Beyond Materiality in Shakespeare Studies

Thursday, January 4, 2018

7:00 PM –  8:15 PM

Sheraton – Chelsea


The material turn has expanded in reach, making itself felt across Shakespeare studies, from book history and theater history to historical phenomenology and histories of the body. The category of “matter” has expanded in kind; Shakespeareans have participated in the larger effort to work toward ever more subtle, process-oriented accounts of materiality not limited to physical particularity.[1] The tradeoff here is that materiality threatens to become, as David Ayers puts it, “the ultimate abstraction, since it denotes every real or conceivable iota of the actual.”[2]

This special session focuses attention on what the new materialism has lost, forgotten, ignored, and overwritten. Using Shakespeare as our touchstone, we attend to what is not and cannot be covered by the mantra of the material. Rather than continue to expand working definitions of material culture, that is, we ask what happens when we reject materiality as the threshold for meaningful evidence. In particular, we show how performance theory, feminism, and historical cognition help us speak about intangible, indirect, dispersed, abstract, and virtual dimensions of theatricality and poetics.

Three panelists will give 17-minute presentations, followed by a 7-minute response paper and 15 minutes of open discussion.

The presentations will begin with Scott A. Trudell, who will focus on the recalcitrant immateriality of the “Indian boy” or “changeling” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The changeling is fetishized as an object of great value and exoticized as the source of deep nostalgia. The fairy plot revolves around possessing him. Yet he has no lines, evidences no thoughts or opinions, and seems to exert no will. There is no indication that he appears onstage. In short, the changeling is not “material” enough to have attracted due attention in recent years; current work on theatricality and artifice in the play tends to give him short shrift, either ignoring him or casting him off as an orientalist fantasy. Trudell argues for renewed attention to the vitality of the changeling in the play’s meditation on poiesis and representation. Turning to theories of communication and performance, Trudell argues that the changeling amounts to an early modern anticipation of what we now call a “medium.” That is: the changeling is conceived, on the one hand, as a radically disembodied conduit for information, and, on the other hand, as a palpable, fleshly body that is meaningful only when physically possessed. This paradox of communication through “a local habitation and a name” helps open up a fresh understanding of the play’s famous inquiry into “shaping fantasies” and that which enacts them.

Colleen Ruth Rosenfeld’s paper will outline a way beyond materialism through criticism that values the “conceit.” In Act 2, scene 2 of Richard 2, the Queen offers an image that modern readers have taken as emblematic of her “intuition”: “Methinks,/ Some unborn sorrow, ripe in Fortune’s womb, / Is coming towards me.” Critics who have commented on these lines have quietly performed an organ transplant, reading the Queen’s body at the expense of what she calls her “conceit.” Yet the womb within which “some unborn sorrow” resides does not belong to the Queen but to “Fortune.” By speaking of “Fortune’s womb,” the Queen’s conceit clears out a space for the possibility that the future will go otherwise than we already know it will. The pervasive misreading of these lines also, however, tells us something about the limitations of materialist criticism more broadly to an understanding of Shakespeare’s historiographical practices. The peculiar form of the Queen’s knowledge points feminist criticism in another direction. Whereas Bushy dismisses the Queen’s knowledge by categorizing it—“’Tis nothing but conceit”—the Queen affirms his category while reversing its value: “’Tis nothing less.” Rosenfeld uses this moment to show what a “conceited criticism” in imitation of Donne might look like.

Next, Adam Rzepka will focus on incipient, potential, or “virtual” knowledge in Hamlet, suggesting a route around the conflicted investment that the new materialism has had in materializing cognition. When Hamlet considers “what a piece of work” a man is, he starts with “reason” and ends with “dust,” traversing the full sweep of humanist ontology from elevated abstraction to abject materiality. What is most “express and admirable” about the human figure, however, emerges in the dynamic ground between these poles, as “motion,” angelic “action,” and godlike “apprehension.” The process of becoming fully human happens in the quick coil of moving and grasping, with the stateliness of logic and the elemental stuff of existence left immobile on either side. Rzepka takes this sketch of human potentiality as a cue for reading cognition in Hamlet as a process of coming-to-know that refuses firm grounding in either abstraction or materiality. Attention to the way thinking was theorized in faculty psychology, like the uses to which it is put in Hamlet, demonstrates that it can be historicized without being materialized, and also without being subsumed in a retrograde projection of inward unity. As early modern thought takes shape between reason and dust, it escapes reduction to either.

The response paper will be delivered by James A. Knapp, who is at work on a book project about Shakespeare and immateriality. Knapp, who has helped put this panel together, has broad expertise in this area and is well situated to speak to the methodological implications of the presentations.


[1] For example, see Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), which draws on Michel Serres’s notions of the “polychronic and multitemporal” in order to challenge the tendency to conceive of objects “as self-identical physical presences,” 8, esp. 5-13.

[2] David Ayers, “Materialism and the Book,” Poetics Today 24 (2003), 763.