Monday, December 10, 2012

Poisonous Words: The Fallout in the Early Twentieth Century

In the course of doing some JSTOR research, I stumbled across this absolute gem from the British Medical Journal (1900). It's from an article called "Speech as a Septic Influence":

"Not long ago Hubener raised his voice in warning as to the infective possibilities of the surgeon's beard, and recommended that ornamental appendage to be enclosed in what may be called a bacterium net. One may conjure up a prophetic vision of the twentieth-century surgeon with antiseptic mask, beard-bag, gloves, and sterilised robe, operating within a glass sanctuary into which no one is admitted except after the fullest disinfectant lustration. But Fluegge's doctine [that speech puts forth germs into the world] has a much wider application... If speech has these hitherto undreamt-of dangers for the audience, Parliamentary and pulpit orators will have to wear germ-catching muzzles; this, besides protecting their hearers, will doubtless have the further advantage of making their eloquence less copious as well as more sanitary. Society would find in the same sanitary appliance an effective safeguard against bores." (Feb. 17, pg 401)

I love this passage for a number of reasons (principal among them, the idea of a "beard-bag," which I'm trying to imagine appearing on a show like ER or Grey's Anatomy.) I think the most interesting (and the most terrifying) thing about the piece, though, is the way that it couples light sarcasm with the idea of sanitary measures. After all, nobody understands the extent to which germs can be verbally transmitted yet: preventative measures like antiseptic masks (for doctors) and "germ-catching muzzles" (for preachers!) are spoken of as equally possible necessities. At the same time, delightfully, the author is implying that both measures are also equally ludicrous. I'm tempted to pull this out in a classroom setting, ask what the author is doing rhetorically, and then ask the students what we're saying today that will look equally hilarious (and terrifying) in a hundred years...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Almonds, Onions, and Lettuce

What do these foods have in common, you may ask? Well, according to Sir Thomas Elyot (writing in The Castle of Health, in 1539), they're the early modern equivalent of Lunesta. Here are a few excerpts from Elyot's useful self-help guide, which tells users how to balance their humors by eating particular foods:

Almonds "do... clense without any byndynge, wherfore they purge the breste and lunges, specially bytter almondes. Also they do mollifye the bealy, prouoke sleape, and causeth to pysse well, fyue or syx of theym eaten afore meate, kepe a manne from beynge drunke, they be hot and moyst in the fyrst degre." (22v)

Lettuce: "AMonge all herbes, none hath soo good iuyce as letise: for somemen do suppose, that it maketh aboundance of bloude, al be it not very pure or perfyte. It doth set a hote stomake in a very good temper, & maketh good appetite, and eaten in the euennynge, it prouoketh slepe, albe it, it neither doth lowse nor bynd the bealye of his owne propertie. It increaseth mylke in a womans breastes, but it abateth carnall appetite, and moche vsynge therof, hurteth the eye syghte. It is colde and moyst temperatly." (23v)

Onions "styre appetite to meate, and put awaye lothsomnesse, and lowse the bealy, they quycken syght: and beynge eaten in great abundance with meate, they cause one to sleape soundely." (26v--theoretically. The printer had a bit of a mix-up, and labeled page 26 '29' by mistake.) (all italics mine)

So: if you're hoping to fall asleep after your Thanksgiving feast, maybe eat salad with your turkey? (Or just rely on the turkey itself. Which, as we all know, not only contains tryptophans, but is also "hot and moist.")

