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James A. Knapp, Immateriality and Early Modern English Literature: Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert
by Angelika Zirker

James A. Knapp. Immateriality and Early Modern English Literature: Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert. Edinburgh Critical Studies in Shakespeare and Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. 436 pp. ISBN: 9781474457101. £90 hardback.

James A. Knapp in his study on Immateriality and Early Modern English Literature focuses on how early modern literary authors addressed natural philosophy and the changes in the history of thought that emerged during the period. In altogether ten chapters and a Coda, the author moves from a general introduction on how the focus on material culture in recent scholarship has been particularly prominent within a number of case studies that exemplify the shift towards the immaterial in early modern literature. The volume is mostly concerned with writing by William Shakespeare, but also includes a chapter each on John Donne and George Herbert. These chapters are distributed over three main parts of the book that are organized along the lines of ‘Being’, ‘Believing’, and ‘Thinking’ – i.e. ontology, theology, and psychology, in Knapp’s terminology. Interspersed with the case studies and readings of individual authors and their works are more general chapters that address attitudes towards the immaterial and its interaction with the material in the realms of medicine, natural philosophy, and theology.

The book sets out with an Introduction titled ‘Shakespeare’s Naught’ that takes up the medieval origins of the distinction between the material and the immaterial as well as the medieval revival of Aristotle and Plato. Knapp’s focus here is clearly on the transition period that moves from assumed and accepted links between the natural world and the spiritual towards their separation and distinction, i.e. the 1590s to 1630s. The equation of the immaterial with the spiritual is perhaps surprising: an alternative equivalence (especially since Aristotle and Plato are mentioned) could be drawn with the intellectual, particularly so as in early modern thought spirits are situated between the material and immaterial/intellectual. The author then goes on to show how the natural world is still connected to theological truth and mentions both Bacon and Hobbes in this context; one may wonder, however, why Sir Thomas Browne is not touched upon more fully (he makes an appearance in a single footnote, see 356, n. 24). Knapp then goes on to note how uncertainty in metaphysics and natural philosophy, the realms ‘in which ideas about the nature of materiality and immateriality had to be directly reconciled with religious belief and doctrine’ (10), emerged with both the Reformation and the counter-Reformation as well as the theological debates of the time; this uncertainty, according to Knapp, fed immediately into literary representations and, as he argues, literary innovation.

Knapp’s approach is distinctly historicist, but, as he notes himself, indebted to phenomenology. Against this background, one of the aims verbalized towards the middle of the introductory chapter is somewhat surprising: ‘to try to provide a description of how it felt to live at a time when this complex and now quite unfamiliar understanding of material and immaterial interactivity pervaded the intellectual scene’ (19). Both what is meant by ‘material and immaterial interactivity’ as well as what was supposedly ‘unfamiliar’ about it exactly is left unspecified; yet, seeing as the volume’s subsections address the categories of ‘Being’, ‘Believing’, and ‘Thinking’, one also wonders how feeling might come in here, and, if so, on the basis of what kind of evidence? And why are thinking and psychology (see also ‘thinking see psychology’, in the Index, 433) equated, when feeling is generally more closely associated with psychology? One might expect ‘philosophy’ instead, especially in an early modern context. Furthermore, ‘cognition’, which also shows up, is different again from both thought and feeling. As a reader, one is perhaps confronted with a terminological conundrum from the beginning that is not wholly resolved in the course of the book. The implication that whatever is expressed in poetry and drama is based on (personal) experience, which Knapp links to Sidney’s ‘moving’, does not quite serve to dissolve the tension between the importance granted to emotion and the overall historicist approach chosen for the book as a whole. In the lengthy introduction, Knapp continues his reflections on antiquity and the Middle Ages in relation to the history of phenomenology, and especially the work of Bruce Smith, but also address the background of Husserl, and moves on to Levinas et al. and so on. The immediate relevance of these thinkers to the study at hand is only revealed fairly late in this opening section: Knapp’s focus is ultimately on that which does not appear, namely the invisible (see 29). Quite helpfully, the introduction ends with chapter outlooks that give the reader some orientation as to what to expect.

