“Affection wondrous sensible”: Locating Affect in Shakespeare’s Comedies
This dissertation reads three Shakespearean comedies, The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night, through the mutually illuminating perspectives of early modern theories of the passions, mid-twentieth century genre theory, and twenty-first century affect studies. Its goal is to show how Shakespeare derives inspiration from the structure and character types provided by New Comedy, yet evades formulaic simplicity by suffusing the plays with emotionally intense, even traumatic, conflict. By adopting the critical framework of historical phenomenology, and close reading to pay detailed attention to the way that Shakespeare uses language to represent emotional states, this study evaluates how the distinctly early modern psychophysiological paradigm of the embodied passions shapes characters’ understanding of identity as an ecology of mutual influence with the bodies of others and the environment. A major preoccupation of these plays is belonging. Testing Northrop Frye’s postulate that “In fiction, we discovered two main tendencies, a ‘comic’ tendency to integrate the hero with his society, and a tragic tendency to isolate him” (Natural Perspective 54), this study shows how social inclusion and exclusion in these plays are based on the individual’s willingness to understand the management of the passions as a social responsibility. The struggles that Shakespeare’s comic characters face stem from questions of how to know the self and how to integrate that knowledge with social structures that, much of the time, resist or reject the very notion of individual selfhood as we know it today. Sacrifice, self-loss, and self-denial are negative experiences that comic characters must survive through, whether they are ultimately happy or not. While these comedies depict characters navigating and negotiating powerful emotions, it becomes evident that these negotiations take place at a declining rate of success as Shakespeare’s career progresses. This dissertation concludes that Shakespeare’s comedies should not be read as oppositional to his tragedies, but as components of a single continuum that exposes the painful cost of maintaining social unity.
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