Paul Budra and Clifford Werier (eds), Shakespeare and Consciousness

Paul Budra and Clifford Werier (eds), Shakespeare and Consciousness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2016) xiv +307 pp. £45.99 PDF, EPUB, £58.00 Hb. ISBN 978-1-137-59671-0

Shakespeare and Consciousness, as the title suggests, explores issues pertaining to the works of William Shakespeare – his dramatic works, in this case – and consciousness, conceived in this study primarily through scientific theory.

The introduction, written by the book’s two editors, begins with the unpacking of consciousness as a key term, grounded in cognitive theory. The opening articulates the overarching justification for the book, that consciousness 'as a critical category has largely been absent from the proliferation of literary and historical studies that have interrogated what has come to be known as “the early modern subject”' (1). The chapter also puts forward the essential argument for the relevance of consciousness as a critical category applicable to Shakespeare, drawing attention to the historical moment in which he lived, and arguing for the significance of its location 'just before Descartes’ cognito, that philosophical movement that inscribed a seemingly indelible divide between the mind and body and "accorded consciousness a privileged position as the proper locus of indubitable cognition"' (5).

The first section of the book focuses on essay chapters that fall under the heading of 'Consciousness, Cognitive Science, and Character', exploring the relationship between these three concepts, with a focus on the critical heritage of Shakespeare’s work. Clifford Werier discusses 'Consciousness and Cognition in Shakespeare and Beyond', articulating that, although '[t]he qualities of consciousness are strained and paradoxical' (19) in the still emerging critical field that emphasizes consciousness and cognitive sciences applied to literature, they can generate significant insights into Shakespeare’s work in particular.

The second chapter, written by Edward Pechter and entitled 'Shakespeare Studies and Consciousness', addresses the relatively new critical heritage – the application of ideas of consciousness to Shakespeare that have preceded this study. The third and final chapter of the first section, 'Hamlet in a Bat Cave', by Paul Budra, examines the construction of Hamlet’s subjective experience, drawing from Thomas Nagel’s 1974 article, 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' to explore the discourse of consciousness and cognitive science in relation to Shakespeare’s writing. In particular, Budra argues that 'Hamlet’s consciousness (in fact the consciousness of any literary characters, but … especially Hamlet’s) is the verbally articulated product of the imaginings inspired (yet restricted) by the text of Hamlet' (85). Given the focus of the book, this appears a particularly apt claim and one that helps to ground the project in a definitive theoretical perspective relating directly to textuality. 'What,' Budra asks, 'does Hamlet, the vehicle for the vacuous agent-concept that is Prince Hamlet, tell us of Hamlet’s consciousness?' He concludes that, although the play 'does seem to invite speculation on the nature of Hamlet’s mind', it ultimately operates as 'a vehicle for the agent-concept of Hamlet' and steers us 'from speculation on the Prince’s consciousness, from his supposed interiority, and towards his outward appearance and performance of madness' (87), which, he adds, 'makes historical sense' (87), and, we may extrapolate, provides quite a clear perspective on the nature of Hamlet’s madness as performative.

The other three sections of the book concentrate on 'Consciousness and Theatrical Practice', 'Consciousness and the Body', and 'Consciousness, Emotion, and Memory', each offering three essay-chapters concentrating on aspects of Shakespeare’s work or methods of reading his work that align to the section’s preoccupations. An interesting discourse on dramaturgy emerges from Amy Cook’s 'King of Shadows: Early Modern Characters and Actors' and Laurie Johnson’s 'The Distributed Consciousness of Shakespeare’s Theatre', both of which concentrate on the historical context in which Shakespeare’s plays were conceived and seek to reflect on the impact of this context upon the formulation of consciousness and the relevance of reading consciousness within Shakespeare’s plays.

Although Hamlet emerges as the primary focus of the study as a whole, with several chapters devoted to discussions of the play, in the third section of the book, Andrew Brown offers a discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, concentrating on the way in which Cleopatra’s consciousness relates to and is ultimately formulated through the references to her body and, more abstractly, the fluidity of her physicality in the language of the play. This chapter is nicely complimented by Elizabeth Hodgon’s 'Forgetting Cleopatra' in the final section of the book. The only other play in focus is The Merchant of Venice in Tiffany Hoffman’s 'Shylock’s Shy Conscience: Consciousness and Conversion in The Merchant of Venice', in the final section of the book, so one of the weaknesses of this study, I would suggest, is that it does not seek to apply theories of consciousness to a broader range of plays. The other problem, mitigated somewhat by Weirer, is that the introduction to the book largely glosses over the key terms of the study, specifically what is meant by 'consciousness' and 'cognitive science' in particular, with the editors concluding that people have some reference of what consciousness is and leaving it at that. While most of us may indeed have some notion of what it means, for instance, to be conscious, and what it is that the self refers to, in terms of cognition, consciousness does remain a relatively unstable term throughout the study.

Despite these potential points of weakness, this is definitely an interesting set of studies and there is much that can be drawn from it by those interested in applying theories of consciousness and cognitive science to literature, and those looking to embrace an alternative approach in considering Shakespeare’s plays.

Charlotte Fiehn, University of Cambridge