REVIEW ESSAY: Shakespeare’s emotional turn

mcilvennaDr Una McIlvenna is Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at the University of Kent. From 2011-2014 she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at the University of Sydney, where her project investigated the emotional impact of execution ballads in early modern Europe. Here she explores two new edited collections about Shakespeare and emotions for the History of Emotions Blog.

Shakespeare and Emotions: Inheritances, Enactments, Legacies, eds. R. S. White, Mark Houlahan and Katrina O’Loughlin (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, eds. Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015)

In November 2015 the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions marked its seventh anniversary. The Centre for the History of Emotions at the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development In Berlin has also been around since 2008, and in Australia, the national Research Council funded a Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions in 2011. So with all this research what have we learned? What sort of impact have three international research centres had on the study of emotions in the past? Two recent publications on emotions in early modern literature offer an opportunity to take stock, to assess whether the ‘emotional turn’ in the humanities has provided a genuinely new way for literary scholars to approach our discipline.

At a grand total of 32 essays between them (not including introductions and afterwords), these two collections on emotions in literature are testament to the vibrancy of interest in early modern emotions. They also demonstrate the diversity of approaches that can be brought to the subject, not surprising when literature can be argued to be the pure expression of emotion itself. This diversity likely explains why both volumes break up their essays into three somewhat similar sections, devoting the first section to the cultural influences on, and sources used by, early modern writers; the middle section to the assessment of emotions in the literary works themselves; and the final section to performance and cultural engagement, both historical and present-day. In some cases a single emotion, such as happiness or regret, or a key word, such as spleen, have been thoroughly investigated to understand what they might have signified 400 years ago; in other cases, contributors look at a single play, text, or even scene through the lens of emotion; while others provide an assessment of the approach to emotions used across a writer’s entire oeuvre.

Given the large number of essays and the range of subjects they cover, it would be hard to give each the thorough review they deserve. Instead, I approached each essay with two core questions in mind. First, does the research offer me new insights into the play, text, or author that make me read it again with new eyes? And second, given that the true mark of the success of a new approach to any discipline is based on how much it changes the study of it in the classroom (in the way that, say, gender studies has done), could I set the essay as recommended reading for my undergraduate students? In other words, was it written in accessible language and with enough focus that it would enlighten them as to deeper significances of the play or text they were studying?

Shakespeare and emotions coverThe struggle of any edited volume is to appear as a coherent whole, and at twenty-three essays Shakespeare and Emotions was probably never going to succeed in that endeavour (even White in his introduction refers to it as an ‘eclectic collection’). However, its diversity is also a strength, and it will be a useful tool on the bookshelf of any Shakespeare teacher, who can use many of its short essays to bring the study of emotions into the classroom. Part I is titled Emotional Inheritances, and looks at classical, folk, religious, and political influences on Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The most convincing pieces in this section are Brid Phillips’ discussion of Ovid and Andrew Lynch’s treatment of Measure for Measure. Philips explores what she calls Shakespeare’s ‘sinister revision’ of the Ovidian locus amoenus in Titus Andronicus. In a brilliant piece of close reading, Phillips identifies that in Act 2 scene 4, Lavinia’s very body becomes the desecrated locus amoenus, a metaphor for the consequences of extreme emotion. Lynch argues that if Isabella were to be reimagined as an early modern development of the traditional virgin martyr of the Golden Legend and other similar hagiographical stories, her emotional attachments would become easier for a modern audience to understand. These female martyrs were praised for their defiance of unjust power and often found themselves the victims of sexual predation by male authority figures, a clear analogy with Angelo’s exploitation of Isabella. This essay offers valuable insight into a character whose sexual attractiveness to men is not based in modern ideas of appearance, but rather in a medieval tradition of chaste unattainability.

