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Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan, eds. The Renaissance of Emotion
by Kristen McCants

The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan, eds. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2015. xi + 276 pp. ISBN: 978-0719090783. $66.00 cloth.


Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan’s edited collection The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries offers a critical intervention into the study of Early Modern affect. As Meek and Sullivan indicate in their introduction, Early Modern studies of affect have largely focused on the influence of humoral theory on Early Modern understanding of emotions. Such eminent scholars as Gail Kern Paster, Mary Floyd-Wilson, and Michael C. Schoenfeldt have provided important discussions of the interplay of environment and physiology in the production of emotions, what Paster calls “psychophysiology”[1] and what Floyd-Wilson and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., explore as the “dualistic relation” of the body and the environment.[2] The essays collected in The Renaissance of Emotion offer exciting new ways of examining Early Modern understandings of emotion that depart from the humoral interplay of body and environment, examining instead “religious and philosophical belief, political performance, [and] rhetorical and dramaturgical style” (5). These three frameworks enable the essays within the collection to explore Early Modern conceptions of affect that both depart from and complicate the dominant physiological theories of the emotions.

In their Introduction, Meek and Sullivan explain their crucial intervention into Early Modern studies of emotion. They perceive a passivity in the humoral theories that are prevalent among scholars of affect and emotions in the Early Modern period. Under the physiological or humoral theory of the emotions, passions happen to a (necessarily passive) subject, and that subject must then decide whether to permit or resist those emotions. Value is placed on the control of emotions, rather than the experience of them (which, on the surface, seems to be verified by such Early Modern writers as Thomas Elyot in The Boke Named The Gouernour, who advocates that one “kepe desire under the yocke of reason”).[3] While they recognize the importance of these physiological theories, Meek and Sullivan advocate a wider understanding of Early Modern emotion in order to “point to more active and willful experiences of emotion in the period” (5).

Of particular interest in Meek and Sullivan’s introduction is their exploration of the terminology surrounding the study of emotion. Three terms are prevalent in theories of the emotions: passion, emotion, and affect. The passions, Meek and Sullivan claim, imply passivity: they are experienced by the subject and arise in response to external stimuli. Emotion, on the other hand, connotes not only feeling, but motion, which indicates that feelings “were not simply autonomic responses to external stimuli, but were also the product of human imagination working in consort (or indeed contest) with the understanding, the appetite, the humours and in some cases even reason” (11). Finally, affect or affections signify, for today’s scholars, an embodied experience of feeling; in the Early Modern period, however, the editors argue, affect was “an immaterial, disembodied and explicitly rational state” (12). Their ultimate focus on the motion in emotion is a critical driving force of the book, emphasizing the ways in which subjects are not just moved by emotions (that is, driven by environmental stimuli or an imbalance of the humors), but claim an agency that allows them to move (with) them. Ultimately, their collection seeks to widen the examination of Early Modern emotions to include the non-physiological ways in which writers of the Renaissance sought to explore, depict, and understand the emotions in their works.

Part One of the collection, “The Theology and Philosophy of Emotion,” examines the ways in which religious and scriptural texts provide both emotional scripts and ways of explaining feelings for Early Modern thinkers. In her essay “The Passions of Thomas Wright: Renaissance Emotion across Body and Soul,” Erin Sullivan argues for a more complex exploration of Wright’s The Passions of the Mind in General (1601, 1604) than many critics have offered. She makes two important suggestions: first, that Wright’s theory of the emotions should not be taken as the dominant theory in the period, and second, that Wright’s theological focus on the interactivity between bodily emotions and the soul leads to spiritual growth, a more positive reading of the experience of the emotions than is usually associated with Wright. In fact, the worldly experience of emotions enables a person to envision the divine world beyond. David Bagchi, in “‘The scripture moveth us in sundry places’: Framing Biblical Emotions in the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies,” draws on Anna Wierzbicka’s idea of “scripts” to describe the ways in which religious texts offer methods for churchgoers to both express and control their religious emotions.[4]  Bagchi’s essay argues that the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies temper and modify parts of the Bible that were otherwise difficult to reconcile with Reformation theology. These texts help parishioners learn how to navigate their daily lives, from acquiring the “quietness” of Christian Stoicism, to controlling anti-Jewish sentiment through interpretation of the Gospels (52). Ultimately, for Bagchi, both texts demonstrate efforts to inculcate Christian joy in “God’s loving-kindness” rather than despair in a vengeful God (58).