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sleep Advice from the Elizabethan Era

In 1636, a book called The Haven of Health was republished in London, in its sixth edition. This book, quite frankly, is a gem. After 240 chapters of recipes and helpful hints about improving your health through food (tip: "raw Creame well boiled with a little Sugar, is a good nourishing meate, and good for a weake student"), Thomas Cogan turns his attention to sleep:

" is most wholesome to sleepe first on the right side, that the meat may the better descend to the bottome of the stomacke, and be nearer to the liver. Which is to the stomacke as fire to the pot, and after to turne to the left side. For this change doth greatly ease the body, and helpeth concoction. But to lie upon the backe, causeth flegme and other humours to fall into the hinder part of the head, where is the originall of the sinewes, and by that meane the spirits being stopped, the nightmare (as they call it) and palsie, and such like maladies be engendred. Again to lie on the belly, draweth the humours to the eyes, and so hurteth the sight. Yet it helpeth them that have feeble digestion. And we must not onely regard that wee lie on the... side, but also that wee lie with our heads somewhat high, well bolstered up, having sufficient clothes upon us, least that while naturall heate is within about digestion, the outward parts be grieved with cold. It is good also to weare a kerchiffe, or some such like thing in the night on our heads. But to have the feet covered with shoes or otherwise, is very hurtfull to the sight and memory, and distempereth the whole body with heate..." (274).

Clearly, I should not be asking for those fuzzy socks for Christmas.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sleeping on Stage

Hi again! I took a month-long hiatus from blogging to concentrate on my teaching and my dissertation, but I wanted to mention a really interesting staging of sleep that I saw at a conference recently.

A few weekends ago, I went to Grand Valley State University to take part in their Shakespeare Festival Conference, and I saw a performance of Richard III. Set in a half-modern world of gangs and graffiti, the performance featured a large tarp mounted on the left side of the stage, where a running tally of the dead bodies was kept in hot pinks, blacks, and greens.

Here's where sleep comes in. During the portion when Clarence dies (a death caused by a chainsaw, incidentally, and not a butt of malmsey), the murderers approach from stage right--and Clarence's bed is behind the tarp on the left. The audience can see Clarence's outlined shadow, breathing quietly, but not his features, clothes, or expression. As the murderers do their brutally comic routine, Clarence sleeps, and the audience watches--but only halfway, because the actual body has been replaced in our sight by a simulacrum, and that simulacrum is characterized by the graffitied death count that literally overwrites it. It's a fascinating and rich tableau (complicated even further when the chainsaw-wielding murderer does his thing, and the tarp gets splattered with hot pink 'blood.')

There are a few importance consequences of this staging. First, it literalizes the early modern connection between sleep and death--and the correspondence between the sleeper and the already-dead, codified in language and numbers (and record-keeping). Second, it puts distance between the audience and the (doomed) sleeper, by interspersing a written record of deaths to separate them. Third, it extends the possibility of never quite knowing the identity of a sleeping body, because its features, expression, and even clothing are not distinctly visible--even though the outline can be seen.

I'll have to think more about this production, and its consequences for the portrayal of Clarence's body, but I wanted to jot down some notes, and to update the blog!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Petrarch's Rime Sparse 65: Saturday Sonnet-in-Translation

For this week, here's something slightly different: a prose translation (by Robert Durling) of the famous moment when Petrarch sees Laura for the first time. Enjoy the poem!

Rime Sparse 65

Alas, I was little wary at first, the day when Love came to wound me, who step by step has become lord of my life and sits and the summit!

I did not believe that by the power of his file any bit of strength or worthiness would fail in my hardened heart, but so he goes who esteems himself too highly.

Form now on any defense is too late, except to test whether Love looks on mortal prayers much or little.

I do not pray--nor can it be--that my heart burn moderately, but that she have her part of the fire. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mingle Mangle Invective (Saturday Not-quite-Sonnet)

This week, we have a prefatory poem to Rachel Speght's 1617 polemic A Mouzell for Melastomus. Writing in response to an antifeminist tract by Joseph Swetnam, Speght castigates the tract's disorganized rhetoric (or "mingle mangle invective") in her letter before the work. Perhaps to continue this theme, the prefatory poem stresses Speght's education, and shows off Speght's own organizational and rhetorical skills (if, in fact, Speght is the author).

If he that for his Countrie doth expose
himselfe unto the furie of his foe,
doth merit praise and due respect of those,
for whom he did that perill undergoe:
Then let the Author of this Mouzell true
receive the like, of right it is her due.

