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Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004, $35.00, 247 pages, ISBN 0-226-64847-8)Hajer Ben Gouider Trabelsi, Université de Montréal


The many centuries separating the post-enlightenment reader from the phenomenological and cultural context of Renaissance England, as well as the revolutions the field of psychology witnessed make him / her prone to reduce the expressions of emotions with which Renaissance texts are redolent solely to their metaphorical dimension. In order to foreground the ontological richness of the expressions of emotions in the Renaissance, Gail Kern Paster approaches a number of Renaissance plays, mostly Shakespearean, from a New Historicist perspective. Indeed, her efforts help the aforementioned reader see beyond the “abstractions and bodily metaphor where the early moderns found materiality and literal reference” [23].

Though the book purports to contextualize the expression of emotions in Renaissance plays, it indirectly unveils the strategies to which patriarchy in Renaissance England resorts in order to construct and preserve the superiority of its representatives. In fact, the superiority of the Renaissance man is shown to be the direct result of the conceptualization of woman as biologically and naturally inferior to man, and of man as the only rational animal, as Paster shows in her third chapter. Moreover, the writer microscopically examines the category of Renaissance Englishmen and shows that their behavioral and humoral hierarchies were a function of their social hierarchy.

Through the study of certain passages from Hamlet and Othello, Paster anchors the emotional experience of the Renaissance subject in the physicality from which the modern reader tends to divorce it. The physical dimension of the early modern emotional experience, she contends in her first chapter, can only be fully grasped if we are to take into account the inextricability of the physical and the psychological. Paster refers to the inextricability of these two dimensions of Renaissance subjects' emotional experience of as the psychophysiological dimension of that experience. The other element the writer deems of paramount importance to the understanding of the expression of emotions in the Renaissance lies in the porousness of the Renaissance body and the resulting interpenetration of that body and its environment. This is exactly the case of Pyrrhus, who is described by Aeneas as “roasted in wrath and fire” [28]. For this character, the “elemental imagery of fire and air […] works to disperse agency from the body out into the environment and back, or, more precisely, to suggest how bodily interiority and affect express themselves environmentally as part of the ‘vast systems of fluid exchange’ between the body and the world” [42]. In this sense, Paster revises Mary Thomas Crane’s theorization of the relationship between the Renaissance subject and his environment. Crane simply contends that Renaissance “bodies are penetrated by the external world” [47]. However, through a close reading of a number of locutions in the abovementioned Shakespearean plays, Paster reaches the conclusion that the Renaissance subject influences and is influenced by his / her environment at the same time.

In the second chapter of her book, the writer unveils the strategy patriarchy utilizes to construct and maintain the superiority of men: the representation of women as humorally and socially inferior. The writer manages to foreground this through a juxtaposition of both literary works such as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Renaissance medical texts dealing with the humors and the ensuing gender hierarchy. Among these medical texts, worthy of mention is Microsmographia; or, A Description of the Body of Man, by the English royal physician Helkial Crooke. This physician, whose work can be taken as representative of the attitude of Renaissance physicians towards the gender hierarchy produced by the humors, supports a discourse of male superiority from within the medical field. This discourse of the superiority of men over women is based on the apparently logical and biological correspondence between the choleric humor of men and the ability to act, on the one hand, and the correspondence between the phlegmatic humor of women and their inability to act on the other. Man’s natural and biological ability to act can be accounted for by the fact that he is capable of wrath, which engenders action. Here, one is tempted to see in such Shakespearean female characters as Kate, the tamed shrew, a counter-example to Crooke’s argument, as no other female character in Shakespeare’s work seems to be more choleric. However, Kate and the other female characters who show symptoms of a choleric humor or a propensity for action are possible, and yet non-subversive subjects, anticipated by Crooke’s medical book. Far from disproving his theory, the acts of these female characters are merely exceptions. He holds that their behavior does not spring from something intrinsic in their nature, as it is the case of men. Rather, it is the result of “sudden and intense flare-ups of reactive female heat subsiding back into primordial cold” [99]. This implies that the patriarchal discourse not only constructs women as inferior, but also forecloses the possibility of any subversion of the humoral hierarchy on which the social hierarchy is based. As Paster puts it, “Crooke works hard to contain the ontological possibility of female heat” [99].

In her third chapter, Paster deals with another entity presented as inferior to man by the patriarchal discourse, in order to further and affirm man's superiority. Indeed, a thinker like Montaigne, for instance, “praises the emotional intelligence of animals and denies mankind’s sole possession of reason and the knowledge of God” [180]. Furthermore, what is also worth noting about this chapter is that it takes the notion of the porous Renaissance body a step further. Bearing in mind the fact that “it was not just that the qualities of animal resembled those of human beings, but that the qualities were directly transferable from animal to humans as humans applied and incorporated animal flesh into their own” [154], understanding the humoral behavior of the Renaissance subject becomes conditioned upon understanding the humors of these animals. This, however, may sound a bit strange for post-enlightenment readers because of their unfamiliarity with the importance of thinking through analogical networks, a major strategy of Renaissance thinking. The importance of analogical thinking in the Renaissance can be seen in the following lines by Willian Ashworth “to know the peacock, you must know its associations—its affinities, similitudes, and sympathies with the rest of the created order” [144-145]. Paster takes her cue from Ashworth and studies a number of passages from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Macbeth, where both Falstaff and Macbeth respectively express their emotional states through analogies they draw from the animal kingdom. Through the examination of these passages, the writer broadens the reader’s understanding of the Renaissance subject’s emotional experience by broadening the field of her investigation to encompass animals as well as human subjects.

In the fourth chapter, Paster concentrates on examining the category of Renaissance Englishmen and shows the way social hierarchy determines the behavioral attitudes adopted by men. Moreover, she examines at length the dialogue between two humoral discourses; first the “Galenic biological discourse of the four qualities of heat, moisture, cold, and dryness that naturalizes even as it complicates the sources of human psychophysiological difference […] and, second, the social discourse of humorality through which individual characters seek to advance themselves in individual social existence against the panoply of social forces competing for emotional precedence” [220], through a close reading of a number of passages from Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humor and Bartholomew Fair. The conclusion Paster reaches is that “humoral strategies do not always carry the day in a contest between bodily obduracy and the social hierarchy” [241]. Here, I would say that “having the right literally to give one’s anger an airing” is conditioned not upon a subject’s choleric humor, but rather upon his social status.

Thus, through a juxtaposition of Renaissance plays by Shakespeare and others, and of Renaissance juridical, medical and philosophical texts on the humors, Paster manages to bridge the wide gap between the post-Enlightenment twenty-first-century reader and the Renaissance, making it possible for him / her to perceive the ontological and phenomenological dimension of the emotional experience of the Renaissance subject. Furthermore, she underlines the strategies to which patriarchy in Renaissance England resorts in order to construct and preserve the superiority of men.

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