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  • Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage
  • Tanya Pollard (bio)
Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage. By Gail Kern Paster . Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Illus. Pp. xvi + 274. $35.00 cloth.

How did it feel to inhabit a body in early modern England? When characters in Shakespeare's plays describe their lethargy, wrath, melancholy, and pleasure, how much of their experience is lost in translation across a historical and cultural gap, and how, if at all, can we reconstruct it? Gail Kern Paster's important and influential work has brought these questions to the forefront of scholarship on the early modern body. In The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (1993), she established a crucial framework for understanding early modern subjectivity by demonstrating the centrality of humoral physiology to the period's medical and literary imagination. Drawing especially on Norbert Elias's account of the civilizing process and Mikhail Bakhtin's model of the grotesque body, Paster painted a compelling portrait of a porous, permeable body—defined by the humors coursing in, out, and through it—whose openness triggered anxieties, embarrassments, and disciplinary urges. In Humoring the Body, Paster extends and deepens her insights into the [End Page 356] humoral self, demonstrating not only the inseparability of emotional and physiological experience but especially, and more surprisingly, the ways in which both are embedded in the natural world.

Paster argues that early modern understandings of the emotions were rooted in an overarching world view composed of intimate correspondences between inner and outer, microcosm and macrocosm. Mind, body, and natural world not only reflect each other, but are fundamentally the same thing:

[T]he passions—thanks to their close functional relation to the four bodily humors of blood, choler, black bile, and phlegm—had a more than analogical relation to liquid states and forces of nature. In an important sense, the passions actually were liquid forces of nature, because, in this cosmology, the stuff of the outside world and the stuff of the body were composed of the same elemental materials.


Wind and breath are the same substance, an airy vapor moving both within and between bodies; flesh is made of earth, and vice versa. Emotions, like the body and the outer world, can be hot or cold, wet or dry, slow or lively. As Paster explains, "the humors bring the natural world directly into the body and extend the body out to the natural world" (133). Accordingly, early modern conceptions of emotional experience assume an ongoing reciprocal exchange between the passions, the body, and the surrounding environment.

Paster shows how characters on the early modern stage illustrate this world view by defining identity in relation to natural phenomena and substances. In Hamlet, for instance, the players' description of Pyrrhus emphasizes not only his vengeful wrath but also the physiology and setting that both shape and mirror it: his rugged body, the black night, the flaming towers of Troy. Desdemona's description of Othello's "'puddled spirit'" (47) draws on a broader identification of humors and passions with liquids in order to depict his troubled interior as a muddy cesspool, where brackish water brings toads to life. As this curious internal breeding suggests, humoral logic connects characters not only to the environment but to animals as well. The passions belong to the realm of the senses rather than to the intellect, and as such they are shared by all creatures: Falstaff's melancholy, for instance, links him with cats and bears, and Cleopatra wistfully imagines herself as a horse carrying Antony. Emotions are not distinctively human: rather, they reveal our alignment with a larger natural order.

As Paster demonstrates, the humoral model has important implications for understanding gender distinctions. Inherently cold and damp, women lack not only vitality but also the humors and passions necessary for individuality. Love both requires and creates heat, however, and falling in love could alter women, emotionally and physiologically. Paster shows "the thermal transformations wrought by desire" (109) in several of Shakespeare's heroines: Desdemona, who acquires heat, passion, and autonomy in her love for Othello, only to lose them as...


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pp. 356-358
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