David Houston Wood, Time, Narrative, and Emotion in Early Modern England

David Houston Wood, Time, Narrative, and Emotion in Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 199pp. £55.00hb.  ISBN 978-0-7546-6675-2.

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In Time, Narrative, and Emotion in Early Modern England, David Houston Wood explores the relationship between the explicit embodiment in the humoral self and the consideration of how time and temporality shape the concept of the self within early modern discourses related to health and emotion. This study provides a very thought -provoking and challenging reading of texts that remain central to early modern studies as well as a valuable overview of current critical theories. The forms of time that inform early modern medical theory are different from contemporary medical paradigms and it is this difference, Wood suggests, that can lead us to new ways of comprehending early modern selves and their mimetic representation in early modern dramas and other creative fictions (171).

In chapter 1, ‘Timing the Self in Early Modern England’, Wood examines the way in which time shapes the concept of the self within early modern discourses related to health and emotion through an analysis of four canonical early modern texts in which the writers employ such depictions of the self in the narrative structuring of their literary works. Drawing on early modern and current theories related to the timing of the self which centre on the subjective temporality of these texts, Wood considers these literary representations within the context of the critical modes of narratology and psychoanalysis. The texts, chosen by Wood for their notorious narrative or temporal difficulties, range across generic and authorial boundaries, from the prose romance of Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia, to the stage dramas of Shakespeare’s Othello and The Winter’s Tale, to John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. He suggests that that recent critical attention to the gendered, class and racial characteristics of the embodied early modern subject has been hampered by its failure to acknowledge the role time and temporality play within critical theory.

In chapter 2, ‘“The accident of an instant”: Potions, and Poisons in Sidney’s Old Arcadia’, Wood suggests that Sidney’s creative fictions draw upon sudden escalations in corporeal temperature as the cause for a host of emotional significations as demonstrated by his richly affected characters (47). In particular, he explores in depth the ways in which Sidney’s representation of Gynecia comes to embody a crucial function through her role as wife, mother and daughter, and how by means of the sleeping potion she precipitates what Wood terms a crisis of genre for The Old Arcadia as a whole (50). Wood’s reading of Gynecia’s use of the poison as a tool for understanding Sidney’s narrative strategy of suddenness to warn about the effects of passion becomes less effective as his accompanying description of the cultural histories of poison and melancholia in this chapter detracts from his main argument.

Wood opens chapter 3, ‘“Very Now”: Time and the Intersubjective in Othello’, with an acknowledgement of the central feature that has been at the heart of critical interpretation of Othello, that is, the issue of ‘double time’. Time, he argues, stands at the core of the play as a supple and manipulability rhetorical entity (81). Surveying previous critical analysis, he employs the theoretical strands he introduced in chapter 1, using Lacan’s ‘intersubjective’ construct to explore how time works in the play (80). Thus, Wood suggests, character and narrative relationships function in this play as a kind of Lacanian sophism in its own right, one which temporalizes its subject in a way that squares the role of time within the intersubjective logic the text required (81).

In chapter 4, ‘“Not a jar o’ th’ clock”: Time and Narrative in The Winter’s Tale’, Wood argues that Shakespeare takes Leontes’s emotional volatility and derangement as the play’s structuring principle by using the psychosomatic volatility of the humoral body in the nexus of its manifestation of time, temperature and the humours to formulate a narrative volatility (105). Drawing on the work of early modern medical theorists such as Robert Burton and Timothy Bright, Wood suggests that Leontes’s rage without cause follows the contours of the humoral outline of melancholia, sustaining his argument through post-Freudian readings by theorists such as Kathryn Schwarz and Lacan whereby Leontes’s behaviour is defined through the narcissistic patterning of the play (111-112). Wood challenges readings of the play that see Leontes’s jealousy as groundless; he sees that frantic passion of jealously as a specific form of temporally-lived experience – as a psychosomatic humoral state characterized by a subjective form of temporality, juxtaposed with the nostalgic temporal sense that characterized melancholy, and in itself a temporal process of self-definition. Coupled with the play’s experiments with time, for example the sixteen-year gap, Wood’s reading of this play draws attention to the temporal issues Shakespeare investigates that rely on early modern conceptions of melancholy and its related passions: humoral melancholy and jealously exist as emotions within temporally constructed and temporally identifiable worlds (136).

Examining Milton’s dramatic poem in chapter 5, ‘“Spirit of phrenzie”: Narrative Temporality in Samson Agonistes’, Wood moves beyond the critical attempts to make sense of the poem’s unclear ending by means of a humoral reading that promises to offer a fresh outlook on the poem’s characterization, structure and ambiguous conclusion (141). The focus of this chapter centres on Milton’s foregrounding of a purgative medical model in which the essential dynamism of the humoral theory is a fundamental feature. Wood suggests that attention to the treatment of time and temporal processes within the poem well help clarify the poem’s ambiguous characterization. The poem’s representation of mind, body and emotion is steeped in humoral theory because, he argues, despite the advent of the ‘new science’, this was the way people conceived of themselves in terms of health and emotion (143). Wood includes in this chapter a succinct history of the tradition of humoral melancholy and its significance in Samson Agonistes, juxtaposing the link between misused alcohol and humoral melancholy within the social and theological implications of the poem against Samson’s search for heroic action. He argues that Milton’s presentation of humoral melancholy as a process in Samson Agonistes presents Samson not as a flat, melancholic type but rather as a dynamic character who evokes the dangerous volatility inherent in humoral theory.

What emerges from this book is a comprehensive and very learned study that seeks to interpret a cross-selection of early modern texts in a dynamic and meaningful engagement. The linear progression between time, narrative and emotion is at times difficult to follow with the circumlocution that Wood often employs. More transparency in his language would give greater clarity and impetus to his fascinating subject. His footnotes and quotes are excellent, and this innovative book adds a new dimension to early modern critical studies.

Barbara Kennedy, University of Sussex