Other essays explore a range of sources and influences on Shakespeare. Danijela Kambaskovic analyses the two kinds of ‘love madness’ in the Sonnets, both for the young man and the dark lady, from a Platonic perspective. She finds that, although Plato felt that male homosexual love was superior to heterosexual love, Shakespeare’s ambiguity allows both to be acceptable. Ciara Rawnsley explores the influence of fairy tales on the fantastical plot-line of Cymbeline, recognising that the wager on Imogen’s faithfulness recalls such a wager in Boccaccio’s Decameron and a similar prose tale called Frederyke of Jennen. Shakespeare’s amendments to these sources transforms the story into one about Posthumus’ sexual anxiety, giving his far-fetched actions a much-needed emotional grounding. The fairy tale origins, Rawnsley argues, paradoxically expose the real-life emotions at work in the play.

Stephanie Downes looks at ‘Frenchness’ in Henry V, and argues that Shakespeare’s sophisticated use of French throughout the play, even when it is broken French, articulates shared anxieties about war, victory, and defeat, as well as the more well-known shared sexual jokes. This ‘commingling of language, learning and sex’ reveals the intertwined Anglo-French friendship and enmity both at the time of the play’s writing and the time in which it was set. Representations of Margaret of Anjou in an account of the year 1460 in a London chronicle (MS Egerton 1995) and in 3 Henry VI are compared by Mary-Rose McLaren. The chronicler recounts an event in which Margaret was robbed by one of her own men, depicting her as betrayed, poor, and powerless. Shakespeare, 130 years after the events, recasts her for dramatic effect as unnatural and bloodthirsty, gloating over the death of a child. The contrast is striking, yet were there stronger evidence that this was one of Shakespeare’s sources this comparison might have been more productive.

Probably the most useful section for the classroom, because it focuses on emotional work in the plays themselves, is Part II, ‘Shakespearean Enactments’.  Ruth Lunney explores Shakespeare’s experiments with the depiction of the historical figures of Talbot, Richard of Gloucester, and Richard II, revealing how the playwright exploited different values to provoke different emotional responses in his contemporary audience. His most challenging depiction, that of Richard II as a ‘debatable’ character, signalled, Lunney argues, a major development in characterisation in Renaissance drama. In a related analysis of the history plays, Martin Dawes argues that the Henriad offers us examples of emotional education, in particular what he calls ‘the holy trinity of fear, love and wonder’ that kings needed to master in order to appropriately reflect their status as divinely ordained. Henry V, unsurprisingly, is the character who most successfully manages to both exploit and inspire these three emotions. Two essays deal with Troilus and Cressida. Alison V. Scott sees Troilus’ unusual comment ‘I am giddy’ as a significant moment of emotional self-assessment, when he rationally appraises his passions and decides how he will act. This is in contrast to the usual early modern definitions of giddiness, where it is depicted as a failure of masculine rational control; Troilus, on the other hand, manages to make it a virtue. In an essay that stands as a challenge to the other volume under review, Ronald Bedford provides countless examples from Troilus and Cressida to show how consistently Shakespeare uses aspects of humoral theory in the play to express characters’ emotions, and how the surfeit of unbridled appetite throughout leads to the disorder that characterises Shakespeare’s retelling of ‘the most famous war in Western literature’.

The emotions that motivate specific characters are explored in other essays: Anthony Guy Patricia uses queer theory to examine the emotions of same-sex love in the representations of Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. The most intriguing aspect of his argument is that Antonio’s melancholy at the opening of the play stems from the fact that he has been unable to secure long-term financial security for Bassanio and that this is why he is so eager to fund his younger lover’s trip to Belmont. Jennifer Hamilton’s analysis of the storm in King Lear argues that Lear, initally struggling with the shame of his own mortality, eventually succumbs to the storm’s pitilessness and power, which enables him to admit his shameful mortality and ultimately to revel in it. The play, she argues, explores sovereignty and the theory of the king’s two bodies from an emotional perspective.

