Sophie Chiari and Mickaël Popelard, eds., Spectacular Science, Technology and Superstition in the Age of Shakespeare

Sophie Chiari and Mickaël Popelard, eds., Spectacular Science, Technology and Superstition in the Age of Shakespeare (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2017) 288 pp. £80.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781474427814.

The edited collection Spectacular Science, Technology and Superstition in the Age of Shakespeare joins a growing body of scholarship operating at the nexus of Shakespeare studies, Renaissance and early modern studies, and the history of science, medicine, and technology. According to co-editors Sophie Chiari and Mickaël Popelard, Spectacular Science was inspired by preparations for two Shakespeare and Science panels at the Société française Shakespeare’s Shakespeare 450 Congress in 2014; the resulting collection is comprised of eleven richly interdisciplinary essays by a distinguished group of French (or France-educated/employed) Shakespearean scholars, as well as an afterward by American academic Carla Mazzio (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is also faculty at my institution, the University at Buffalo, SUNY). Mazzio’s prominent work on Renaissance literature and science looms large in the co-editors’ introduction and throughout the volume. Spectacular Science’s organization is unfussy but effective, with the essays arranged into four thematic sections (described below). This approach permits the book’s three titular topics—science, technology, and superstition—to variously interact with one another across the parts.

Part I, ‘Popular Beliefs,’ includes essays by François Laroque and Pierre Kapitaniak that isolate and interpret references to astrology and demonology within the Shakespearean canon. In ‘The “Science” of Astrology in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear,’ Laroque provides a nuanced reading of Shakespeare’s use of astrological terminologies, motifs, and allusions, arguing that the writer exploited astrology’s connotative flexibility for contemporary audiences well-acquainted with the popular science. Kapitaniak joins prominent Shakespearean scholars Kenneth Muir, Stephen Greenblatt, and Marion Gibson in asking ‘Had Shakespeare read Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft?’ (43). Comparing passages from Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Love’s Labour’s Lost with text from Scot’s The Discoverie and a number of other Renaissance monographs on demonology, Kapitaniak challenges extant studies that conclusively tether Shakespeare’s writings on witchcraft and demons to Scot’s 1584 treatise.

The three chapters of Part II, ‘Healing and Improving,’ contemplate early modern applications of scientific knowledge aimed at ‘manipulating nature and society to useful ends’ and, by extension, benefitting humankind (21-22). In each, authors Sélima Lejri, Pierre Iselin, and Margaret Jones-Davies note that Shakespeare’s blending of spiritual, medical, physical, and metaphysical explanations for scientific phenomena and human conditions bespeaks the age’s ethos, where tradition and innovation coincided (and not altogether uneasily). Lejri’s analysis of three of Shakespeare’s hysterics—Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, and Hermione—ably attends to hysteria’s diversiform causes, symptoms, and meanings in the early modern period, which often hybridized supernatural and scientific assumptions. Juxtaposing the women’s symptomatologies (including hysterical swoons, sexualized language, and sleepwalking) with the male witnesses’ perceptions of their conditions, Lejri argues that Shakespeare’s representations of hysteria gestured toward ‘the conflicting yet coexisting discourses on the topic between demonists and physicians in early modern England’ (83). Pierre Iselin explores the intimate and paradoxical relationship of melancholy to music in Twelfth Night. According to the age’s medical and popular discourses, melancholics could variously soothe or aggravate their disorders through music, the latter most commonly caused by an overindulgence in music labeled ‘melomania’ (86). Jones-Davies’s chapter proposes a Shakespearean ‘poetics of alchemy’ with which the playwright contemplated the ‘ideal of perfection’ using alchemical figures, metaphors, and numerology (23). Reflecting the age’s growing skepticism of alchemy as a science, Shakespeare embraced the metaphorical power of alchemical images and language but stopped short of validating alchemy’s material processes; ‘alchemy doesn’t work miracles in Shakespeare,’ Jones-Davies remarks, ‘but does create wonder’ (115).