For she to shield her Sex from Slaunders Dart
and from invective obtrectation,
hath ventured by force of Learnings Art
(in which she hath had education)
to combate with him, which doth shame his Sex,
By offring feeble women to perplex.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dorothy Sayers: Saturday Sonnet

In honor of the start of the school year, here's a sonnet from Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night, about the still harbor (and the concomitant vibrant motion) offered by the academy. Within the setting of the novel, Harriet Vane writes the opening octave, and Peter Wimsey writes the closing sestina. (As an added bonus, the whole thing weighs in on the sleep trope that resonates throughout the work.)

Here, then, at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled,
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that we upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying, so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.

For a probing discussion of this sonnet, see the comments on this entry in the blog Commonplaces.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Part III: The Modern Version of Astrophil and Stella #2

If I were to teach this sonnet, I'd teach it out of the Oxford paperback edition of Sidney's Major Works, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. Here's the way that text represents the sonnet:

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed~ shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed:
But known worth~ did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw, and liked; I liked, but loved not;
I loved, but straight did not what love decreed:
At length, to love's decrees I, forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite~
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint~ my hell.

So: what are the instructive differences between this version, my recollected version, and the first published version? Right off the bat, my recollection and this version seem much more similar. (There's a reason for that: I memorized the sonnet out of this edition a few years ago). Still, my version has evolved: I'm clearly influenced by the dash-happiness of Emily Dickinson, for example, and I use dashes instead of colons or semi-colons to enhance the feelings of rushed enjambment in the sonnet. This might be because I memorize by reading out loud--giving me a different perspective on line breaks. I tend to see them less as caesuras than as flexible sluice-control devices, if that makes sense.

Secondly, and less obviously, my version isn't staking an authority claim. Both the Oxford edition and the 1591 edition are framing themselves as authoritative presentations of the sonnet--either through a preface, explaining the care and research that informs the sonnet text, or through the scholarly apparatus of endnotes (~ marks here) seeking to explain the precise meaning of potentially confusing words. My edition, conversely, doesn't claim authoritative status. It will never be cited or consulted in classes, and it has no historical cachet. Instead, it acts as a digital performance--one iteration of a personalized, remembered recitation, reflecting one specific personal interaction with the text. Here, my version starts to cross over into manuscript culture, even though I'm typing this in a new print medium. If I can internalize, modify, and re-iterate this sonnet on a blog that functions like a miscellany, then I'm doing an altered version of an early modern practice: compiling and rewriting texts, in the context of other texts, for my own purposes. While my version of the piece has different punctuation and wording than the others, then, it also represents a slightly different approach to poetry itself.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Part II: the 1591 edition of Astrophil and Stella #2

The earliest edition of Astrophil and Stella available on EEBO is the 1591 edition, printed for Thomas Newman. As a whole, the edition is characterized by oddly placed commas--but framed by a fascinating introduction, in which the 'finder' of the piece positions it within both manuscript and print culture:

"I haue beene very carefull in the Printing of it, and where as being spred abroade in written Coppies, it had gathered much corruption by ill Writers: I haue vsed their helpe and aduice in correcting & restoring it to his first dignitie, that I knowe were of skill and experience in those matters." (A2r)

At first glance, Newman here seems to be simultaneously denigrating the manuscript transmittors of the piece (they have introduced corruption into the work) and relying on their advice to perfect it (they have also brought it back to an originary state of "dignitie"). Because of a late-coming clause, though, it's possible that Newman consulted those "of skill and experience" instead of the manuscript transmitters, who are a separate group. Still, the possibility of the elision of these groups is suggestive. Manuscript transmission, under this elision, is capable both of perfecting and corrupting a text, depending on the analyst's point of view.

In light of this paradox, my attempt at transcribing the sonnet from memory yesterday can be seen in two different ways: an original, personal version of the text, based on my own "skill and experience" with Astrophil and Stella--or a corruption of Sidney's authorial intention, which ought to be corrected by public-spirited (and/or profit-seeking?) folks like Newman. Below is Newman's more "authoritative" version of the sonnet--but is it actually more official, or less corrupt, than mine?