Other essays deal with the emotional expectations of the contemporary audience. Christopher Wortham provides a cartographically informed reading of Othello, which reads Othello’s account of how he seduced Desdemona with his stories of cannibals and Anthropophagi through the medieval T-O map and a morality play that identified moral attributes with the cardinal points of the compass. The south’s identification with sins of the flesh, Wortham argues, means that Othello’s stories of the creatures located there signals his and Desdemona’s journey into the realm of fleshly lusts that will destroy them both. Heather Kerr looks at tears, specifically, the sociable, ‘fellowly drops’ that Prospero exchanges with Gonzalo in The Tempest, to question whether this phenomenon is a precursor to eighteenth-century discourses of the sympathetic imagination. She concludes that in this scene they are a demonstration of how early modern passions pass from one person to another, in a kind of ‘mimetic contagion’. And finally, in an essay that could as well have been included in the next section, given its interest in performance, Peter Groves reveals how close attention to Shakespeare’s complex metre can illuminate moments of heightened emotion, in particular the silent beat that offers an opportunity for the actor to fill it with action.

The third part of the volume, Emotional Legacies and Re-enactments, explores Shakespeare’s legacy in our modern world. The most helpful of these contributions is Susan Broomhall’s review of the British Museum’s 2012 exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World, which attempted to ‘get inside the heads’ of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience via early modern objects both grand and everyday. Broomhall correctly notes that the curators described early modern encounters with the New World as ‘cultural exchange’ rather than the more challenging ‘cultural exploitation’. The fear and wonder that underpinned English engagement with the world translated into violence and coercion enacted upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas, an emotional approach that the curators could have used, she argues, to enlighten modern audiences to the enslavement in works like The Tempest.

In another intriguing analysis of modern interpretation, Rosemary Gaby explores how regret was the foregrounded emotion in the 2012 BBC series of four films of plays from the second tetralogy called The Hollow Crown. Surprisingly, given the series’ link with the ‘Cultural Olympiad’, these adaptations do not dwell as other previous ones have done on popular Falstaffian hedonism and humour, but instead highlight moments ‘where looking back is associated with negative emotions’. In an attempt to truly understand early modern performance, Andrew Lawrence-King argues that a new analysis of a seventeenth-century Recitative-song penned by Samuel Pepys’ house-composer Cesare Morelli could offer us an example of how early modern people actually spoke. Other essays in this section feel less coherent with the volume as a whole. Simon Haines uses the Hegelian term Anerkennung (or ‘recognition’) to analyse moments of recognition in Othello, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra, only to conclude that Hegel’s term simply doesn’t seem adequate to capture Shakespeare’s evolving approach to the idea. Elizabeth Schafter investigates how nostalgia and space interacted in Geoffrey Rush’s 1987 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he set in the Brisbane suburb of Windsor c. 1947. Philippa Kelly offers a very personal account of what it’s like to be a dramaturge which, while moving, reads more like a magazine article than an academic analysis.

Renaissance of emotion coverWith only nine essays the other volume, The Renaissance of Emotion, is understandably more cohesive. The editors’ introduction argues for a new approach to the study of early modern emotions, reacting against the humoralist approach that has predominated in early modern literary studies since Gail Kern Paster’s seminal work Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespeare Stage (2004) and the work she co-edited with Katherine Rowe and Mary Floyd-Wilson, Reading the Early Modern Passions (2004). While at times it overstates the exclusivity of the humoral approach (I don’t think Paster et al. assumed it was the only way of understanding how emotions worked), it does offer a much more rounded and complete way of thinking about the many ways in which early modern emotions could be stimulated, influenced, and expressed. They choose the three most important areas of influence: religious and philosophical belief, linguistic and literary form, and political and dramaturgical performance.

This volume’s focus on religious belief in Part I ‘The theology and philosophy of emotion’ is a real asset, as our modern secularism can often lead us to forget the quotidian nature and pervasive influence of religious practice in early modern life and emotions. In particular, David Bagchi’s essay reveals how the Book of Common Prayer ‘framed and tamed’ the often confusing emotional world of the Bible for everyday English Protestants. In a useful comparison with Susan Karant-Nunn’s findings about German Protestantism, Bagchi finds some interesting differences; for example, in the BCP Jews were less vilified as ‘Christ’s killers’ than in German sermons, and the ‘quietness’ so praised in both linguistic traditions did not, for English Protestants, necessarily denote the absence of high emotion. In another helpful essay, Sara Coodin analyses Shylock’s motivations in The Merchant of Venice, in particular via the speech he gives about the Biblical story of Jacob’s success through his deceptions of his uncle. Shylock views Jacob’s actions as a clever means of thriving or ‘eudaimonism’ that he attempts to emulate, while his critics view such an attitude as pure greed and usury. Coodin argues that we should understand the complexity of Shylock’s relationship to Jacob and realise that criticisms of him in the play are voiced by those who have caused his suffering.

