eating, ageing, and dying’. Her consideration of ‘the temporal physicality’ that ‘humanity shares with all other creatures’, while focused on the ageing female body, echoes concerns with the embodiment of temporality evident in the essays by Stockton, Frye, Wall, Bloom, Schwarz, and McLuskie; and it shares with Waldron, Raber, and Feerick a desire to expand our consideration of embodiment beyond the human. (p. 368)