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Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare

By Jonathan Gil Harris

Publication Year: 2009

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009

The New Historicism of the 1980s and early 1990s was preoccupied with the fashioning of early modern subjects. But, Jonathan Gil Harris notes, the pronounced tendency now is to engage with objects. From textiles to stage beards to furniture, objects are read by literary critics as closely as literature used to be. For a growing number of Renaissance and Shakespeare scholars, the play is no longer the thing: the thing is the thing. Curiously, the current wave of "thing studies" has largely avoided posing questions of time. How do we understand time through a thing? What is the time of a thing?

In Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, Harris challenges the way in which we conventionally understand physical objects and their relation to history. Turning to Renaissance theories of matter, Harris considers the profound untimeliness of things, focusing particularly on Shakespeare's stage materials. He reveals that many "Renaissance" objects were actually survivals from an older time—the medieval monastic properties that, post-Reformation, were recycled as stage props in the public playhouses, or the old Roman walls of London, still visible in Shakespeare's time. Then, as now, old objects were inherited, recycled, repurposed; they were polytemporal or palimpsested.

By treating matter as dynamic and temporally hybrid, Harris addresses objects in their futurity, not just in their encapsulation of the past. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare is a bold study that puts the matériel—the explosive, world-changing potential—back into a "material culture" that has been too often understood as inert stuff.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii


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p. ix

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Introduction: Palimpsested Time: Toward a Theory of Untimely Matter

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pp. 1-25

Over the past decade, Renaissance historicism has witnessed something of a sea change. If the new historicism of the 1980s and early 1990s was preoccupied primarily with the fashioning of early modern subjects, a pronounced tendency in the new millennium, evidenced in the turn to so-called material culture, is to engage with objects. This new preoccupation has been showcased in several anthologies that offer readers wonder cabinets of material...

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Part 1: Supersessions

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pp. 27-31

How can the temporality of supersession be untimely? At first glance, it might seem to be anything but. After all, supersession appears to guarantee a punctual progression from before to after, from early to late, from past to present. ‘‘That was then, this is now’’: the phrase, a neat summation of supersessionary time, presumes an absolute temporal rupture between two self-identical monads, one canceled, the other current. ‘‘Now’’ replaces...

1. Reading Matter: George Herbert and the East-West Palimpsests of The Temple

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pp. 32-65

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2. Performing History: East-West Palimpsests in William Shakespeare’s Second Henriad

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pp. 66-87

At the beg inning of 2 Henry 4, Rumour represents himself as a global communications system that spans ‘‘orient’’ and ‘‘drooping west.’’ As in Herbert’s ‘‘Church Militant,’’ these compass points demarcate a space conceived not just geographically—from Asia to Europe—but also temporally: Rumour operates from sunrise to sunset and, by implication, from past to future. In this speech, ‘‘orient’’ and ‘‘west’’ also circumscribe the space and time of the...

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Part 2: Explosions

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pp. 89-94

Those who subscribe to the temporality of supersession respond to polychronicity by reworking the traces of the past-in-the-present as dead or obsolete matter, subordinated to the agency of a progressive present and future. Yet as we have seen with Herbert’s ‘‘Church Militant’’ and Shakespeare’s Henriad, practitioners of supersessionary time often revivify that which they wish to pronounce dead, thereby granting the supposedly superseded...

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3. The Writing on the Wall: London’s Old Jewry and John Stow’s Urban Palimpsest

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pp. 95-118

With his thumbnail sketch of the antiquarian, Nietzsche shows how readily civic history can be made to repose in the mundane material relics of urban space. The antiquarian, argues Nietzsche, finds historical riches in ‘‘trivial, circumscribed, decaying, and obsolete’’ things, such as ‘‘city . . . walls’’ and ‘‘the towered gate.’’ The heightened attention the antiquarian accords such things anticipates the recent critical fascination with Renaissance...

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4. The Smell of Gunpowder Macbeth and the Palimpsests of Olfaction

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pp. 119-139

Did the Shakespearean stage stink? The Jonsonian theater certainly did. In the prologue to Bartholomew Fair, the Scrivener complains that the Hope Theatre—where Jonson’s play was first performed in 1614—is ‘‘as dirty as Smithfield, and as stinking every whit.’’¹ Such a description may confirm the worst suspicions of modern readers, who all too easily imagine the early modern playhouse—in an age before deodorant, daily baths, and air conditioning—to have been...

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Part 3: Conjunctions

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pp. 141-147

How might we characterize the relation between the temporality of conjunction and those of supersession and explosion? They are in one crucial respect similar: all are materialized by palimpsest-like entities that conjoin multiple times. What distinguishes the temporality of conjunction, however, is its distribution of agency within the palimpsested object. Whereas the practitioners of supersession treat only the present as active and the past...

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5. Touching Matters: Margaret Cavendish’s and Hélène Cixous’s Palimpsested Bodies

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pp. 148-168

Two women, from different times, from different worlds, touch in one body—albeit a body that is not one but multiple, palimpsested, polychronic. The scene? It, too, is multiple. Paris, 1975: the Algerian-French feminist Hélène Cixous brushes up against the Egyptian queen Cleopatra in the heterogeneous, intertextual body of Cixous’s e´criture fe´minine. Antwerp, 1655: the exiled English writer Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, rubs...

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6. Crumpled Handkerchiefs: William Shakespeare’s and Michel Serres’s Palimpsested Time

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pp. 169-187

Othello has long been regarded as afflicted by a temporal anomaly in need of correction. Cracking the infamous ‘‘double time’’ conundrum—do the events of the play take place over a day and a half or over a much longer duration?—was a favorite parlor game of Shakespeareans for more than a century, and the temptation to straighten out the play’s story into an orderly, linear succession of events remains irresistible to many readers.¹ In this chapter,...

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pp. 189-194

Untimely matter in the time of Shakespeare challenges the fantasy of the self-identical moment or period, of the sovereign moment-state divided from its temporal neighbors. It materializes instead a temporality that is not one. Yet in all the instances I have examined in this book, untimely matter remains potentially in thrall to what we might call Eastern Standard Time: the presumption that the orient, where the sun rises, is the location of the past. The...


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pp. 195-234

Works Cited

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pp. 235-259


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pp. 261-273


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pp. 275-278

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202205
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812241181

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 759158249
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare

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Subject Headings

  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc
  • Literature and history -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Great Britain -- History -- 1066-1687 -- Historiography.
  • Literature and society -- Great Britain -- History.
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