Jesse Swan

title.none: Paster, Humoring the Body (Jesse Swan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.017 07.01.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jesse Swan, University of Northern Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Paster, Gail Kern. Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 274. $35.00 0-226-64847-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.17

Paster, Gail Kern. Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 274. $35.00 0-226-64847-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jesse Swan
University of Northern Iowa

On the surface, Gail Kern Paster's book can seem to be dauntingly belabored scholarship on arcane and antique cultural background for the historically punctilious reader. The titles of the monograph and chapters, the precision of the vocabulary, the complexity of the sentences and paragraphs, and the sheer length of the chapters, to say nothing of the physical features of font and page layout, provide much of this surface impression. However, these same features become, for the participating or at least provisionally acquiescent reader, masterful qualities contributing to the cogency of the substance of the book's effort: Through an insistent historical phenomenology, the book provides the regeneration of a psychological materialism informing early modern literature. Because the effort is the regeneration of a materialist poetics quite different from late modernity's, the book must, one realizes as one progresses through the many elaborate expositions, relentlessly claim the reader's committed and imaginatively affective capacities of interpretation. Helping a late modern reader, which is to say a certain kind of materialist reader, understand a very different sort of materialism on its own terms is both difficult and successfully achieved in Humoring the Body.

The most important feature of late modern materialism that is countered by the book is the desire for reductive forms of understanding. Curiously, the objectification achieved by the salient features of Paster's style provides the way out of a concentrated materialism and into the dynamically and mutually constitutive materialism of humoral experience, expressed and produced by the early modern English stage. For instance, in elaborating her richly complex humoral interpretation of Hamlet's "What's Hecuba to him" soliloquy, Paster spends five pages moving the reader from "humoralism's notorious association with physiological typology and its tendency to environmental and physiological determinism" (45) to the understanding that the early modern humoral "construction is of subjectivity prone to continual emotional transformation, thanks to the ongoing tumult or even just the continual movements of inner bodily fluids and...the continual, reciprocal interaction of body, mind, culture, and the environment" (49, 50). With such an understanding of existence, Paster is able to show how Hamlet's series of statements proceed rationally and even literally, for the audience who understands existence humorally, and not idiosyncratically and associatively, as for a more strictly modern audience. Further, Paster is able to move to corrective conclusions concerning many of Hamlet's statements, such as the layered mutuality, as opposed to the materially theatrical imagery, of the following exclamation:

Hah, 'swounds, I should take it; for it cannot beBut I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gallTo make oppression bitter, or ere thisI should 'a' fatted all the region kitesWith this slave's offal. (2.2.576-80) [1]

Here Paster is able to indicate that "in this reciprocal ecology of the passions, to lack a gall bladder oneself is also to fail to spread the bodily entrails of others elsewhere, so that one's own bodily loss translates into a deficit in the natural order... The prince should feed the birds with the corporeal leavings of his manhunt" (49).

While this kind of regeneration of humoral poetics is important and often stunning, the regeneration is achieved better with less theatrical material, such as soliloquies, than with highly theatrical material, such as comic action. For instance, Paster concludes the body of her book with a discussion of a dramatic scene very appropriate to her subject, Ben Jonson's depiction of a "game of vapours" in Bartholomew Fair. "Humors and vapors," Paster explains, "are alike in being fluids: humors denote anything liquid...Vapor is liquid involved with heat and air" (237). They are also alike, one might add, in being material that effect states of being: humors effect the state of being of the body producing the humor; vapor effects the state of being not of the body producing it as much as the body or bodies around it. As implied by this additional observation, the differences between humors and vapors can be more significant than propounded similarities: water is very different from fog, though they share qualities, just as indigestion is very different from flatulence, though they share some qualities. Such an exchange in the relative salience of similarity and difference seems to be at work in Paster's explanation of the game of vapors. In concentrating on the words of the vapor-game scene and discounting other dramatic features, such as venue, setting, and action, Paster too tightly centralizes the operation of humors and vapors. The game of vapors becomes a "quarrel belched," and as such it serves as "an instrumentalization of air that is both humoral self-expression and physiological event, both language and sound, both mental intention and bodily eruption. It signals control and loss of control, aggression and release" (241). [2] In the scene, however, the game of vapors is played at the fetid Hope Theatre--the stench of animals housed for bear-baiting was notorious--at Ursula's booth--a thickly graveolent pig roaster and make-shift brothel at a popular Smithfield fair--and "for a lift" (4.4.1), or, as glossed by Paster's editor, in order to effect a "shift, trick," and, as glossed by other editors, in order to accomplish a "trick, theft." [3] The game is not, as Paster would have it, played for itself, for its power to reveal anything as much as it is played for its function in advancing the plot--stealing the license from Wasp--and in creating the "world of Bartholomew Fair," a world that "is paradoxical and magical," a world in which "nothing is what it appears to be," as Frances Teague, conspicuously unreferenced by Paster, astutely puts it. [4]

