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Suparna Roychoudhury, Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science
by Ellen Spolsky

Suparna Roychoudhury, Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science; Cornell University Press, 2018


It was as recently as 1980 that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson proposed an idea that was then surprising, but is by now widely accepted as a basis for further theorising, and that is that our language is shot through with metaphor, much of it so ‘dead’ that it isn’t recognised as metaphorical. The primary source for much of that metaphorical language is, in this view, our bodies.[1] Cognitive scientists in many academic departments have, since then, been exploring the details of what we recognise as embodiment. Acknowledging that the mind is, itself, body, is continuous with life itself, and is thus governed by the processes of biology, not logic, is now a prerequisite for theorising all aspects of cognition. Some cognitivists have summarised the assumptions as ‘4 E’s’: it is embodied, embedded, enactive and extended.[2]  Suparna Roychoudhury’s monograph is a significant contribution to such cognitive approaches to Shakespeare studies.

Neurophysiologists have recently been investigating what are called the default networks, or default mode, also studied as mind-wandering, and associative thinking. In the interests of determining a baseline of resting brain activity against which various kinds of cognitive activity might be measured, an experimental programme is being pursued in which different activities are monitored with positron-emission tomography and functional MRI. The scientists expected to find that brain activity would increase when called upon to act in, or react to various tasks imposed from outside the body, but to their surprise the opposite seems to be the case. Brain activity apparently increases in the absence of transient, attention-demanding and goal-directed activities, while the activities of the resting brain are actually suspended in the presence of externally imposed demands.[3] The resting brain, in this view, has lots of work to do, which activity forces it to suspend. Left alone, it is hypothesised, the brain can get on with the tasks of integration, such as between new and old understanding, or cognitive and emotional processes. Left alone, it is given the time for the free-flowing thought called mind-wandering, which may be the necessary ground for the creative recombinations we think of as imaginative.[4]

Spurred by some of the same interests that Roychoudhury demonstrates, cognitive literary historians, critics and theorists have been exploring the relevance of current cognitive theories. Renaissance scholars were prominently involved early in this work and it is evident from Roychoudhury’s bibliography (citing my work and that of Mary Thomas Crane) that she is aware of it, and like us, is interested in the question of that colourful and dramatic aspect of our lives that is just beyond our control, elusive, yet visible. The question of how human cognitive processes produce and respond to creative texts and to other imaginative work such as fiction, painting and the plastic and performance arts has been explored in Lisa Zunshine’s up-to-date and helpful collection, Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies.[5] New studies appear regularly referencing empirical cognitive research at the levels of neurology, psychology and socio/cultural construction and interaction.

Suparna Roychoudhury offers us sensitive readings of a set of Shakespeare’s plays and poems that bear on the issues of imagination, fantasy, hallucination and dreaming. Her attunement to the allusiveness of Shakespeare’s language and imagery operates at a level of subtlety well beyond what theatre audiences, then or now, are likely to have been able to register. This makes the book a study of the playwright’s mind rather than of his plays as dramatic performances: indeed, her close readings are presented as evidence that ‘Shakespeare was circling a set of implicit problems, unresolved questions in imaginative discourse’ (15). Each chapter considers an exemplary text – usually one play – from the perspective of an issue investigated by early modern science, with brief comparative references to other Renaissance writers such as Sidney, Spenser, and Montaigne. Her project is to locate Shakespeare’s position as between the older tradition of Aristotelian faculty psychology and early modern scientific understanding, as seen, for example, in Vesalius’s study of anatomy, Pierre de La Primaudaye’s account of imagination and André Du Laurens’ theories of the mind/brain. However, it is because she is a careful reader that Roychoudhury finds the distinctions or oppositions between the new and the old ways of describing phantasmatic cognition difficult to maintain. She does not assume that there was traceable progress toward a modern understanding of cognition. The modesty of her claim is made explicit by her metaphorical, that is, gently non-assertive, language: ‘Shakespeare was attuned to the intellectual welter of his time; his engagement with imagination is founded not on scientific thinking so much as on the discursive ripples created within early modern culture by that thinking’ (16).

She begins Chapter 1, a discussion of sonnets, mentioning the ‘ground breaking advances in human dissection’. But she immediately acknowledges that even in discussions informed by the new science, ‘the anatomical basis for imagination is described in contradictory and ambiguous terms’ (28). The new scientists, after all, were primed by the old theories to interpret their new discoveries as demonstrating, not disproving the claims of faculty psychology. Neither Shakespeare nor Roychoudhury, however, can be faulted for failing to find good answers to these issues. Cognitive and brain scientists even today are only beginning to make sense of these apparently irrational aspects of cognition. Even for a scholar armed with the latest twenty-first century theories of mind, the challenge of identifying where in Shakespeare’s work the new and the old theories conflicted or enlightened each other would be great. And yet those uncontrollable irruptions of our minds always have and still do fascinate us. Surely, we wouldn’t be satisfied if we ever tamed them, if we could define and categorize them, if we could make the irrationality of our minds work for us on demand. Even as the author enumerates and surveys the aspects of imagination and fantasy evidenced in Shakespearean language, to her great credit, she does not unnecessarily force order on disorder.

