Simon Smith, Jacqueline Watson and Amy Kenny (eds), The Senses in Early Modern England 1558-1660

Simon Smith, Jacqueline Watson and Amy Kenny (eds), The Senses in Early Modern England 1558-1660 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2015) 256 pp. £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-7190-9158-2

The theoretical background of the representation of sense perception in art and literature has seen an expansion in recent years as the result of the cognitive turn, and of the subsequently growing attention to perception as embodied experience, analysing it both as the topic and the consequence of engagement with works of art. Along with the embodied approach, furthermore, there is also an aspect of embeddedness of the experience of sense perception, which is defined by culturally specific attitudes to perception and the medium of the particular artwork itself.

The present collection of essays edited by Simon smith, Jacqueline Watson and Amy Kenny follows in the path of previous studies – also by contributors to this collection – in which sense experiences are considered as culturally dependent and defined. In effect, this selection scrutinizes the artworks of a relatively narrow period of time, a century of the early modern era, and focuses on the artistic production of England; in turn, it analyses a wide variety of senses, from the more often studied visual and auditory, to the less considered olfactory or tactile senses and their representations in artworks whose media does not offer direct experience of the given sense.

Thus the selection of eleven studies structured in three parts also addresses the recently popular issue of senses and their relation to different media, such as poetry, drama, music and painting in that specific period. The wide variety of articles aims at challenging the traditional priority of sight, giving focus to the hierarchization of the senses often dealt with and challenged in the period under review as well. The collection offers eleven well-elaborated case studies, extending recently popular research on the senses with examples.

The relevance of this collection of essays lies in its reliance on an already elaborated theoretical background, completing it with examples for the application of theory in relation to particular works of art, and exploring the relation between contemporary attitudes to senses within and without artworks. In harmony with the theoretical context, the authors accept the premise that perception is culturally determined, and set out to explore how the engagement with artworks of diverse media and the resulting variety of bodily states are described in the early modern period.

The volume describes how perception was understood and what concerns were raised and discussed in terms of sense experience; however, the essays do not seek to reconstruct actual sense experience. The purpose of the editors is, rather, to provide new starting points for the analysis of different works of art. The sections follow the different issues addressed by the book; the first section enumerates the five senses and the essays each deal with a particular sense relating them to their classical background and revealing issues raised by the description of sensual experience in relation to the formation of subjectivity; the second section focuses on how perception is altered by different contexts such as night, pleasure and melancholy; and the last and most novel section deals with the enactment of perception when engaging with works of art.

The first section, entitled 'Tracing a Sense' starts with Lucy Munro’s study which explores the role of taste in early modern dramatic performances, and the contradiction that arises from its disembodied status on stage, providing an indirect experience to playgoers. The author also interestingly describes the metaphorical transformation of taste from being the symbolic act of transgression to becoming the selective sense informing cultured choices in art. This article is followed by Jackie Watson’s essay on the much-debated and studied sense of vision, arguing that visual cues in the early modern playhouses, given the illusory context, contributed to the liberation of self-expression of courtiers, thus creating a direct link between the real and the fictional dimensions of the theatre, which is compared to the ancient theories of intromission and extramission concerning eyesight. The novelty of the article is that it deals with theatre not only as the place of deception, but also as the place for creating an alternative reality for self-fashioning.

Darren Royston’s subsequent essay examines touch and the way it appeared in contemporary texts dealing with dance, and the controversy linked to necessary contact described by early modern authors who wrote about etiquette, and discussed the ups and downs of such social situations. These ambiguities were naturally exploited by poets and playwrights, who relied on the sensations which the description of dance scenes may evoked in the audience.

The following chapter by Eleanor Decamp focuses on the contemporary barber’s profession and how the barber shop and the barber’s tools informed the concept of hearing, presenting the ear as a vulnerable organ. Once again relying on the actual sensation of the pricking of the ears, well-known to early modern playgoers, Ben Johnson in his play The Epicoene describes the penetration of negative verbal message and disturbing sounds as intrusive, characterizing the process of hearing in terms of the barber’s practices.

Holly Dougan in the last essay of this section connects seeing to smelling when studying the practice of wearing pomanders, which served as decorative items of the attire as well as sources of fragrances that had their specific meaning. Once again, both senses raise a paradox in terms of everyday practices of early modern users, who employed certain fragrances as disease prevention, while the pomanders itself were generally skull-shaped, relating them to the memento mori tradition and reminding the users of the ambiguity that death might smell sweet.

The second section, analyzing senses in context, starts with Natalie K Eschenbaum’s essay, which explores the exuberance of sensations when analyzing Herrick’s collection of poems Hesperides. The poet, the essay argues, exploits the vivid description of sensual experience through which Herrick’s poetry invades the reader’s perception. Eschenbaum suggests that Herrick’s poetry exemplifies the contemporary understanding of sensation as a liquid process, rendering the body permeable; Herrick likens poetry to music as it similarly infuses the senses.

Susan Wiseman’s essay on John Donne and George Chapman addresses the issue of the relation between perception and epistemology through the effect of night and darkness on the senses. The poets expressed how night, for example, subverted the hierarchy of senses, and their treatment of perception as it was affected by darkness expresses new, emerging attitudes to the sensory environment of the early modern era.

Another phenomenon that had strong influence on the senses was, as Aurélie Griffin argues, melancholy, the popular disease of the Renaissance. Just like darkness, melancholy also caused the senses to disfunction, as it is testified by Mary Wroth’s works. Among the several types of melancholy, it is love melancholy that most powerfully disturbs perception, and emphasizes the difference between what were called internal and external senses. Interestingly, as Griffin writes, such a state of mind can only be understood and described in terms of perception, besides, the abovementioned conflict and disturbance of the senses is the source and the result of love melancholy.

The third part of the collection focuses on the aesthetics of perception, and the first chapter by Simon Smith describes the attitudes to musical experience as it is expressed in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Smith proves that musical experience was in the early modern period more closely linked to visual experience, and the absence of the source of music carried a meaning in itself. In the next chapter, Faye Tudor elaborates upon the struggle of female artists of the Renaissance when it came to representing themselves, due to the negative associations surrounding female attitudes to mirrors. Tudor introduces two painters who by creating their own self-portraits challenge the traditional objectification of the male gaze and the idea of female vanity when looking at themselves.

Hannah August goes on to study the workings of the early modern imagination through the analysis of printed comedies. The moral writings that deal with private reading of such drama, August argues, demonstrate that contemporary readers, writers and critics were fully aware of reader response, and the marketing of such volumes also relied on the likening of the interaction with the texts to sexual intercourse, referring to the volumes as females.

The essays in this book emphasize the ambiguity related to the senses in the early modern era, in that they were considered to provide access to knowledge and the transcendental realms, all the while being rooted and resulting in corporeal experience. These analyses seek to approach both the representation of sense perception in art and the engagement with artworks from the viewpoint of the cultural and material reality that provided the context of these experiences, showing that no objective experience is possible, with the aim of establishing the thesis that in order to read and observe artworks of the early modern, it is necessary to understand how interaction was understood in that era.

Ágnes Bató, University of Szeged