Claire Hansen, Shakespeare and Complexity Theory

Claire Hansen, Shakespeare and Complexity Theory (Oxford: Routledge 2017) 222 pp. £105 Hb. ISBN: 9781138291287

Early modern literary studies is witnessing renewed interest in the period’s understanding of knowledge production. From the framework of disknowledge (Katherine Eggert), intuition in the sciences (Mary Thomas Crane), and occult ways of understanding (Mary Floyd-Wilson), scholars are turning to alternative epistemological systems to read early modern literature, particularly drama. Claire Hansen joins this conversation, but also takes a step back from historical context to look at Shakespeare, instead, as a manifestation of a complex system. Hansen suggests we view the Bard as signifying an entire ecology of plays, performances, and cultural assumptions that surround the concept of 'Shakespeare.'

Hansen sets out to explain how complexity theory can be applied to Shakespeare studies. Of course, complexity theory itself, unsurprisingly, is complex, with thirteen specific characteristics or habits that define how a complex system is sustained, renewed, or assimilated. In the hard and soft sciences, complexity theory focuses on the relationship among different parts of a system. Complexity theory thus seeks to read 'a systemic, relational ontology' (3) among various elements of the system. To study complex systems is to understand that they are 'self-organising, dynamic, evolving networks that operate without any centralised control. They are organised spontaneously and are composed of ongoing interactions between different parts' (8). Hansen devotes the first full chapter, then, to elucidating the different characteristics of a complex system, providing a literature review of both implicit and explicit uses of complexity theory in various disciplines, including Shakespeare studies. She argues that applying complexity theory to Shakespeare is not simply another attempt to mark out new space for analysis but rather coextensive with current questions animating the field. As Hansen asserts, 'Shakespeare is not just like a complex system, he (or more accurately, it) is a complex system composed of nested systems, and further, […] each play is a complex phenomenon produced by multiple systems' (29). To study this plethora of systems, Hansen moves from smaller units to larger macro-structures, beginning with dance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and moving to co-authorship in Titus Andronicus, current pedagogical interactions in a classroom discussing The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar in performance today at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The internal play-world of A Midsummer Night's Dream exhibits, for Hansen, a concept in complexity theory known as 'bounded chaos' or a generative disorder (43 and 44-45). This disorder draws out the relations among disparate elements through the vehicle of dance, which Hansen reads as a force 'used to shape the characters, their social relationship and their environments' (43). In this sense, dance in the play serves two functions: to create a means for dissonant interactions and to alter social relationships and the environment. Using contemporary theories regarding how dance as a medium crosses temporal and spatial borders, Hansen relates dance’s disruptive tendencies to the play’s several moments of the faeries’ dance, which mark moments of irruption, reconciliation, and benefaction. Hansen, however, also finds a potentially sinister element to those dances between Oberon and Titania, and Hansen argues that such a reading 'undermines the play’s concluding harmony, and enables us to reconceptualise the relationship between Titania and Oberon, and between the social and environmental systems of the play' (68).

The third chapter, on Titus Andronicus, examines a larger complex system, namely co-authorship. Discussing George Peele’s contributions to the play, Hansen considers the 'self-organising' acts of individual authors as complex systems (75). As Hansen clarifies, '[t]he principle of self-organisation positions the playwright as one agent within the system, rather than the system’s controlling hand. This does not discredit the role of the playwright but relegates it to one part of a larger equation' (75). Self-organisation refers to the emergence in a complex system of a behavior or element that generates order. After covering recent debates and definitions of collaborative authorship, Hansen suggests that the concept of 'stigmergy' (87), or communication made via the environment, can help account for the influence of different writers during the act of composition. From here Hansen moves to studying specific aspects of the play itself, including, for example, the claim that '[t]he play’s use of subterranean space is a central point of stigmergic interactions and therefore a key example of self-organisation' (88). Hansen thus focuses on the Andronici tomb in a scene attributed to Peele and the bloody pit from a scene attributed to Shakespeare.

In the fourth chapter Hansen explores 'unexpected emergence' in the teaching of The Merchant of Venice. Hansen maintains that the category of the unanticipated is generative. Hansen theorizes a shadow network of unforeseen influences and actions in pedagogy, arguing that 'in the complex systemic operations of a Shakespeare classroom, [there can] be room for moments of "shadow" learning that are useful solely because they are not yet allocated to or excluded from a specific, legitimate part of the pedagogic system' (115). From a generative site/moment of uncertainty, students gain the ability to reflect on their own processes of learning. Hansen discusses how The Merchant of Venice at many junctures also considers the act of gaining new knowledge, particularly through the play’s metaphors of cutting.

The following chapter moves even further outward to look at the complex system of Shakespearean tourism in Stratford-upon-Avon and compares this to the Rome/Caesar system in Julius Caesar. Hansen deploys the concept of the 'attractor' in a complex system, explaining '[s]ome parts of the system are more dominant than others, and some behavioral patterns are more "attractive" than others' (149). Attractors are thus 'states or modes of behaviour that the system prefers' (149). Hansen argues that by paying attention to the several attractors in the Stratford/Shakespeare and Rome/Caesar systems we can understand more completely the self-organizing elements that shape 'Shakespeare' and 'Caesar' as complex systems. In both Stratford and Rome, the power of the attractor(s) escapes the idea of a singular figure or location and instead radiates outwards to sustain the complex system.

Shakespeare and Complexity Theory is attempting to achieve something new with how we understand the permutations of Shakespeare throughout multiple, ever-broadening cultural systems. The book’s strongest chapter, on pedagogy, illustrates the ways that 'Shakespeare' can radiate outward and can accommodate new shifts in understanding if instructors embrace, rather than foreclose, the possibilities of unexpected reactions to the texts. Acknowledging that we are continually recreating and rewriting Shakespeare, Hansen’s work allows us to question sedimented understandings of the 'Bard and how shifts in emphasis, input and output, and viewing Shakespeare as a system can alter how we view the work that 'Shakespeare' (defined as a system) creates.

Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill