Re-Examining Light on the Early Modern Stage

Monday, August 27th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Neil Vallelly writes…

Light was a prominent trope on the early modern stage. In fact, I challenge you to find any edition of an early modern play that does not use light conceptually in some shape or form. We can think of endless examples. Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost (ca.1595), for instance: “Light, seeking, light, doth light of light beguile” (1.1.77). Perhaps, Middleton in The Revenger’s Tragedy (ca.1607): “Yet still the maid like an unlighted taper / Was cold and chaste” (2.2.55-56). Or, John Marston in Antonio’s Revenge (ca.1599): “The bulk of man’s as dark as Erebus, / No branch of reason’s light hangs in his trunk” (1.4.25-26). All of these examples take light as a thing, something that we take to be real and that we experience in the world, and represent it through language.

Light was used in the early modern era to represent a broad range of concepts from divinity to race, from optics to chastity. I am interested less in the meanings of these tropes and more in the cognitive processes involved in how light came to represent such and such. Why and how did light come to represent such a broad range of concepts? What made light such an accessible material for conceptualization? Do modern representations of light differ from historical representations? If so, why?

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their work on embodied cognition (Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999) suggest that “our categories of things in the world determine what we take to be real: trees, rocks, animals, people, buildings and so on” and they conclude that “our concepts must characterize the structure of our categories sufficiently well enough for us to function” (21). We can say that the ways in which we have come to conceptualize light in language characterize the ways in which we experience light in the world. That is not to say that this process is diagrammatic or lineal, but rather it is to suggest that the ways in which we represent “light” cannot be separated from the ways in which we categorize light. In effect, I am following Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s expression that “our effective involvement in the world is precisely what has to be understood and made amendable to conceptualisation” (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945: xvi).

So, what does this mean for the study of light on the early modern stage? Well, light was a radically different phenomenon in the early modern world. The stark contrast between day and night, the limited materials of artificial lighting, the lack of uniformed lighting in social spaces, and cosmological and ontological beliefs about light mean that the conditions of thought in the early modern world differ radically from the scientific and twenty-four hour world that we inhabit. Furthermore, the experience of early modern theatre was subjected to lighting conditions far removed from modern theatrical experiences. In modern theatre, light plays a directorial role by suggesting to us where our attention should be directed and has the ability to conveniently alter lighting states in order to indicate whether a scene takes place during the day or at night. In early modern theatre, however, light was less of a concern. Attention was directed more through sound and kinesics. Also, linguistic and material signifiers, such as an actor carrying a lantern, were used to denote the time of day that a scene took place.

What we come to realize is that the early modern individual conceptualized light against a vastly different world than we do. Thus, in order to truly understand what light represented on the stage we must firstly explore the ecologies and materials of light in the early modern world. Secondly, we must investigate how these ecologies and materials were experienced in everyday life. It is through this dynamic interaction of body and world that Shakespeare and his contemporaries conceptualized light.

A few thoughts on early modern skill

Monday, August 20th, 2012 | EVELYN TRIBBLE | No Comments

One of my favourite accounts of skill comes from Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus: or the Art of Shooting. Writing in 1545 to promote the ancient English art of shooting with the longbow, Ascham describes the tight connection between expert performance and the pleasures associated with watching skilled action.

For this I am sure, in learning all other matters, nothing is brought to the most profitable use, which is not handled after the most comely fashion. As masters of fence have no stroke fit either to hit another, or else to defend himself, which is not joined with a wonderful comeliness. A cook cannot chop his herbs neither quickly nor handsomely, except he keep such a measure with his chopping-knives as would delight a man both to see him and hear him. Every handcraftman that works best for his own profit, works most seemly to other men’s sight. Again, in building a house, in making a ship, every part, the more handsomely they be joined for profit and last, the more comely they be fashioned to every man’s sight and eye.

The key word for Ascham here is ‘comeliness,’ a word which conveys the union of beauty, grace, and utility. He seems to be reaching for the same concepts that Olympic commentators invoke when they say of  a pole vaulter, a diver, or a weightlifter that ‘she makes it look easy.’ Fluid rhythms, economy of movement, efficiency of technique –the actions that are the most pleasing to the eye are also those that produce the greatest utility. In archery, Ascham admires the almost seamless integration of the instrument with the skilled body of the archer (one wonders what he would have made of technology of modern bows).

Our colloquium next week on Practical Knowledge and Skill in Early Modern England will look at skill and practical knowledge in domains as diverse as science, natural philosophy, religion, and theatre. Will we find a common vocabulary for discussing skill across these fields?

The origins of ‘solar system’

Monday, August 13th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments

Peter Anstey writes…

The Cartesian vortex theory of planetary motions came under serious suspicion in England in the early 1680s. To be sure, many still spoke of ‘our vortex’ well into the 1680s and ’90s, such as Robert Boyle in his Notion of Nature of 1686 (Works, eds. Hunter and Davis, London, 1999–2000, 10, p. 508), but by the early 1690s the new Newtonian cosmology was coming to be widely accepted and many in England thought that the vortex theory had been disproved. By that time the vortex theory of planetary motions had come to be seen as the archetypal form of speculative natural philosophy. What was required then was a new descriptor for that cosmological structure in which the earth is located. And a new term was soon deployed, namely, ‘solar system’.