Before embarking on the three sections that structure the book, Knapp provides a rich (albeit short) chapter on ‘Immateriality and the Language of Things’. He opens it with the scene between Iago and Emilia in Othello (3.3) and states that the handkerchief is ‘the most important thing in the play’ (42). The dialogue under consideration, however, is initially based on the bawdy and misogynist joke on ‘thing’ and ‘nothing’, which leads Knapp to comment on ‘the period’s fascination with the difference between material and immaterial things’ (43). Knapp then draws again on Aristotle and the notion of ‘substance’ that may also refer to ‘material and immaterial entities’ (45), as well as the Platonic ‘matter’ that was highly popular in the early modern period. He next mentions the theological contexts of ‘thing’, e.g. in Thomas Wilson’s Christian dictionarie of 1612, and returns to Othello. From there, he continues with the ‘materiality of sense impressions’ (48), e.g. in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before moving on to The Tempest, and Prospero’s comment on the ‘insubstantial pageant’, that is his masque in the fourth act, which Knapp comments only rather vaguely on: ‘Prospero’s language appears to be explicitly Neoplatonic and Christian’ (49). While the references may be clear to most readers generally (and beyond the isolated quotation he gives), a more sustained use of close reading may have been helpful to support the overall line of argument and would have balanced what is otherwise a tour de force through early modern philosophy, poetics (via Sidney), theology, and geometry (via John Dee’s preface to Euclid), etc. This chapter alone could have provided the material for a book-length study; condensing the wealth of contexts and backgrounds into little less than twenty pages (42-60) makes it a somewhat overwhelming experience at times for the reader.

Part One on ‘Being’ sets out with another introductory section on ‘Material and Immaterial Substance and Early Modern Ontology’, followed by two case studies, one on Richard II and another on 1 Henry IV. The first subsection opens, again, with Othello and Iago’s remark in the first scene ‘I am not what I am’ (1.1.63). Knapp takes this as his starting point to comment on notions of ‘nothing’, with King Lear making one of its brief and rare appearances; the chapter then quickly moves on to theology, materialist philosophy, and metaphysics. The subsection on Richard II mainly addresses the ‘Immateriality of Self’, with the mirror scene and Richard’s recognition that the mirror can only produce a ‘shadow’ of his sorrow used as Knapp’s point of departure; the subsection on 1 Henry IV then focuses on notions of ‘Concept and Action’. Richard’s self-observation is strongly linked to interiority, inwardness, and subjectivity, which makes a lot of sense but, at the same time, is again rather elusive: the three concepts are apparently treated as distinct from each other, but the distinction (in its significance for the interpretation of the play) is not wholly fleshed out. Instead, the line of argument moves on to the ‘pressure on the material’ (90) that produces shadows only and hence something immaterial, which prompts analysis of Richard’s attempt at understanding the immaterial on the basis of his experiences in the material world. In the course of this exploration, Knapp refers to Nietzsche as well as Jean-Luc Marion and phenomenology, thus complicating the supposed focus on early modern natural philosophy.

In what follows, I will only dwell on one individual subsection in more detail. The second part of the book focuses on ‘Believing’, i.e. theology, and it is here that Knapp deals with both Donne and Herbert, their common denominator being the ‘deep […] concern […] with temporality’ (171). The author sets out with another introductory section on ‘The Visible and the Invisible: Seeing the Earthly – Believing the Spiritual’, which foregrounds the links between belief and the natural world as well as the corruption of everything earthly in comparison with divine perfection. The focus of the Donne chapter is on his Anatomy of the World, the First Anniversary of 1611, and notions of ‘Intention, Intuition and Temporality’. Knapp takes as his starting point the ongoing critical debate on the poem and its tension between ideation and correspondence: the conception of Elizabeth Drury that goes beyond material perception but fails ‘to offer access to the true object of his contemplation: the utterly immaterial realm beyond mortal existence’ (182). Knapp sees a way, however, for Donne to achieve access through the temporality of his poem, which opens up the path via metaphysics and theology. This temporality is expressed by the sequence of and topics addressed in the two Anniversary poems themselves; however,  Knapp’s proposal to focus on the spiritual world (in the second Anniversary) rather than the natural (in the first poem) is not as innovative as he would make it appear (and references to more recent scholarly debates of the poems are, in fact, missing here; see, for example,  the various articles published in 2015 on ‘Matter and Spirit’ in the Anniversary poems, see