Essays by Jonathan Pollack and Anne-Valérie Dulac lead Part III, ‘Knowledge and (Re)Discoveries.’ The former investigates the presence of Epicurean science, particularly that of atomism, in Shakespeare’s canon, while the latter revisits and interrogates Frances Yates’s 1936 hypothesis that Shakespeare’s copious references to vision and light (including Biron/Berowne’s famed ‘Light seeking light doth light of light beguile’ speech in Love’s Labor’s Lost) reveal the playwright’s familiarity with Alhazen’s ‘optical theory’ (133). Translated by Sophie Chiari, Frank Lestringant’s ‘Shakespeare’s Montaigne: Maps and Books in The Tempest’ masterfully re-evaluates the character of Gonzalo ‘through the prism of Montaigne’s [“Of Cannibals” (1580)] in order to rehabilitate the old counsellor and his scholarly culture’ (152). Examining Gonzalo’s speeches in act 2, scene 1, which together reproduce much of Montaigne’s influential ‘negative formula’ essay on cannibals (translated by John Florio in 1603), Lestringant complicates simplistic readings of Shakespeare and Montaigne’s ‘primitivism’ as well as Gonzalo’s perceived naïve idealism (152). The essay following Lestringant’s also centers on The Tempest, providing a refreshing moment of continuity in a collection of diverse, self-contained projects. In it, Michaël Popelard measures Bacon’s understanding of the natural world as physically malleable and subject to human intervention against Prospero’s transformative and ‘boundless’ art, which Popelard notes is ultimately confined to the island’s boundaries (193).

Part IV, ‘Mechanical Tropes,’ like Part I, binds together only two essays. Sophie Chiari’s ‘“Vat is the clock, Jack?”: Shakespeare and the Technology of Time’ offers a fascinating introduction into early modern conceptions of time (in all its varied secular, religious, collective, and individualized models), horology, and time-keeping technologies. Liliane Campos explores the ‘mechanical and cosmological tropes’ of Tom Stoppard’s 1967 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, recognizing in them not just the spirit of postmodern deconstructionism and relativity, but the scientific ‘models of instability’ already imbedded in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (222). Engaging with each of the volume’s essays, Mazzio’s concise and persuasive ‘Coda’ draws on Guy Debord and Pascale Drouet’s articulations of ‘spectacle’ and the ‘spectacular’ in considering how notions of spectacle and science commingled on Shakespeare’s stage (238).

Given that it incorporates the work of twelve different contributors, Spectacular Science possesses a remarkably unified style. The authors are meticulous in their analyses, elegant in their prose, and adroit in structuring their arguments. A number of the essays (seven in my estimation) depart from a similar question: Did Shakespeare know/read/consult a particular source when writing his plays and sonnets? Chiari and Popelard’s introduction usefully characterizes how Shakespeare and his contemporaries ideated and applied ‘science,’ an as-yet imprecise concept that was located ‘at the crossroads between Renaissance humanism, technology and magic or, to use a word we moderns are more accustomed to, superstition’ (12). The introduction’s summary of the historical ‘literary/scientific divide’ that restricted western scholars to researching and writing within their disciplinary silos is perhaps less productive given that, as the editors acknowledge, the somewhat manufactured ‘gap’ between these intellectual domains has rapidly closed over the last four decades (2, 3). I applaud the volume’s goal to model a ‘more dialectic vision of the Shakespeare/science nexus,’ and yet I wonder if this pairing remains as unsettled or complicated as the introduction suggests (7).

As a historian of theatre, I’ll admit to yearning for a more comprehensive treatment of Shakespeare’s art, one that attended to his works’ literary and performative dimensions. Chiari and Popelard’s evocative title, Spectacular Science, Technology and Superstition in the Age of Shakespeare, foregrounds the notion of spectacle in Shakespeare’s ‘science,’ and yet few chapters labor to situate his plays in the playhouses and courts of early modern England. Indeed, with the exception of brief mentions of theatre, performance, or audiences/spectatorship found in essays by Laroque, Lestringant, Chiari, and Campos, Mazzio’s eight-page ‘Coda’ provides the most direct and prolonged engagement with Shakespeare’s theatrical world in Spectacular Science. While the volume is not significantly hampered by this lack of context, I would imagine a more explicit framing of Shakespeare’s scientific forays (sans those found in the sonnets) as inherently theatrical would enrich the authors’ already compelling projects. In Chapter Four, for example, Iselin states that his examination (of melancholy and musical appetite in Twelfth Night) considers how such topics ‘intersect on Shakespeare’s stage at a particular stage of the dramatist’s career, when Robert Armin, the skilful actor-singer who must have played Feste, joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after William Kempe’s departure around 1600’ (86). Despite this declaration, Armin’s name does not appear again in the chapter. What could we have learned about Shakespeare’s deliberate intertwining of music and melancholy (both of which are highly performative) if Iselin had attended to the player who originated Feste? This critique, however, is minor, and one that I acknowledge comes from my own disciplinary preferences. Spectacular Science’s successes are many, and Shakespearean scholars, historians of early modern science, medicine, and technology, and advanced graduate students in both areas would benefit from adding the book to their reading lists.

Meredith Conti, University at Buffalo, SUNY