Henry S. Turner, Shakespeare’s Double Helix

Henry S. Turner, Shakespeare’s Double Helix (London: Continuum, 2007). 129 pp. £ 45 hb/£12.99 pb. ISBN 978-0826491190 (hb)/978-0826491206 (pb).

Coming from a talented scholar in Shakespearean studies, author of an in-depth study on the role of mathematics and craftsmanship in the construction of the Renaissance theatrical practice (The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Arts, Oxford UP, 2006), one could expect the best from the concise Shakespeare’s Double Helix. As he addresses a wider audience interested in relationships between science and literature, Henry S. Turner leaves the erudite New-Historicist approach that characterized his first book for an alert essayistic style. In Shakespeare’s Double Helix Turner aims to show that A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a play where human and non-human characters often meet on the stage, can provide a relevant paradigm to understand contemporary developments in bio-engineering. His arguments unfolds in two separate essays that run parallel to one another on the left-hand and right-hand pages: the first gives priority to the commentary of the Shakespearean text, reviewing its main themes in a relatively classical way; the second is a more daring reflection on the poetical nature and cultural status of science, which welcomes, although with alarming and radical overtones, the prospect of human beings overcoming their limits through genetic manipulation. The reader has the choice between reading the two essays one after the other, or wandering across the facing pages, in order ‘to make spontaneous graftings among ideas and to generate new and entirely unanticipated arguments’ (pp. xii-xiii). Modelled on the DNA helix, this structure can either be taken as a Derridean experiment on creative forms of thoughts, or as a symptom of the difficulty to bridge the gap between the two realms (literary and scientific) that Turner would like to intertwine in a glamorous embrace.

In the left-hand page essay, Turner starts from the fact that the Elizabethan stage was a place where virtually all the boundaries securing a civilized humanity could be transgressed: not only between genres, with the practice of cross-dressing that anti-theatrical critics would repeatedly and repugnantly point at, but also with what Turner calls ‘species-tranvesticism’ (men acting beasts, gods, spirits, clowns, etc.). If Titania and Oberon seem to embody the capricious, often destructive, and inhuman forces of nature in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Puck is certainly the archetypical instance of this transformative power. Yet, as Turner notes, there is only one example of real metamorphosis of a human being in the play, and it is equivocal: Bottom ‘translated’ into an ass-headed chimera – at least in the eyes of Titania. At this point, Turner seems both cautious not to over-interpret the play, and embarrassed by the fact that there is not much in it to substantiate the claim that Shakespeare did anticipate ‘many of the difficulties raised by modern stem cell research and posthuman entities such as the clone, the chimera, the xenotransplant’ (p. 100). The crux of the play, the ‘love juice’ that Puck unsparingly pours over the eyelids of lovers, seems to point to love’s power to confuse judgment, rather than to Shakespeare’s possible fascination for physical change. Turner tries to link our modern anxieties with Shakespeare’s light, fanciful, and overtly incredulous handling of Ancient mythology by calling to early-modern alchemy and occult science: referring to the commonly-held creed that words were not entirely arbitrary signs and that their phonetics could provide some positive indications on the nature of things, so that the poet as artifex would often be described as a sort of magus, Turner jumps to the conclusion that theatre became ‘a poetic laboratory, in which the poet might exercise his power to create fanciful substances’ (p. 12). As he pictures Shakespeare absorbed in a Dr. Frankenstein-like experiment on manipulating life, the author often seems to be out of tune with the play’s humorous treatment of love and its subtle eroticism: when Helena compares her heart to steel, a most topical (and meaningless) image, Turner glosses over the ‘image of a fervent young woman whose metal heart beats with the steadfast devotion of a mechanical implant – a cyborg manufactured through the grafting tool of metaphor’ (p. 96). More annoyingly, when he asserts that ‘during the period when humanism was in its moment of ascendance, A Midsummer’s Night Dream provokes a radical re-questioning of humanism and the categories of life upon which it depended’ (p. 102), the author uses the notion of ‘humanism’ in a trivial and anachronistic way, which has not much to do with the Renaissance notion of litterae humaniores. One wonders whether Turner chose the right literary example to illustrate his own post-romantic vision of science, a tired version of the modernist cliché of ‘a brave new world’, with its uncanny blend of catastrophism (‘Theseus occupies the White House […] but Puck has entered the laboratory, and the ‘human mortals’ will never be the same’, he concludes, p. 108) and straightforward enthusiasm (‘the more unpredictable, the better’, p. 109).

