Category Archives: Shakespeare

Early Modern England’s Social “Bag of Tricks”

by Dorie Perez

“I’d sit at the back of the room to present this paper,” said Rhea Riegel, a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Humanities graduate group and a 2014-2015 Center for the Humanities Graduate Fellow, “but that’s not what a real trickster does.” Real tricksters, like the infamous literary figures Puck from the plays of William Shakespeare and Robin Goodfellow, the archetype that Robin Hood is based on, do their dastardly deeds with an eye towards the future. Riegel says they offer an example of alternative behaviors where social change fosters a rethinking of social roles during moments of upheaval. Tricksters do the important work of challenging or, invariably, reinforcing social roles and morays that the public must then reproduce.

Riegel’s work on Early Modern English literature includes the literary canon of Robin Hood, known to 17th Century readers as Robin Goodfellow. Robin Goodfellow’s “punishment” for bad behavior is to reset “wrongs” – lecherous uncles are whipped and bawdy women dunked in duck ponds to the delight of spectators learning a collective lesson. Humor itself is seen by scholars like Riegel as setting up social conditions for commentary or a rethinking of codified relations. The types of humor that tricksters use are up-ending, but not the full satirization of current events that the modern reader may be accustomed to. Satirical activism as a brand of humor is distinct from situation comedy. Whereas satire disrupts, comedy reaffirms social “truths”. Allegorical tales of lessons learned – Robin Goodfellow punishes rather than scolds, acts rather than relays messages like angels and other divine messengers – making his role in Western literary tradition social rather than based on religious canon or politically attuned to current events of the Early Modern era. His actions serve, in the Foucauldian sense, as correctives of behavior, a task seen as a shared social responsibility.

Another trickster figure Riegel centers her study on is that of Moll Cutpurse, a composite character purportedly based on a real figure in history who challenged gender norms by dressing in masculine clothing to trick unsuspecting targets. Cutpurse becomes the embodiment of changing gender norms during a period of intense social upheaval. The events of the 17th Century in England were incredibly disruptive; the English Civil War, religious strife among warring Catholics and Protestants, the Great Fire of London and the death of Charles I on the orders of a newly-empowered Parliament served as unsteady social ground to negotiate. Trickster figures flourished in the work of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries as ways to reorient audiences to a dynamic reality of changing norms they would then need to make sense of.

“Unquiet Women” and the Act of Subversion

by Dorie Perez

The subtle differences between the terms inversion, subversion and perversion, presented by seminar discussant Matthew Kaiser, are usually glossed over in speech, terms used interchangeably to mean “othering” or change as a process of fragmentation. The idea of inversion as a movement, often smaller-scale acts than violent political upheaval, is an interesting take on social change and something Susan Amussen presented in her analysis of Early Modern historical works in late September 2014.

Amussen presented what will be one chapter of a book tentatively called “Turning the World Upside Down: Gender, Culture and Politics in Early Modern England,” which builds on the work of her late husband, the historian David Underdown. Continuing the topsy-turvy theme of the Merced Seminar in the Humanities series for Fall semester 2014, she writes of “unruly women” and other deviants who dared to challenge convention in Elizabethan England. “Mannish-women and womanish-men,” patriarchs that failed to uphold their place as lord and master, among other kinds of usurpation of male authority were targets of John Swetnam, a pamphleteer in 1640s England whose social critique often morphed into full-scale misogyny. Pamphlets were the blog post of their era, read and responded to by intellectuals of all stripes; Swetnam’s back and forth argument with other writers, including quite a few female intellectuals, has held up as an example of the transhistorical tension between idealized expectations of womanhood and the subversive play of gender politics in an increasingly changing world, continuing today unabated.