Erin Sullivan offers fresh insight into that oft-cited manual of early modern emotions, Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall. Sullivan argues that although Wright’s Jesuit training has led some critics to disregard his views as not normative, Wright’s acknowledgement of the possibility of disembodied affective experience makes his work more representative of the period than one might think. Other fresh insight is offered by Mary Ann Lund into Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Instead of focusing on its well-known exploration of sadness, Lund instead analyses its sensuous meditation on happiness derived from the vision of God’s beauty, offering an alternative reading of the emotions it explores.

In Part II, ‘Shakespeare and the language of emotion’, Nigel Wood investigates the use of the term ‘spleen’ in Shakespeare’s comedies, and offers a useful catalogue of the multiple uses of it throughout his oeuvre. Wood notes that ‘Shakespeare does not use it in any streamlined or predictable way’, and its multivalency as a term perhaps explains why this essay would, I think, be difficult for students to follow. Similarly, Richard Meek looks at the development of the terms ‘sympathy’ and ‘sympathise’ as they are utilised in Richard II, a play about a king for whom it can be hard to feel sympathy. Richard Chamberlain’s essay on happiness in Hamlet examines the linked terms ‘hap’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘happy’, revealing that the play conceives happiness as serendipity or chance, as opposed to the totalitarian, organised, administrative systems which Claudius’ new reign introduces. This essay is most helpful when it discusses the play itself, showing us the often simultaneous multiple meanings that characters can exploit when using the terms, but less so in its contentious, and at times ahistorical, argument that happiness must be a social phenomenon rather than a personal one.

Unlike the previous volume, the third section of this volume on ‘The politics and performance of emotion’ is very cohesive, perhaps because it concentrates instead on early modern performance rather than modern. Andy Kesson provides a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Shakespeare’s most popular predecessor John Lyly, by looking at how emotions were stimulated and exploited in Lyly’s works. Kesson persuasively argues that Lyly’s reputation for cerebral, static writing is misplaced, and that instead his dramatic and literary works campaign for an active, passionate participation by the audience. His works aim to ‘move’ audiences, actors, and readers in the literal, physical sense as well as the mental, emotional sense. Ann Kaegi looks at the female characters of Richard III, showing how Shakespeare reworked cultural expectations about the performance of grief. She reveals that the women’s emotional outbursts only become productive in the play when they cease to compete with each other like merchants taking stock of their accounts of grief, and instead focus their curses on Richard.

Frederika Bain examines how the performance of emotions was depicted in early modern accounts of public executions, using plays, ballads, and pamphlets to reveal how these were often intertextual, each using and developing conventions found in the other forms. My only quibble with this essay was its use of accounts of regicides as representative of execution narratives, when these used a completely different emotional register to all other accounts. Finally, R. S. White and Ciara Rawnsley discuss the theory of discrepant emotional awareness through the close reading of scenes from The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline. It is an analysis that is persuasive in its reading of TGV, but less so for Cymbeline as, while it explains Shakespeare’s motivations for the long, fantastical denouement, it cannot get around the fact that audiences have rarely been persuaded to engage with it emotionally.

In his afterword, Peter Holbrook argues that this collection shows how early modern writers imagined human life as capable of emotional freedom: freedom from the overwhelmingly physiological aspects of humoral psychology, and freedom to act upon one’s individual sense of agency. It is an argument that celebrates the diversity of human action and feeling in the early modern era, but it reflects the challenge that the study of the history of emotions sets for us all: how can one single approach hope to adequately address the countless ways in which humans interacted and felt in the past? It is this diversity that the editors of these volumes have had to tackle and, while occasionally it results in a lack of cohesion, overall we are provided with new tools to help us read these 400-year-old works with fresh eyes.

Follow Una McIlvenna on Twitter: @UnaMcIlvenna