The second essay, on the right-hand page, does not do much to dissipate the confusion. Drawing from James Watson’s The Double Helix and Francis Crick’s memoir What Mad Pursuit, this meditation on the discovery of DNA by the two Nobel-winners revolves around the idea that Shakespeare’s play, exploring ‘the forme of things unknown’, prefigures our post-human future. But at least three different arguments are interwoven in this account, without being clearly distinguished. The main one is that genetic engineering and biotechnology, more especially, should be envisioned ‘not simply as a new application of scientific knowledge but rather as a new mode of poetics, and that Shakespeare’s own work provides a model just for such an approach’ (p. 7). But apart from phantasmagorical visions of ‘human ears grown on the backs of mice’, ‘teeth of pigs sewn into rat intestines’, and ‘goats whose milk contains spider proteins’ (p. 99), Turners remains quite superficial, without ever discussing the ethical problems at stake. Too often, he relies on haphazard observations: two fibroblast growth factor genes were named Thisbe (ths) and Pyramus (pyr) by biologists at Berkeley, a tribute to Shakespeare’s play-within-the-play (p. 21); the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Shakespeare Company collaborated on the commercialization of a new fragrance, ‘Puck’s Potion’ (p. 27); like Shakespeare, Crick did think of Apuleius when he renamed his house ‘The Golden Helix’, and he won his first prize at school for collecting wild flowers, ‘Oberon-like’ (p. 57). And so on and so forth. As he anticipates his readers’ objections that he might be just playing with words, Turner puts forward a second argument, quite different from the first: going back to Bacon and Galileo, he questions the process of modernity which tended to establish stronger boundaries than before between science (observing facts) and literature (creating fictions). Equipped with Bruno Latour’s revisionist version of the sociology of science, Turner objects to the positivist assumptions which underlie an often too common vision of the history of science, suggesting that science remains at heart a mimetic activity, re-presentative rather than simply presentative: experiments produce facts instead of simply collecting them, scientific demonstrations require ‘dramatology’, and the scientist, like the poet, is an onomastikos whose main activity is ‘sign-creating’ much more than measuring or calculating. Maybe, the reader is willing to concede, but is this to say that poetry could conversely be viewed as pure science in a non-metaphoric sense, and that ‘Shakespeare’s theater was the first modern cybernetic system, a machine in which the poet grafted the living body of the actor to the props and prosthetics that fabricated personhood’ (p. 85)? Diffuse but always present, a third argument threatens the coherence of the whole essay: that Nature itself would be the great poet, combining lines artfully to write the genetic code. The metaphor of the Great Book has always been inspiring, especially when one remains vague.

As an attempt at studying original links between Shakespeare and science, Shakespeare’s Double Helix remains inconclusive, telling more about the status of the Bard as a reservoir of metaphors in Anglo-Saxon culture, or about messianic visions of contemporary genetics, than about their actual connections. The best suggestion, then, is to go back to The English Renaissance Stage and to find what the same author can do at his best: a thorough, well-documented, and essential study in the ‘technology’ of theatre, which will be read and re-read as a reference book. As for Shakespeare’s Double Helix, it might be read as a courageous and sometimes brilliant essay in vulgarisation, but even so, it remains a little too fraught with what Shakespeare’s Theseus, amusingly referring to lovers and madmen, calls the ‘shaping fantasies’ of ‘seething brains’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream, 5. 1. 2-4). There is much more in it than cool reason can ever comprehend.

Nicolas Correard, University of Paris.