The global social politics of the Early Modern era were present in the Shakespearean play The Taming of The Shrew (1592), a prime example used in Amussen’s analysis of subtle inversions of gender roles that fueled a discourse of inversion from within a dichotomized world of male/female, rich/poor, and young/old – dichotomies first discussed by Mikhail Bahktin in Rabelais and His World (1965). A royal (or rather, royal-adjacent) sex scandal involving the dissolution of Frances Howard’s marriage to the Earl of Essex in 1613 and subsequent remarriage to the Earl of Somerset fueled fears of subversive female comportment, especially when the perversions of witchcraft were said to be involved. Witchcraft, excessive interest in fashion and makeup, as well as sexual desire, were acts by women to subvert their roles at home, in the streets and at Court. Dress was the process by which identity was encoded, and through that signification, the inscription of idealized roles and behaviors. Any subversive activities strayed into the grey area between the normative and empirical Woman, according to a Foucauldian analysis, destabilizing social norms by way of inversion, perversion and subversion.

Dress, and therefore, womanhood, came under intense scrutiny in the Jacobean literary landscape, where any sense of otherness – foreign silks, mystical allusions, ostentatious luxury- was regulated by social stratification. Yellow hoods, and the color itself, were the sign of prostitutes and other fallen women, using the identifiers of the day as an inverted ladder to another social role available to them. The gender boundaries Amussen analyzes are clearly bounded entities regulated by social interaction and royal decree, yet somehow simultaneously inverted on a daily basis in regular acts of autonomy. They, in turn, set the stage for social relationships and tensions that then spill into the geopolitical arena. Amussen’s analysis ultimately concerns these genre-crossing “disorderly women” and their “failed patriarchs,” by whom social norms were transgressed, even as they worked to upkeep them.

Shakespeare On Site

by Dorie Perez

Shakespeare was coasting on his laurels when he wrote Cymbeline, one of his last works for the theater, and that wasn’t a bad thing. The literary great was sure to add all of his favorite elements to this dramatic work, weaving comic absurdity with historical narrative and familial strife that, happily, wraps up on a high note. Often overlooked, the play’s high energy and whackamole-style cast of characters cropping up at inopportune moments was showcased by the obvious love and attention taken by the local theater company, Merced ShakespeareFest, to put on the production and create collaborations with the local academic community. The Center for the Humanities at UC Merced played host to the Merced ShakespeareFest’s Fall 2014 production of Cymbeline; its disparate plot echoes the Center’s biennial research theme: “The World Upside Down: Topsy-Turvy.”

Hieke Hambey, Merced ShakespeareFest’s founder and executive director, introduced the play to over 100 audience members on the grounds of UC Merced’s new Wallace-Dutra outdoor amphitheater. This venture between both the local company and the University of California at Merced was the first of its kind, and the broader impact of such a partnership was visible. The play drew mixed audiences from both the larger community and the campus, filling the amphitheater for a full two-night’s run. The play, which continued its scheduled performances in Applegate Park the following weekend, centers on the lovers Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus, who are separated by royal decree and brought back together by farce. Musical interludes offered up by local musicians Evan Hall and Soheil Fatehiboroujeni added an unexpected twist, furthering the quirky take on classic Early Modern themes of mistaken identities, flexible gender presentation, ignoble monarchs and devious servants.

Dr. Katherine Steele Brokaw, assistant professor of literature at UC Merced, served as both the lead actress and dramaturg. Her love of Shakespeare and community theater rings clear: “I like the feeling of giving back to the community through working with Merced Shakespearefest and Merced County Opera in the Schools, both of which have benefited from Center for the Humanities grants.” This is the first time that the ShakespeareFest theater company has had part of their work shown on campus, and Steele Brokaw agrees that these types of community connections have a regional impact. “While there is much scholarly merit in these collaborations, I think that it is even more important that these collaborations are ensuring that the performing arts reach more undergraduates, graduates, faculty, staff, schoolchildren, and community members of all ages and backgrounds in the Central Valley than ever before.”

Music and Religious Change in Shakespeare’s Tempest

by Peter Vanderschraaf

Katie Brokaw’s essay is the culminating part of her overall book project Staging Harmony, that focuses on important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. For me, studying Brokaw’s essay is proving both a special treat and a formidable but valuable challenge, coming from philosophy (with scant background in literature) and specializing in branches of moral and political philosophy with roots in the early modern philosophical era that begins almost immediately after the composition of The Tempest (with Grotius’ Free Sea).  Brokaw argues that in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest Shakespeare’s writes in a “spirit of finding amicable [and not merely peaceful] coexistence between word, art and ritual (p. 4)”. The discussion here focuses on the role of music (and sometimes dance) in The Tempest.