NOt at first sight, nor with a dribbing shot,
Loue gaue the wound, which while I breath will bleede:
But knowne, worth did in tract of time proceede,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I sawe and lik'd, I lik'd but loued not,
I lou'd, but did not straight what Loue decreede:
At length to Loues decrees, I first agreede.
Yet with repining at so partiall lot.
Now euen that foot-steppe of lost libertie
Is gone, and now like slaue borne Muscouite:
I call it praise to suffer tyrannie, 
And nowe imploy the remnant of my wit
To make my selfe beleeue that all is well,
While with a feling skill I paint my hell.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Part 1: Astrophil and Stella #2: Memorizing a Saturday Sonnet (Special Edition)

This weekend, for fun, I'm conducting a little experiment. First, I'm going to type a sonnet from memory. Then, I'm going to see how the first published version on EEBO records the same work. Finally, I'll check the published scholarly edition that I'd point my students toward, if I were to teach the sonnet. Here's the first part:

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed--
but known worth did, in mine of time, proceed
'til, by degrees, it had full conquest got.
I saw and liked; I liked--but loved not;
I loved; but straight did not what love decreed.
At length, to love's decrees, I, forced, agreed--
yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now, even that footstep of lost liberty
is gone, and now, like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny--
and so employ the remnant of my wit
to make myself believe that all is well,
while, with a feeling skill, I paint my hell.

[Sidney, Astrophil and Stella]

I chose this sonnet because I knew the punctuation and spelling [Muscovit?] would be interesting. Tomorrow, I'll dig up the first EEBO version that I can find, and we'll see where the differences are. Hopefully, we can also illustrate some of the word-level and sentence-level changes that could take place within a culture of manuscript transmission--which, interestingly, has much in common with the modern blogosphere.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jonson's CXXVIII, "To William Roe" (Saturday Sonnet)

I've been thinking this week about poetry's role within a community. If lyric is sometimes an expression of inwardness, after all, it also anticipates an audience, and even sometimes engages with that audience directly. This engagement, in turn, can foster a sense of community--particularly among absent friends, connected by the lyric and its material/remembered presence. Here, as an example, is Jonson's CXXVIII, "To William Roe":

Roe (and my joy to name) th'art now, to go
countries, and climes, manners, and men to know,
to extract, and choose the best of all these known,
and those to turn to blood, and make thine own:
May winds as soft as breath of kissing friends
attend thee hence; and there, may all thy ends,
as the beginnings here, prove purely sweet,
and perfect in a circle always meet.
So when we, blest with thy return, shall see
thyself, with thy first thoughts, brought home by thee,
we each to other may this voice inspire;
This is that good Aeneas, passed through fire,
through seas, storms, tempests: and embarked for hell,
came back untouched. This man hath traveled well.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Spenser's Amoretti 63: Saturday Sonnet

Every once in a while, when it seems like everyone in the Renaissance is staggering about under the weight of unrequited love, I pick up Spenser's Amoretti. Below: the words of the poet who actually got the girl.

After long storms and tempests' sad assay,
which hardly I endured heretofore,
in dread of death and dangerous dismay,
with which my silly barke was tossed sore;
I do at length descry the happy shore,
in which I hope ere long for to arrive.
Fair soil it seems from far and fraught with store
of all that deare and dainty is alive.
Most happy he that can at last achieve
the joyous safety of so sweet a rest,
whose least delight sufficeth to deprive
remembrance of all paines which him oppressed.
All paines are nothing in respect of this;
all sorrows short that gain eternal bliss.

