The physiological tropes of early modern drama : nervous spirits and the civilizing

Gail Kern PASTER

Department of English, George Washington University, Washington DC 20052, USA
Tel. 202-3623806, Fax. 202-3623806


The bodily control and emotional self-mastery increasingly demanded of males in early modern society is reflected in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries through metaphorical references to physiological processes, especially to the language of the bodily spirits - vital, natural, animal. While in medical treatises such language is intended to be purely descriptive of internal, invisible bodily events and structures, this language encodes a full-fledged, ideologically weighty social narrative. Such character traits as impulsiveness and aggressiveness - highly useful in feudal warrior cultures - are no longer appropriate to the social traits required by mercantile or courtly society. How to reconcile a historically new demand for emotional pacification with a masculinity still premised (for example) on an aristocratic honor code becomes a widespread social task - to be found in such unlikely sources as Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia (1615) and other early seventeenth-century descriptions of the human body. Drawing connections between this medical material and the masculine behaviors of such plays as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Hamlet will be the task of this paper.


Panel 6A   (Nervous Fluids and Innards in Early Modern Physiology and Culture)
Thursday, 16 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999