Some questions/comments for consideration:

  1. This essay discusses primarily The Tempest, written in 1610-1611. Is there a special reason for ending the analysis at 1611 (beyond perhaps the fact that The Tempest is one is Shakespeare’s late plays and Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of his and maybe any era to write in the English language)? Staging Harmony will discuss important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. Historical tidbit: The London Puritans succeed in having the theaters closed in 1642 until the Restoration.
  2. I agree with Brokaw that interpreting The Tempest as a work arguing for accepting a certain diversity of religious belief and practice makes very good sense. I’m wondering about a possible outlier: the Puritans. My impression is that Shakespeare makes no attempt to “bring the Puritans to the table” in The Tempest. If that’s right, a dull explanation is that Shakespeare may have thought there was little point in trying to appeal to this part of his English culture (since the Puritans would at best ignore his art form anyway). But (again if I am right) could there be a more interesting explanation, namely, that Shakespeare is taking a stance regarding the (now old) question of “tolerating the intolerant”? (I think we face this problem all the time.)
  3. Very quick comment/question: As Brokaw observes, James I was fairly tolerant of religious nonconformism even in his own court. But (as I recently discovered) James had quite interesting ideas about sovereignty. Here’s a quote: “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing on earth. For kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. . . .” Does Shakespeare express a view about sovereignty in The Tempest? (If not it certainly is not a problem for Brokaw’s project but I thought it might be interesting to know about.)
  4. I found Brokaw’s discussion of how people of the time viewed music and its power particularly striking. As Brokaw observes, they connected music with science (”music of the spheres”) and the occult in ways we’re not used to in our time. Just an observation: I wonder if this is another way in which The Tempest reflects what I keep calling the pre-modern tradition (because unlike in the pre-modern tradition, specific discussion of music is largely absent among the early modern philosophers and my impression is that these days, aesthetics is thought of as a “luxury” specialization.)
  5. Ditto for the short but very interesting discussion of sympathy. In Shakespeare’s time sympathy apparently had a wider meaning than in our time, reflecting harmony between music and the natural world as well as harmony between people. For reasons I don’t know (and maybe Brokaw does), in the English-speaking world I think the scope of our thinking about sympathy became narrower (roughly, for the moderns and maybe for us, to sympathize is to mentally put oneself in the place of another) as it started to make a more explicit and important role in English moral philosophy (such as Hume’s “judicious spectator” and Smith’s “impartial spectator”).
  6. Why bother raising the earlier insubstantial question about time period? Comment: My impression is that Brokaw’s interpretation can be thought of as representing a culmination in England of thought regarding relative toleration of diverse religious belief and practice (and maybe artistic practice)? (For example, as Brokaw observes recusants in James’ time were common and Roman Catholics were able to practice their faith — my impression is that places where Catholics could participate in the mass were like “speakeasies.”) From Brokaw’s essay (which I find compelling) I think one can conclude that Shakespeare advocated what one might call a “great society” view (plug for my philosophy colleague Jerry Gaus) whose members not merely accept but appreciate and learn from their differences (as opposed to a modus vivendi view of pluralism decried by Alasdair MacIntyre). The contemporary counterpart is modern politically liberal society (if you approve of it) or “the degenerate West” (if you don’t). Anyway if this is right so far, then what follows and the philosophical response (and you knew I would try to smuggle in some philosophy) are an interesting contrast. The Thirty Years War begins two years after Shakespeare’s death, the English Civil War starts in 1642 and the early modern philosophical era starts around this time. I wonder if Shakespeare’s The Tempest foreshadows a period of terrible disillusionment (especially among philosophers), Leibniz being a possible exception. We get figures like Grotius and Hobbes trying to develop a natural law that in principle could be detached from religion, Hobbes arguing that religious diversity and freedom of expression are neither desirable for civil peace nor necessary for personal salvation, and later Hume hinting that in the end we don’t need anything like religious belief to explain or to justify government and moral practice. (Leibniz tries maybe for the last time before the 20th century to develop a creed that he thinks all Christians can accept and that can reconcile the various Christian churches.)