An insistence on the link between the two poems also makes the author’s focus on the First Anniversary dubious and hard to follow: if the link between the material and immaterial is as decisive as he claims, the focus on what he calls ‘material experience’ (184) that allegedly forestalls the spiritual makes little sense. In what follows, Knapp does not provide a close reading of Donne’s poem but elaborates, to begin with, on the notion of ‘intentio’ – defined as the ‘manner in which the rational soul enabled one to contemplate different kind of objects’ (184) and assumed to have been known by Donne. The following pages then provide a historical overview of intentio from Aquinas to modern phenomenology; what is missing is the direct link to Donne and his poetry beyond the claim of his building the poem on ‘analogy’ (188) that is further elaborated upon in a subsection on microcosm and macrocosm. The chapter is concluded with reflections on ‘Temporality, Memory and Causality’ and ‘Phenomenology of the Invisible’ (the subsection opens with a quotation from The Second Anniversary and ends on the complexity of the relationship between phenomenology and theology, mentioning Heidegger, Levinas, Marion et al. as well as comparing Donne with Shakespeare’s Richard II). The section is certainly rich in contexts – but Donne does not appear to be the focus of Knapp’s interest; rather, this subsection reads as if the author had taken the opportunity of the Anniversaries to talk about phenomenology without being seriously engaged in understanding Donne’s poems. Donne is not the focus but rather the means of his elaborations. Not quite the same goes for his (long) chapter (of sixty pages) on ‘George Herbert and the Experience of the Divine’ and its analysis of the Latin Poems on the Passion as well as the (structure of) The Temple, including references even to Herbert’s The Country Parson: individual poems are taken into account and read closely before being linked to more general conclusions relating to the material and the immaterial.

The final part of the book deals with ‘Thinking’, opening with a subchapter on ‘Cognition and Its Objects, or Ideas and the Substance of Spirit(s)’, and then focusing on ‘Mind, Body and Spirit in The Rape of Lucrece, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing’, before moving on to ‘Phenomenality, Representation and Experience in The Tempest’. A Coda briefly addressing the continued relevance of linking the material and the immaterial, as pronounced e.g. by Michel Serres.  A bibliography and very useful Index close the book.

The study offered by Knapp is timely as it shows that so-called ‘material turns’ in literary and cultural studies do not really work in regard to the complexity of the early modern period, with all its changes and reformations in theology, natural philosophy, and thought in general. But after reading this fairly hefty book, I was left pondering particularly one question: who is this actually written for? It mainly addresses specialists in the early modern period, both of literary studies and the history of thought. For students it would be rather hard work and probably not very accessible; if they wished to learn more about the material and the immaterial as well as their interactions in that period, they would have to go elsewhere. Having studied early modern literature, and the place of the soul in it, I nevertheless found the book sometimes taxing, if not overwhelming. Knapp has set himself the task of opening up the widest possible horizon of his topic. This is evidence of his extensive reading and learning; at the same time, this ambitious approach leads, at times, to the loss of focus (and even coherence) in all of the chapters. Cross-references with no specific links do not help, e.g. when the Jesuit Lawrence Anderton is mentioned as ‘discussed above’, and when checking the Index, one is still puzzled whether this refers to his mention in chapter one or in chapter four – or both? And while the approach at first suggests a focus on the complicated and complex relations between the material and the immaterial during the early modern period, it becomes obvious, fairly early on, that the main interest is on reading the early modern period through the lens of phenomenology. To do both would have been impossible, but I think that the focus on phenomenology is a lost chance of historicizing the notions and concepts of the material and the immaterial, to begin with, in their own temporal context.

The book moreover suggests that it puts three early modern authors in communication with each other under a common denominator. But then only one chapter each focuses on Donne and Herbert, while this is actually a book on Shakespeare. Not only are four chapters dedicated to him, but he also is used for chapter entries repeatedly, and reference is made to his work throughout. It is therefore slightly misleading that Donne and Herbert show up so prominently in the title. What is more: it is astounding that they only make it into the section on ‘Believing’, which somewhat suggests that they had nothing to say about the other two areas addressed, ontology and, in Knapp’s terms, psychology.

My impression (also based on the significant differences in chapter lengths) is, at the end of the day, that this is three books compressed into one: a whole book might have been written on the material and the immaterial, changing conceptions in natural philosophy and the influence of theology during the early modern period; a second on Shakespeare against this background; and a third on other writers tackling these issues in their works, a point addressed by the author himself in the Coda. Which is to say: Knapp is an excellent and very learned scholar, and his most recent study is expressive of his ambition. Reading it, at times, left me dissatisfied as I would have wished to learn more about each of the fields that he tackles, and I had rather read three books instead of only this one. It will be very exciting to see what Knapp publishes next as his overall approach is innovative and ambitious, and that alone deserves much praise, however critical one may be of details.  


Angelika Zirker

University of Tuebingen


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Cite as:

Angelika Zirker, "James A. Knapp, Immateriality and Early Modern English Literature: Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert," Spenser Review 52.1.12 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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