[sonnet 63]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Acid Test: Sleep in the work of Dorothy L. Sayers

I've been planning the introduction to my dissertation recently (which means that it's almost done! Deep breaths!), and I've been re-reading the passages that led me to think about watching a sleeper in the first place. Principal among them is a gorgeous piece of prose from the Renaissance scholar Dorothy L. Sayers--who translated Dante, but is most famous for her detective stories. In this passage, Lord Peter Wimsey (her main sleuth) has gone punting with Harriet Vane (the woman he loves, and has loved, unrequited, for years). When he falls asleep in the boat, Harriet studies his sleeping form:

"It was a neat and noiseless kind of sleep... but asleep he undoubtedly was. And here was Miss Harriet Vane, gone suddenly sympathetic, afraid to move for fear of waking him and savagely resenting the approach of a boatload of idiots whose gramophone was playing (for a change) 'Love in Bloom...' Another person's sleep is the acid test of our own sentiments. Unless we are savages, we react kindly to death, whether of friend or enemy. It does not exasperate us; it does not tempt us to throw things at it; we do not find it funny... But sleep is only an illusion of weakness and, unless it appeals to our protective instincts, is likely to arouse in us a nasty, bullying spirit. From a height of conscious superiority we look down on the sleeper, thus exposing himself in all his frailty..." (Gaudy Night, Hodder and Stoughton, New English Library [1935] 2003, 361).

That passage has always stopped me cold. Sayers never comes out directly and says that Harriet has fallen in love with Peter. Instead, there is a look, there are a few brief reactions--and then there's this passage, the observation of a suddenly beloved sleeper, a simultaneous admission of his vulnerability and her own. With the option open to her, Harriet chooses not to indulge in "conscious superiority"; the acid test has shown her feelings for a vulnerable man who cannot openly reciprocate them yet, and she reacts by resenting the boatload of idiots (and their gramophone).

Then, fabulously, she goes through Wimsey's belongings, and starts reading his books until he wakes up. First up: Religio Medici. Second: Donne. With the choice of these books/writers, Sayers is framing the encounter in the context of not only sleep/love, but sleep/death, and--more specifically--sleep/early modern death. How and why is she doing this? To what end? What does the acid test tell us about viewers of sleepers in early modern literature itself? Will Peter and Harriet ever get together?? Tune in for the next installment...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Shakespeare, Sonnet #116: Saturday Sonnet

I've been reading the quirky and thought-provoking Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss. It tells the story of Marie and Pierre Curie, as they discover radium, polonium, and their terrifying properties. It also explores the imbrication of marriage, love, decay, fallout, light, heat, and death, in a provocatively visual way. This week's Saturday sonnet is an old favorite that takes up all of these themes, newly reinflected for me by Redniss' work.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit impediments. Love is not love
which alters when it alteration finds,
or bends with the remover to remove--
oh, no. It is an ever-fixed mark
that looks on tempests and is never shaken;
it is the star to every wand'ring bark
whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
within his bending sickle's compass come;
love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
but bears it out, even to the edge of doom.
  If this be error, and upon me proved,
  I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Twitter as Memory Theater

In her thoughtful book Shakespeare's Memory Theatre (Cambridge UP, 2010), Lina Perkins Wilder says that props, actors, and the space of the performance area "provide the vocabulary of Shakespeare's memory theatre, but they do not function merely as physicalized reminders or mnemonic res... Rather, in their frequent absence such objects become a way to evoke a mind and a past that move between the common (shared by the audience, staged elsewhere in the play) and the comparatively private (unstaged, but described in ways that evoke the physical materials of the stage)" (2).

I've been thinking a lot about the role of Twitter in my research recently, and this quote made me think about the status of individual tweets. If Shakespeare's actors, props, and even spaces could be not only reminder-objects but points of merger between a "common" and a "comparatively private" space, could tweets somehow be the modern equivalent of those objects, allowing past and present, thinking and viewing, absent and present, to merge?

I've recently found myself tweeting mnemonically, for lack of a better way to describe it. There's a great Folger blog post on signatures that I know I'll want to find again, for example, and so I sent a tweet about it to remind myself where it is and what it said. Even as that tweet serves me as a memory device, though, it's also an act of performance with an audience: I'm publicly remembering, in such a way that other Twitter users can access a virtual space, and remember the same thing that I'm choosing to remember. Absent things and people (the Folger blog, my Twitter followers) are entering a dialogue with the things that I'm currently doing and writing. I'm not sure if that makes the Twitterverse a giant memory theatre, or something more along the lines of a giant, group-accessible diary. What do you think?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sidney's Astrophil and Stella 39: Saturday Sonnet

There's nothing like starting your weekend with a big breakfast and a piping hot sonnet. This week, we have Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella #39 ("Come sleep.") Enjoy!

Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof shield me from out the prease
Of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw:
O make in me these civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, softest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland, and a weary head;
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella's image see.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Models for Academic Communities of Dissertators, Part Two

Like the early modern period (see previous post), our own era has one or two helpful models of community that could be applied to dissertators as well. Here they are:

  • Twitter. I love Twitter. It forces me to think in small units (i.e., units smaller than dissertation chapters). And then it lets me share those small units with other people, who actually--improbable as it may sound--are also interested in Ben Jonson's birthday. There are two benefits here: 1) the forging of a larger scholarly community, through direct interpersonal interaction, and 2) the production of a  record of these interactions. So I can go back through my tweets and remember when Ben Jonson's birthday was, and who else is interested. Twitter is great.
  • Facebook. Also useful, but less professionalizable than Twitter. It still produces a record of interaction, though, and provides almost instant access to my local team of Latin language experts. (Salve, guys!) For that alone, Facebook is invaluable. But slightly less cool than...
  • The Borg. Wouldn't that be fabulous? Borg-ness would be particularly helpful while teaching. Instead of saying "Well, Billy, I'll have to look that up and get back to you by e-mail," you could say "Fabulous question, Willliam. According to my colleague in the history of science, that happened in 1625. On a Tuesday."
So there we have it. Early modern and modern models of community, for folks who stare at laptops most of the time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Models for Academic Communities of Dissertators, Part One

The early modern period had a range of useful ways to think about community, and (in my sitting-by-myself-at-a-desk-with-my-laptop mode) I'm wondering if any of them would help create a sustained/more official approach to community for grad students who are writing most of the time. So, in no particular order, here we go:

  • Compulsory weekly attendance at an event? (For the Elizabethans, this was church: you heard a sanctioned, official sermon, saw a bunch of local people, and--if you were Shakespeare's dad--avoided the group entirely, so as not to get thrown in jail for debt.) This could work for dissertation writers: we could substitute mock job talks for sermons, and ban debt collectors while we're at it.
  • Eating together? (This is also church-driven--in fact, by a process called communion. In the 1600s, whether you thought the bread and wine was metaphorical, literal, or (trans)figurative, you got together with like-minded folks to partake pretty frequently. While we do have "brown bag" events in my department, they're geared toward learning a specific skill or interacting with a guest speaker--we could have regular eating events with no agenda, just for the sake of communing with each other.
  • The maypole? Okay: this is mostly aimed at my desire to see department members skipping around with ribbons. Still--there are some department intramural athletic teams. Maybe I could go into training, learn not to trip on myself, and join them.
Next time: Non-early modern models of community for dissertators (with possible Star Trek references...)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shakespeare at the Olympics: Lots of Layers

While watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics last night, I was struck by the layers of meaning beneath Kenneth Branagh's reading of the "Isle is full of noises" speech. While the speech itself is a sterling example of English poetry, and is frequently excerpted as such, it loses a lot of meaning when it's stripped of its context. The original speaker is Caliban, in the Tempest--an enslaved servant, forced to do the bidding of his powerful master Prospero. Prospero has a history of manipulating his servants by affecting their humors--the fluids that are balanced in the body, and that govern both mood and personality. By altering the humors, Prospero can send inconvenient people (like his daughter, Miranda) temporarily to sleep. As part of the plotline, Caliban tries to turn the tables on Prospero. He encourages two rogues to try to kill the wizard while he's sleeping. In other words, sleep in the Tempest is pretty terrifying. Those high in the pecking order have to fear that they'll never wake up; their subordinates, meanwhile, experience sleep either as a method of escape, or as a terrifying, enforced state of inactivity. When Branagh reads these lines, then, there's a lot going on:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again (3.2.148-156).