In “‘This was a way to thrive’: Christian and Jewish Eudaimonism in The Merchant of Venice,” Sara Coodin begins with an argument that current theories of emotions fail to recognize the inherently eudaimonistic drive of texts that discuss the emotions—that is, that these texts emphasize the agency of the subject and his or her responsibility for self-cultivation. Coodin claims that self-knowledge was a crucial component in balancing the humors and therefore to living a life of happiness. She then turns to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to argue that, rather than showing the ways in which characters such as Shylock and Antonio are simply subject to physiological emotions, the play depicts subjects exploring their own agency and attempting to make moral decisions. She argues that Antonio, seeing the story of Jacob and Laban’s sheep as a model of usury, misreads Shylock’s understanding of Jacob’s story as a cultural script for living a good life. The final essay in this part is Mary Ann Lund’s “Robert Burton, Perfect Happiness, and the Visio Dei,” which takes as its subject an often-overlooked moment in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy in which the contemplation of God can lead to earthly happiness. Lund’s essay, in many ways a bookend to Sullivan’s opening essay, emphasizes the embodied experience of imagining God. She analyzes the rhetorical urgency in Burton’s description of the benefits of the visio dei, the sight of God as the moment of true happiness. This “paean to the beauty of God” at the beginning of Burton’s section on religious melancholy stands in stark contrast to his emphasis on unhappiness throughout the rest of the Anatomy.

Lund’s focus on Burton’s rhetoric provides a smooth transition to the second part of the collection, “Shakespeare and the Language of Emotion,” a section focusing on rhetoric and dramaturgy. The first essay in this section, Nigel Wood’s “Spleen in Shakespeare’s Comedy,” provides an in-depth exploration of the multiplicity of meanings at play in Shakespeare’s use of the word “spleen” throughout his comedies. While Shakespeare occasionally associated the word with its humoral significance, he capitalizes on the multivalence of the word to “[capture] some of the liminal meanings of tragicomedy at significant moments” (111). Although Wood never makes a claim for a specific significance of the multivalence of the word “spleen,” his essay’s examination offers new ways of understanding the interplay of humoral theory and rhetoric.

Following Wood’s exploration of spleen, Richard Meek offers a meditation on sympathy in his essay “‘Rue e’en for ruth’: Richard II and the Imitation of Sympathy.” Meek positions his reading of Richard II against those who attempt to gauge the audience’s sympathetic response to the tragedy and instead discusses the range of sympathy presented by characters in the play. Like Wood, Meek offers an in-depth discussion of the fluctuating meanings of the words “sympathy” and “sympathize” in the Early Modern period. Shakespeare is responsible, according to Meek, for adapting and modifying the meaning of sympathy to include not only its original meaning of “correspondence and agreement” but also the emerging significance of “grief and fellow-feeling” (132). He is careful, in his delineation of the shifting meanings of sympathy, to emphasize that Richard II, while an object of pity and sympathy, also utilizes his audience’s susceptibility to these emotions for political gain. Ultimately, for Meek, the imitative nature of sympathy can potentially be a dangerous tool for those in power.

The final essay in Part Two is Richard Chamberlain’s “What’s Happiness in Hamlet?,” a critical rereading of Hamlet that offers an exploration of the valences of “hap,” “happen,” and “happy” within the play. He begins by making the crucial argument that opposing happiness to unhappiness “misses the point that, at least in present historical conditions, all emotions are mixed” (156). It is this intermingling of emotions that is reflected in Hamlet’s meditation on hap as chance, happenings as events, and happiness as an emotional state. By politicizing happiness in this way, Chamberlain is able to draw connections between the social upheaval in Hamlet and today’s insistence upon happiness in an increasingly policed and unstable world. Happiness and other emotions, according to Chamberlain, are not “a state, nor … a humour, but … an event” (171).