Personification and the Political Imagination of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Eli Jelly-Schapiro

Amanda Bailey visited our seminar to discuss her work on the philosophic and political imagination of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Through her reading of the play, Bailey illuminates forms of agency and consent that arise out of the fluid intermingling of human and nonhuman entities rather than the embodied and self-contained sovereign subject. Offering a “glimpse of community beyond the semantics of proprium,” Bailey suggests, A Midsummer Night’s Dream gestures toward “an alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” (3).

Bailey elaborates this fundamental claim through two interwoven threads. First, she examines how metamorphosis functions in the play—not as a process whereby one autonomous and stable ontological entity is transformed into another, but rather as a moment or space of perpetual becoming wherein a series of binary distinctions—subject–object, self–other, man-beast, being-in-itself and being-for-itself—dissolve: a space of “mutability and assemblage” rather than fixity and individuation.

Second and relatedly, Bailey advances—via a close engagement with early modern political thought and early modern contract law—a nuanced critique of how the play figures the conjoined philosophic problems of personhood and consent. The “space of persona” opened up in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals the mutability of the human as an ontological category and challenges the political and philosophic ascendancy of the willful sovereign subject—and by extension the structures of state or market dominance with which it is bound.

Central to Bailey’s argument is a lucid exegesis of John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Bailey uses Locke’s meditations on non-corporeal personhood to evince the ways in which, as she puts it, “personification is an enabling condition of the collective rather than a crisis of the individual” (6). It’s worth noting, though, that in other texts, most notably the chapter “Of Property” in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke articulates personhood and consent in the context of a robust defense of primitive accumulation. His famous claim that “every Man has a property in his own person” prefaces an extended reflection on the virtues of enclosure, in England as in the New World (116; ch. 5). And in testifying to the emancipatory powers of money, Locke intimates that when by universal consent money is endowed with value, universal consent is also bestowed upon the inequality that money inevitably produces (Ince 35).

Locke’s philosophic treatment of concepts such as personhood and consent, in other words, was complicit in the naturalization of capitalist and colonial processes. Bailey’s summoning of Locke alongside Shakespeare in the service of imagining an “alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” is thus somewhat paradoxical. But this contrapuntal application of Locke is precisely what lends her argument its power. She enacts a dialectical move that salvages Locke’s notion of the disembodied person from the uses to which political systems founded on the logic of perpetual accumulation have put it. If Locke’s thought provides philosophic support for capitalist social relations it also, Bailey conveys, contains conceptual tools that might be wielded in the service of alternative social formations.

In this, Bailey affirms an important insight of Stuart Hall’s. The moment of economic determinism, Hall contends in “The Problem of Ideology,” is in the first instance, not the last. Even if our ideas of freedom, equality, personhood, the individual, consent, etc. “derive from the categories we use in our practical, commonsense thinking about the market economy,” what this conceptual vocabulary signifies is never fixed, is always open to contestation and transformation (34).

The contest over what concepts such as “personhood” and “consent” describe, however, is today being won by the ideology of the market. If one lineage of disembodied personhood leads to radical social formations beyond the logic of dominion another finds its terminus in the heart of our own neoliberal moment, wherein a legal fiction, the corporation, is afforded the First Amendment right to free speech. This is not to contradict the anticipatory tenor of Bailey’s account, but rather to highlight its urgency.

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx observed that the universalization of commodity rationality makes “definite social relations between men . . . [assume] the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165; ch. 1).  Today as then, the “personification of things” and the “thingification of persons”—the commoditization of human life itself—are two sides of the same coin. Bailey’s vibrant contribution is to shed light upon alternative cultures of personification that might counter rather than express the alienation of human bodies and human communities.