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  • The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries ed. by Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan
  • Rachel Willie
The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. Edited by Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. Pp. xi + 276. $105 (Hardback)

For the last thirty years, early modern studies has been getting emotional; this return to affect has experienced a particular resurgence since the turn of the twenty-first century with groundbreaking work that reengages with Galenic humoral physiology to note the bodily manifestations of emotion. Yet, as Richard Meek, Erin Sullivan, and their contributors argue, emotion was not only considered within a Galenic humoral framework, but also in psychological terms. Although Galenic medicine was being superseded by other methods in the seventeenth century, some aspects still held sway. Nevertheless, Meek and Sullivan’s contention that we should pause and consider the passions holistically bears witness to some important trends in that have taken shape in recent years.

Meek and Sullivan’s introduction begins with an analysis of a short passage from Shakespeare’s Richard II:

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,My soul the father, and these two begetA generation of still-breeding thoughts;And these same thoughts people this little world,In humours like the people of this world,For no thought is contented

(Richard II, 5.5.6-11; qtd. page 1)

Noting the effective (and affective) use of humoral conceits, Meek and Sullivan begin by demonstrating how the threads of Galenic and Aristotelian thought that runs through the passage have led critics to conclude that Richard’s comments are embedded within an ecology of compassion that is very much concerned with the material. However, what is most striking about this passage is Shakespeare’s metaphorical use of humoralism; this observation paves the way for a call to “recover the plurality and creativity of Renaissance and early modern emotion, attending to the multiple intellectual frameworks and aesthetic strategies […] used to probe the meaning of passion and its significance in human life” (3). Language exposes the difficulties of articulating emotion and the essays that follow neatly address the ways in which emotion becomes manifest through medical, religious, and creative discourses in the early [End Page 187] modern period. There is, perhaps, another dimension to this quotation from Richard II: the soul as father impregnates the feminine brain with thoughts and the body is transformed into a microcosm populated by the generative and regenerative qualities of the humors. Whereas commentators often gender the soul female, the metaphorical imagery employed by Shakespeare asserts the soul’s masculine dominance over the female brain. This gendering and engendering of emotion could push Meek and Sullivan’s contention further. Gender often seems to be at the periphery of this volume, though the focus of the book is to reclaim emotion from purely physiological discourses and to gain a broad sense of how emotion operated in this period.

In the early modern period, different systems of knowledge represented and articulated emotion. Meek and Sullivan identify three epistemological frameworks that underpin conceptions of emotion: theology and philosophy; language; politics and performance. These three frameworks form the organizing principles of the book and one of the volume’s strengths is the coherency of agenda across all essays. This shows how each part of the book is not a contained sub-section, but rather part of a network that articulates fluid, multiple, and differing emotional experience. The rhetoric and language of emotion can thus be seen within the theology, philosophy, politics, and performance of emotion and there is movement across the sections as each contributor explores these concepts. One of the book’s aims is not to view emotion as fixed, static, and material, and the malleability of the sections helps to emphasize the motion within emotion while simultaneously lending coherency to discussions.

While the term “emotion” was not used widely until the nineteenth century, its emergence in the late sixteenth century to describe mental and physical states leads to interesting interrogation of the relationship between imagination and the passions. For Meek and Sullivan and many of their contributors (especially in Peter Holbrook...


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pp. 187-192
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