Is Caliban actually experiencing Prospero's attempt to influence his humoral balance here? (Music was thought to alter a person's humors, and--from that perspective--the "noises" Caliban hears might actually be trying to manipulate his state of consciousness, forcing him indeed to "sleep again," if Prospero wishes it.) If so, this sleep is extremely dangerous, because it's externally induced, and essentially tortures a slave--taunting him with riches, so that he "cries" when he is forced to wake. Or, alternatively, is this sleep actually a state of escape, which Caliban can use to temporarily leave his enslaved status behind? Even if that's the case, it's also worth noticing that states of consciousness are being manipulated by external instruments and voices here, and the power dynamics of both colonialism and early modern humoral medicine are very much in play.

Knowing this background, to put these words in the mouth of a famous Shakespearean actor is one thing. To put them in the mouth of a famous Shakespearean actor dressed up as a Victorian business mogul (one galvanizing the Industrial Revolution, no less!) opens up a wide range of possible overtones, some of which clash a little with each other. A powerful man in top hat and tails, rejoicing as workers create smokestacks, sounds more like Prospero than Caliban--and the riches that he gained from his work were no doubt more material than illusory. In the context of last night's performance, then, Caliban's speech served a number of rhetorical functions: it represented the luxurious language of a national-treasure playwright, but it also carried traces of colonial interactions and medical discourse, which clashed and merged with the Victorian/Olympic/Branagh context in a jarring but interesting way. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finding Community after Coursework

I took my prelims (the exams that many schools call comps) in Summer 2010. During my three-month study period, I figured that I was making a big transition: I was going from writing a few 20-page seminar papers per semester to writing one giant, whopping, massive document for a long long time. What I didn't realize, though, was that the circumstances of my writing would also change. When I wrote seminar papers, I interacted with groups of my peers (plus a set of professors) a few times a week. We had all read the same texts for each class meeting; then, we spent hours discussing them, situating them in context, and debating the published criticism. Looking back, it was a fabulous way to kickstart my writing process. I have notes in my textbooks about the viewpoints of ten or twelve really smart people, and those notes encapsulate vivid intellectual exchanges, in a community setting.

Now, there's been a shift in the way that I write, and also in the way that I perceive writing. Instead of reading a common text, and hearing ten or twelve opinions about it at once, the onus is on me: I select a text myself (one that has to do with sleeping people). I mine it for data, and find out what others have already written about it, and create some writing of my own. Then, I share that writing--but on an individual basis. I have a fabulous dissertation partner and a fabulous advisor, who both read my work at least twice a month, and who offer their reactions. I'm really lucky to have both of them, and the one-on-one feedback has taken my writing to a more thoughtful and polished level.

At the same time, I'm also starting to wonder about the possibility of group-based togetherness after the coursework stage of the PhD. It seems pretty difficult to imagine ten or twelve dissertators, postdocs or professors coming together fourteen times per semester to discuss fourteen books--it wouldn't be a streamlined use of time, for a start. Still, the classroom model is the foundation of our scholarship, and I'm not sure it's wise to jettison it entirely after reaching a certain stage of the PhD. Thoughts?

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Hi! I'm Nancy, and I'm a PhD candidate in Early Modern English literature at UW-Madison. I'm currently writing a dissertation about watching people sleep. (It sounds a little weird, until you realize how often sleep comes up in Renaissance Literature--in Macbeth alone, Duncan gets murdered in his sleep, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, and Macbeth goes a little nuts from sleep deprivation.) By doing my research, I'm learning that community contexts are vital: community members protect vulnerable sleepers from nasty things like murder (well--unless you're Duncan, that is), and they cultivate an ethos of caring for other human beings in the process. Because my research is so community-focused, I thought it would be a logical step to join the larger online community of people conducting research in the early modern period, to find out about the latest exciting developments and learn more about  digital approaches to humanities work. I'm looking forward to getting started!