As part of such a complex, even bewilderingly complex representation, a representation that includes mirroring the audience in the marionette scenes that comprise the culminating act of the play, the game of vapors demonstrates the impossibility of declaring people adaptable or malleable, stable or changeable in anything, including vapors and humors. The literal vapors of the play's main mise en scene, the pig-woman's booth, which is the setting for the game of vapors, for example, cannot be either graveolent, as I have suggested, or"redolent," as Paster suggests (238). Furthermore, it is not just my humor or Paster's humor that makes the vapors nauseous or fragrant. As the game of vapors in context suggests, both Paster and I would likely come to find the pig-woman's roast vapors imperceptible as we were drawn into other literal and figurative vapors. Certainly, when the vapors of the game turn to physical fighting, as when all "fall by the ears" (s.d. 4.4.107), it is hard to imagine still being taken, either positively or negatively, by the steamy odor of Ursula's booth. By contributing to the dynamism effected by various sorts of vapors and humors, the game of vapors, which overtly carries on into the next scene, is integrated into the development of the plot and theme of the play, as are the spectators and readers, especially emphatically in the final act, and so the game of vapors cannot be a discreet, microcosmic representation of the "psychophysiology" (12) of early modern humoral materialism, as Paster sees it. The reason Paster wants to see the game of vapors as microcosmically representative is that in doing so she can offer us the pleasure of prediction: "As a symbol for embodied emotions, the game changes constantly yet predictably...[and] shows emotionally embodied life as a difficult, fluid, but rule-bound form of play with opposition itself as its event, structure, and goal" (329-40). Further, and more broadly, in seeing the game of vapors, Paster does not hear it, nor does she smell it, something quite remarkable and regrettable in a work of historical phenomenology. Certainly I find it difficult to sustain the assault on my pampered senses and sensibilities that is the game of vapors at Ursula's booth at Bart'lmey Fair in seventeenth- century Smithfield as performed at the bear-baiting ring cum theatre called the Hope, but such an assault is how the rough comedy teaches some of those it does not entertain.

Paster closes this volume concerning the early modern stage with an "Epilogue," that early modern English dramatic convention by which playwrights solicited praise often by way of explaining that, as Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton write in their epilogue to The Roaring Girl, "If we to every brain that's humorous/Should fashion scenes, we, with the painter, shall/In striving to please all, please none at all." [5] However, Paster's epilogue is nothing like those of early modern drama but, rather, it is more like the early modern English rhetorical convention by which authors exhorted readers to follow the writer's advice or be damned, as Sir Philip Sidney does in his peroration to A Defence of Poetry: "yet thus much curse I must send you, in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph." [6] In this manner at the end of her book, Paster calls us to read early modern drama her way, first by explaining that our habit of interpreting early modern emotions "as identical to our own" is the product of "the long dominance of psychological materialism and the historically specific bodily contents that it presupposed" (243), and then second by observing "the fact that certain basic emotions--love, hate, fear, anger, and sadness, for example--are broadly recognizable across wide distances of time and culture" (244). This twinned explanation and observation becomes her motif in the three-page "Epilogue," as it is repeated twice more. Since the explanation and the observation seem to contradict one another, the repetition must be meant to help us imagine a materialism in which the explanation and the observation are perfectly compatible, which would be a materialism, Paster asserts, very different from that of post- Cartesian modernity, particularly of the sort associated with the "'foundational formalism' inherited from Saussure and Derrida" (245). The proposed different way seems to be to label post-Cartesian modernity "abstract" and thereby make it anathema, while labeling early modernity "material" and thereby making it pure. "But as readers," Paster concludes, "we must resist such abstraction [of post- Cartesian modernity] because the vital continuum of ensoulment still exists for Shakespeare's characters and constrains us [if we are to be pure] to think differently about how their passions are embodied and what embodiment means in a pre-Cartesian physical world" (246). Whether or not a reader finds such an exhortation compelling, and whether or not a reader might prefer something more like the epilogue of the early modern stage in this volume's "Epilogue," every reader of Humoring the Body will find much in the book to appreciate, to ponder, and, indeed, to admire.


1. I quote from G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), while Paster quotes from G. R. Hibbard, ed., Hamlet (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).2. In a subsequent elaboration of her thinking on humors and Bartholomew Fair, Paster reiterates: "it is in his brilliant invention of the game of vapors--in which contradiction is the outer expression of the inward self's most fundamental need to declare itself separate and unique--that Jonson hits the humors indeed" ("Bartholomew Fair and the Humoral Body," in Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., Patrick Cheyney, and Andres Hadfield, eds., Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 269.3. Paster draws on the edition by E. A. Horsman, Bartholomew Fair (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960). Some editors, who gloss "lift" as "theft," include C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, Ben Jonson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-63); Eugene M. Waith, Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963); Gordon Campbell, The Alchemist and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin, Drama of the English Renaissance II (New York: Macmillan, 1976).4. The Curious History of Bartholomew Fair (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1985), 46, 45.5. Drama of the English Renaissance II, ed. Fraser and Rabkin, 28-30.6. Ed. Jan Van Dorsten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 75.