The notion of emotion as an event is carried to a deeper level in the third part of The Renaissance of Emotion, “The Politics and Performance of Emotion.” Here, the collection explores both the political dimension of emotions as laid out so clearly by Chamberlain, as well as the relationship between a performance (of a play or of sovereign power) and its audience. Andy Kesson opens with a new reading of John Lyly in “‘They that tread in a maze’: Movement as Emotion in John Lyly.” Beginning with Lyly’s Sapho and Phao, Kesson argues that, far from the “politically and aesthetically straightforward” playwright he is accused of being, Lyly actually uses space and motion to explore “emotional change and exchange” (178, 179). Kesson sees Lyly plumbing the depths of human behavior, from his emotionally confusing plays to his Euphues: An Anatomy of Wit. Through his analyses of Sapho and Phao and the later Woman in the Moon, Kesson explores the complex politics of emotion and agency in Lyly’s work. Building upon this analysis of confused emotions, Ann Kaegi’s essay “(S)wept from Power: Two Versions of Tyrannicide in Richard III” offers an important and enlightening exploration of post-Reformation mourning and the power of grief in Richard III. She argues that Shakespeare utilizes the spectacle of female mourning to broach the dangerous topic of tyrannicide. Furthermore, the wailing of women in Richard III hearkens back to a pre-Reformation form of ritualized mourning; it is in this space, between pre- and post-Reformation grief, that the women of Richard III wield political power against tyranny.

Frederika Bain furthers the discussion of the politics of public displays of emotion and their link to tyrannicide in her essay “The Affective Scripts of Early Modern Execution and Murder.” Bain examines the expectations of the players in both state-sanctioned death and tyrannical murder, looking in turns at king, executioner, condemned, and spectators. Through an examination of execution narratives, Thomas Preston’s Cambyses, and Shakespeare’s Richard III, Bain makes a strong argument for the “conventional scripts” of executions and murders and their reflection upon the sovereign’s status as legitimate king or tyrant (236). In the final essay in the collection, “Discrepant Emotional Awareness in Shakespeare,” R.S. White and Ciara Rawnsley explore the multiplicity of emotional states present on the stage. Drawing on the theory of “discrepant awareness” promoted by Bertrand Evans, White and Rawnsley examine the complexities of emotional experience in The Two Gentlemen of Verona 4.2 and the final act of Cymbeline. [5] They suggest that Shakespeare’s deployment of complex emotional states in a scene is crucially more important to the power of Shakespeare’s work than simple plot alone. While White and Rawnsley seem to posit an unnecessary opposition between a reading of plot and a reading of emotions, their call to focus on the importance of the emotional discrepancies within Shakespeare’s plays nicely rounds out this section’s discussion of performance.

In an afterword, Peter Holbrook claims that Shakespeare emphasizes the importance of experiencing emotions. Ultimately, Holbrook argues, what is at stake in the readings presented in The Renaissance of Emotion is human freedom; in physiological or humoral theories of the emotions, human passivity negates freedom. Although Holbrook emphasizes the importance of human agency, a move which seems to leave little room for nonhuman agency, he also calls for an increased awareness of life as a multitude: “[R]eality is not a series of stable, separable entities but, rather, a whole, or continuum, of mobile and plastic moments of togetherness or interaction” (269). Comprehending the complexity of emotional states is key to understanding emotional freedom.

There is no doubt that the essays in The Renaissance of Emotion offer a much-needed intervention into the study of Early Modern emotions. Expanding the ways in which we explore and understand Early Modern theories of the emotions helps us to negotiate the complexity of affective displays within Early Modern literature. At the same time, however, The Renaissance of Emotion largely ignores current psychoanalytic theories of the embodied mind and distributed cognition. As psychoanalysis and affect theory continue to promote the deep ties between the mind and the body, it seems that a focus on affect as only a state of mind, which is the case for most of these essays, makes a similar mistake that is found in scholarship that promotes only a humoral or psychophysiological theory of emotions: the arguments become, on occasion, a one-sided defense of an intellectual comprehension of the emotions rather than an exploration of the complex mind-body relation between thinking, feeling, reacting, and experiencing. With that said, the essays in The Renaissance of Emotion nevertheless do present the other side of the humoral/psychophysiological coin, and put forth a crucial call for scholars to consider the complexity of Early Modern thinking about the emotions.


Kristen McCants
University of California, Santa Barbara 

[1] Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2004), at 12.

[2] Introduction, Mary Floyd-Wilson and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr., eds., Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), at 5.

[3] Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named The Gouernour, ed. Henry Herbert Stephen Croft, Vol. 2 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1967), at 326.

[4] Anna Wierzbicka, Emotions across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 240, qtd. in Bagchi at 46.

[5] Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare’s Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1960), 1, qtd. in White and Rawnsley at 243.


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Cite as:

Kristen McCants, "Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan, eds. The Renaissance of Emotion," Spenser Review 45.3.9 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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