Some have claimed that it was John Locke who coined the term ‘solar system’. In fact, the OED lists Locke’s Elements of Natural Philosophy, which it dates at c.1704, as the earliest occurrence. However, the term first appears in his writings in Some Thoughts concerning Education of 1693 where speaking of Newton’s ‘admirable Book’ about ‘this our Planetary World’, he says,

his Book will deserve to be read, and give no small light and pleasure to those, who willing to understand the Motions, Properties, and Operations of the great Masses of Matter, in this our Solar System, will but carefully mind his Conclusions… (Clarendon edition, 1989, p. 249)

Interestingly, a quick word search of EEBO reveals that the term was also used by Richard Bentley in his seventh Boyle lecture of 7 November 1692, but published in 1693 in a volume that Locke owned (Folly & Unreasonableness of Atheism, London). Bentley uses the term in an argument for the existence of God on the basis of the claim that the fixed stars all have the power of gravity. It is God who prevents the whole system from collapsing into a common centre:

here’s an innumerable multitude of Fixt Starrs or Suns; all of which are demonstrated (and supposed also by our Adversaries) to have Mutual Attraction: or if they have not; even Not to have it is an equal Proof of a Divine Being, that hath so arbitrarily indued Matter with a Power of Gravity not essential to it, and hath confined its action to the Matter of its own Solar System: I say, all the Fixt Starrs have a principle of mutual Gravitation; and yet they are neither revolved about a common Center, nor have any Transverse Impulse nor any thing else to restrain them from approaching toward each other, as their Gravitating Powers incite them. Now what Natural Cause can overcome Nature it self? What is it that holds and keeps them in fixed Stations and Intervals against an incessant and inherent Tendency to desert them? (p. 37, underlining added)

There is no evidence, however, that Bentley was using the term as an alternative to ‘our vortex’. In a letter to Newton of 18 February 1693 he speaks unabashedly of matter that ‘is found in our Suns Vortex’.

Who published the word first? Bentley’s seventh Boyle lecture was not published separately, but appeared in the 1693 volume, the last lecture of which was not given its imprimatur until 30 May that year. Locke’s book was advertised in the London Gazette #2886 for 6–10 July. I have not been able to establish exactly when Bentley’s volume appeared, but it’s not mentioned in the London Gazette before #2886.

Whatever the case, it is most likely that the term was already ‘in the air’ and history shows that it was soon widely used and, of course, it is a commonplace today.

(N.B. This post also appears on the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog.)

The ‘Reliability’ of the Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696)

Monday, August 6th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Tim Cooper writes…

The autobiography of the leading English Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-91) was edited by his close friend and fellow Nonconformist minister Matthew Sylvester, and published in 1691 under the title Reliquiae Baxterianae.  No wonder Sylvester began his Preface to the Reader with an apology for the five-year delay in publication: the whole work is around eight-hundred pages long or, to be precise, 644,149 words.  Sylvester has been generally criticized for his editorial efforts but he did his best with what was a near-impossible task.  In the memorable words of William Lamont, the autobiography ‘is a sprawling monster containing everything but Baxter’s laundry list’.

 

A new edition of this sprawling monster is now in the offing.  I am one of a team of editors that is working to produce a critical edition of the Reliquiae to be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.  My colleagues in the project are Professor Neil Keeble, Professor John Coffey and Dr Thomas Charlton.  So I am rapidly developing an interest in seventeenth-century life-writing.  In November I will be presenting a paper to the North American Conference on British Studies.  In this post I would like to signal my broad intentions and ask for some help.

 

I am interested in the ‘reliability’ of the Reliquiae.  Being aware of just how much the word deserves its inverted commas,  I am very sensitive to just how tricky the concept of reliability will prove to be, given its proximity to the concept of truth: is the story that Baxter tells a true one?  Is it accurate?  Is it reliable?  Or is it distorted, partial and incomplete?  There are clear perils in trying to talk in these terms.  Of course Baxter’s account was partial and distorted – it could not have been anything else.  Yet in practical terms, historians (and scholars in other disciplines) will be required to use the Reliquiae for scholarly purposes.   I would like to be able to say something about how it should be approached and with what sort of confidence or reservations.

 

My intention is to compare the Reliquiae with an earlier and much briefer biographical account.  In April 1659 Baxter wrote the last chapter of A Holy Commonwealth, in which he answered the question ‘By what Reasons was I moved to engage myself in the Parliaments Warre?’ (p. 456).  It is a remarkably candid and fulsome explanation, quite different in tone from the way in which Baxter faced the same question (though he did not seek to answer it explicitly) in the Reliquiae, which he began to write five years later in 1664.  Obviously, neither account is without bias: there is a clear audience and purpose in in mind 1659, just as there is in 1664.  But I think something can be said about what is going on in the Reliquiae when it is placed alongside A Holy Commonwealth.  If nothing else, the events of 1659 (and 1660) altered the story that Baxter was able to tell himself, and they certainly altered the story he wanted to tell us.

I am only at the beginning of serious reading on the subject.  Already some generous colleagues have supplied a few welcome pointers.  But I would like to know of any scholarly discussion of the related issues of truth and reliability in early modern life-writing.  Can anyone send me to some helpful conversation partners to get me started?