- Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare
Whatever its topic, a new book by Angus Fletcher is a safe bet for a provocative mix of striking observations, viewpoints, and arguments. But because of this, it is not easy to paraphrase the argument of his swift, ambitious Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, which in its introduction alone races confidently through the effects of the Reformation on concepts of authority, the re-evaluation of curiosity as a virtue rather than a vice in the seventeenth century, the importance of music to poetry, and the philosophy and cognitive science of reflexive judgment. Motion is more than Fletcher's topic here; it is his method. This book is both short and dense, which makes its rapid argument even trickier to draw a bead on. Its title is slightly misleading: motion and its expression, both mathematical and metaphysical, are indeed its central subjects, but the figures who signal the challenges and opportunities of a new way of understanding motion are more Galileo and Milton than Shakespeare. Drama is not slighted, but as a body of literature it is not given precedence, either; in this stimulating book, "drama" characterizes the response to what Fletcher sees as the new science of motion, and so is as much a term for the analysis of Donne's sermons as of Marlowe's plays.
Fletcher's primary interest in this book is how the new science resonated in the literary works of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This topic, of course, is not new, but it does stand in need of reconsideration in light of both science studies and approaches to theater history in the past two decades. This essayistic volume—it is less a survey than a manifesto—is an exciting opening gambit that asks for further development. Fletcher rightly observes that the study of science in literature is not only, or even primarily, an issue of content—texts that espouse a geocentric universe, for instance, are not his concern merely for that reason. He is interested instead in what he calls in the first chapter "Galileo's metaphor": the idea that the world is represented in a language that gets its accuracy from a continual give-and-take between itself and its object. For Galileo, mathematics is the necessarily distanced and rigorous language of nature that offers a means into the world other than the self-contained natural languages that at best could be seen to run mystically parallel to it. For Fletcher, Galileo's metaphor therefore also revises the understanding that natural language simply mirrors and expresses the world. Mathematics, however closely it can map the world, also signals its own artificiality—it is a language to which nobody is native, although many attain a degree of fluency in it. Like mathematics, natural languages and the people who think through them instead relate to the world by mutually informing it and being informed by it. This transactional relation Fletcher calls "aesthetic," in its etymological sense—it names discourses that [End Page 519] are perceptive and responsive to the world they are part of, like drama, rather than producing "anesthesia," like allegory (11), about which Fletcher has written so influentially. Allegory statically depicts the world; it does not investigate it or, ultimately, answer to it. That which responds Fletcher calls, metaphorically, dramatic or mimetic, although he draws examples as readily from lyric and epic poetry as from theatrical performances and texts.
The crucial change that Fletcher sees taking hold between Marlowe and Milton (despite the prominence of Galileo and Bruno in the framework of this book, the literary figures that Fletcher principally considers are English) is Galileo's insight that mathematics as a language redescribes the world as a mobile whole comprising multiple, not mutually translatable points of view and centers of ability, all related, none wholly reducible to the others. In contrast to the Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian conceptions of motion as natural to and inherent in objects, during the late sixteenth century motion...