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Suparna Roychoudhury, Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science
This event is co-sponsored by the Mount Holyoke College English Department.
Professor Suparna Roychoudhury will read from and discuss her book, Phantasmatic Shakespeare.
What was Shakespeare’s understanding of imagination, and what made his depictions of imagining so vital and rich? Roychoudhury describes how, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, imagination was an element of early modern cognitive psychology—it was the faculty of the mind that produces mental images, or phantasms. During this period, the ancient and medieval philosophy of imagination was complicated and challenged by the rise of what we would today call science. Emerging knowledge in anatomy, medicine, mathematics, and natural history jolted established ideas about the mind, especially the faculty of imagination. Although the new science did not displace older philosophical ideas, it came to inflect how Renaissance natural philosophers, physicians, and also poets thought and wrote about the mind’s image-making faculty. Phantasmatic Shakespeare considers various aspects of imagination that were destabilized during this time: its place in the brain; its legitimacy as a form of knowledge; its pathologies; its relation to matter, light, and nature.
Roychoudhury argues that the complexity we find in Shakespearean representations of imagination is a reflection of the changing epistemologies of the early modern period. The many hallucinations, illusions, and dreams scattered through Shakespeare’s plays and poems exploit the epistemological ferment of his historical moment, deriving their ingenuity from ambiguities provoked by the work of Andreas Vesalius, Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, and other early scientists. Reading scientific and philosophical writings in concert with literary texts such as King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest, the book reveals how Shakespeare was influenced by the paradigmatic shifts of his age, and how he in turn demonstrated that the mysteries of cognition could be the basis of powerful art.
Suparna Roychoudhury is Associate Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.