Marchitello, Howard, The Machine in the Text: Science and Literature in the Age of Shakespeare and Galileo

Howard Marchitello, The Machine in the Text: Science and literature in the Age of Shakespeare and Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 236 pp, £55 hb, ISBN 978-0-19-960805-8.

The phrase ‘the two cultures’ has become a somewhat lazy shorthand for a supposed philosophical division between those who seek to understand the world largely through the arts, and those who prefer to use the scientific method. Howard Marchitello here seeks to use this formulation as a lens with which to examine a period almost 400 years before C. P. Snow gave the lecture of that title that sparked more than half a century of sporadically fizzling debate.

Such a journey back to the future is risky, and much recent historical scholarship has been dedicated to the task of removing modern spectacles in order to view the past clearly in its own social, philosophical and political context. Marchitello establishes from the start that in the period under study, science had yet to emerge as a distinct discipline, and that science and literature were then, as he puts it, ‘imbricated’.

Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the person of Francis Bacon. Bacon is often hailed as a prophet of modern science, but most Bacon scholars are to be found in departments of English literature: his reputation rests entirely on what he wrote and not on what he did. Marchitello opens his account with an examination of the scripts written by Bacon for the Gesta Grayorum, the revels that took place at the college of law, Gray’s Inn, in the winter of 1594-95. These entertainments included a scene in which a counsellor urges a prince to set up a library, a laboratory, a museum and a garden in order to pursue the study of the natural world. This programme for a centrally-directed research institution, later developed more fully, is generally held to be the inspiration for the foundation of Britain’s first academy of science, the Royal Society, in 1660.

The ‘machine’ in Marchitello’s title turns up in Hamlet, in the Danish prince’s valediction to Ophelia: ‘Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, Hamlet.’ While most editors simply gloss this as ‘body’, the author wishes to push the concept much further. Over subsequent chapters he proposes that anything that is designed to act instrumentally on another person or object, such that perceptions are changed, can be seen as a machine. With such a definition, it is no stretch at all to find instances of textual ‘machines’, such as Hamlet’s staging of The Mousetrap. For early modern scientists such as Tycho Brahe or Galileo, not only their instruments but the very buildings in which their observations take place are dubbed ‘machinic’, a new adjective Marchitello coins to label objects that are machines by his definition, but not necessarily mechanical. In turn their discoveries, transmitted via ink on paper, become ‘literary’.

The question of definition is fundamental, it seems to me, to any argument about the boundaries between disciplines or the relationships between them. Marchitello’s idiosyncratic approach to meaning left me feeling increasingly insecure as the book progressed. ‘Science’ is a difficult term in this context. In the era under discussion it simply meant knowledge, often secret knowledge. At one point in his exposition Marchitello defines it in a sense even narrower than most modern usage: he chooses to define it as the stage of knowledge-making in which observations are transformed in some way, as Galileo did when he not only observed sunspots, but drew them and concluded that they were indeed on the surface of the Sun. Elsewhere in the book he uses it more loosely, conforming more closely to a modern definition that includes both scientific practice and the knowledge it generates.

‘Art’ is even worse. In the context of the twentieth-century ‘two cultures’ debate, the arts explicitly exclude science. By contrast, in an early modern context ‘art’ invariably meant a special skill or knowledge, and therefore not only included ‘science’ but in some contexts was used almost interchangeably with it. ‘Art’ in this sense is more properly opposed to ‘nature’, and this indeed is the topic of a further chapter in which Marchitello examines artifice and illusion in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. But the ‘art vs nature’ distinction, to my mind, has nothing to do with disciplinary boundaries, and is certainly not an alternative formulation to ‘art (including literature) vs science’, in which art has a very different meaning.

Marchitello draws extensively on the thinking of modern authors in science studies and critical theory to find new ways of looking at both ‘literary’ and ‘scientific’ texts. Individually his case studies provide food for thought, but I was left in doubt that they contributed to a coherent thesis that might offer genuine insight into the early modern mind. By now it is axiomatic that the practices of early modern science were products of their culture, and that there was no clear point of origin for such practices. While Marchitello strains to place science in early modern literature, and vice-versa, he makes little of the fact that during this period both were subsumed in the converging floods of Renaissance humanism and the Protestant Reformation. The new focus on the individual as an agent autonomous in his or her relationship with both God and Nature made possible new, ‘experimental’ forms of drama in which the choices made (or not made, in Hamlet’s case) by characters are the main drivers of the plot, while poets such as Donne strove to reconcile the material with the divine. The same sense of agency revived an interest in empiricism and exploration over received wisdom as routes to understanding the natural world.

I suspect that a disciplinary imperative to focus on the text and nothing but the text put such context-setting beyond the pale. This is fair enough, but limits the book to a readership comfortable with such disciplinary conventions. For me, a style of writing that favours erudite circumlocution over the short, clear sentence makes the book a somewhat gruelling read. I note wearily that accurate copy-editing appears to have become a thing of the past, even for a respected publisher such as OUP: in addition to occasional stylistic infelicities (‘Galileo’s perfectly rational rationale’), the text is strewn with typographical errors.

Nevertheless, I applaud any attempt to present science as integral to the culture of our own time or indeed of any previous time. While I think Marchitello might have done more to think himself into the philosophical context of his chosen period, his examples and their interpretation will provide much scope for further analysis.

Georgina Ferry

Georgina Ferry is a science writer and author. She is currently working on a book about science in the time of William Shakespeare.