Roychoudhury’s wide reading throughout allows her to separate out several distinguishable tropes connecting theories of imagination and emotions to Shakespeare’s imagery and plots. She discusses the intersection of imagination and religious issues such as vanity, sin, temptation and the common association of imagination with intellectual idling and childishness. She finds that fancy, in some texts, is understood as pathology: melancholy, and mental illness, or as normal but disruptive, as in love. She surveys scientific work on the eye and its distortions and also scientific and poetic attention to those studies of gross anatomy that seek to locate the seat of various cognitive powers in the body. She discusses chimeras, that is, the prodigious shapes imagined and represented in travel literature as strange creatures from faraway places.

Chapter 2 discusses Love’s Labour’s Lost in which fancy is a toy which must be forsaken by adults. Again, and repeatedly, Roychoudhury recognises thematic and linguistic ambivalence, which she argues  ‘capture[s] the epistemological uncertainty of the time’ (73). And yet, ‘imagination cannot be excluded from fields of knowledge making, cannot easily be disentangled from intellectual work’ (76). In Chapter 3 she notes that ‘the real anxiety, perhaps, is not so much that fantasy is emptily “vain” but rather that it might not be’ (94). Dreams and phantasms might have materialist existence and influence as Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura suggests and as occurs in Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab galloping through lovers’ brains by night. Roychoudhury notes many places in Romeo and Juliet in which imagination flits between carnal and spiritual existence (101). Other plays singled out for sustained attention are King Lear, Macbeth, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Because she wasn’t honestly able to tame her subject any more than Shakespeare did (or would have wanted to), Roychoudhury presents her conclusions as abstractions that at times approach truisms. Although she has worked hard to articulate the way the Shakespeare’s fertile mind understood and used language, she is hardly to be blamed for failure, when the job can still not be accomplished.

Many of us are surely sympathetic with Roychoudhury’s quest, and with its difficulty. Her research into Shakespeare’s languages and references to several more or less contemporaneous texts of the new empirical, or protosciences, have left her with little choice but to begin her book asking: ‘How are we to reconcile all these ideas?’ (4), and to concede, as she concludes, that clarity seems to have eluded Shakespeare too. She succeeds, however, in fulfilling one of the objectives of her book, as stated in her Introduction, and that is ‘to underline the importance that the epistemological tradition held for Shakespeare’ (5). The most she can claim is that he pulls away from the Aristotelian faculty psychology he is assumed to have inherited along with other unexplored and unchallenged assumptions of his culture. However, as her careful research has convinced her, definitions and distinctions in ‘faculty psychology’ itself were inconsistent, and far from ‘crisp’, or uniformly agreed upon, so Shakespeare’s departures could hardly, themselves, be distinct. Her claims, then, in her Introduction and in the openings of her chapters, are as they must be, hedges. Yet she manages to show that ‘his treatment of imagination… draws the disorderly and mediatory image-making power into the province of art, recharacterizing its endless generativity as a source of aesthetic creation’ (15). From the perspective of cognitive science now, indeed, it looks as if what needs to be explained is not the recombinatory fantasies of human minds, but rather, how human beings are ever successfully reasonable. If this is indeed the direction in which we are heading, Shakespeare was well ahead of us, as Roychoudhury concludes: 


Throughout his works, he showcases the unique interceding power of the image-making faculty, whose porous discourse and pliable conception could be used to negotiate – to clarify, illuminate, rethink – novel ambiguities and transitions arising in the conventional understanding of nature, knowledge, and humankind. Shakespeare’s plays and poems are important not only in the history of imagination but also to the history of representation, for they decisively render the complicated quality of psychology a kind of beauty. (191)


Ellen Spolsky

Bar-Ilan University


[1] Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[2] Philosopher Richard Menary has helpfully explained these terms and the different emphases of the various hypotheses about them in the Introduction to a special issue of the journal Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, 9: 2010.

[3] See Marcus E. Raichle, ‘The Brain’s Default Mode Network.’ Annual Review of Neuroscience 38 (2015): 433-48 and Diana I. Tamir et al. ‘Reading Fiction and Reading Minds: The Role of Simulation in the Default Network.’ Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience (2016): 215-24.

[4] See Christoff, Kalina, et al. ‘Mind-Wandering as Spontaneous Thought: A Dynamic Framework.’ Nature Reviews Neuroscience 17 (2016): 718-31.

[5] Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.



  • Street fighter duel 1 year ago

    Although the new sciences did not completely replace the ancient psychology of phantasms, they did influence how Renaissance natural philosophers and physicians thought about and wrote about the brain's image-making function. The numerous hallucinations, illusions, and dreams dispersed throughout Shakespeare's works capitalize on this epistemological churning, gaining complexity from the ambiguities posed by early modern science.

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  • cotton candy machine Phoenix 5 months, 3 weeks ago

    Recent research by neurophysiologists has focused on the default networks, or default mode, which are also known as mind-wandering and associative thinking.

    Link / Reply
  • doodle baseball 2 days, 15 hours ago

    Despite the fact that the new sciences did not totally replace the old psychology of phantasms, they did have an impact on the way that natural philosophers and physicians of the Renaissance thought about and wrote about the function of the brain that is responsible for creating images.

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

Ellen Spolsky, "Suparna Roychoudhury, Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science," Spenser Review 49.2.15 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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