The Salvage Ecology of Early Modern Drama
My book turns to the material history of the stage to uncover the intersubjective relationship between objects and the people they leave behind, while also exploring the environmental implications of a culture obsessed with expressing itself through the accumulation of material commodities. The surge of printed books and broadsheets that filled private and lending libraries, the proliferation of movables across all ranks of the domestic sphere, and the fad for assembling natural rarities in cabinets of curiosity provide the historical context in which I argue, the rapid increase and subsequent accrual of manufactured objects affected the environment in Renaissance England. Under consideration in my manuscript are the objects featured in plays by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Middleton. While the properties staged in plays I consider certainly signal a craze for accrual, the plays, as well as theater itself, simultaneously demonstrates practices of recycling as a response to over consumption. When the use value initially assigned to objects, such as garments, bones, paintings, stage machines, and books, grow and change as they are reused over their long lives, I argue they form systems best described as ecological. In the version of my chapter on The Tempest, published in Shakespeare, I argue, the characters model survival strategies when they produce their environment through salvaged materials. The essay I contributed to a special issue of Early Modern Culture suggests that Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is an early Anthropocentric text because the effects of Faustus’s accrual of objects collapses the distinction between natural and man-made weather events. Early Modern dramatists stage the ways that object collection affects the environment, so my research looks at sixteenth and seventeenth century drama to understand how objects are both part of historical ecological systems and often themselves ecological.
Edited Collection Chapter
“Muddying the Water: Thinking Thinking in Hamlet.” Watery Thinking, eds. Steve Mentz and Nicholas Helms. Amsterdam University Press. (forthcoming)
Throughout Hamlet, watery figures act as metaphors for human cognition. For instance, to further perpetrate the hoax of Hamlet’s insanity on Claudius, Gertrude explains her son is “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend/Which is the mightier” (4.1.7-8). Gertrude conveys to Claudius, and the audience, the state of her son’s madness by activating proverbial images and ideas of coastal storms, while also recalling for him the plan he has to send Hamlet to England by ship. Not only does this metaphor for madness as a storm, in which two elemental forces seem to battle for supremacy, trade on the characters’ and audiences’ shared linguistic markers, but it also allows Gertrude to illustrate the internal functions of her son’s brain. The image of the sea and wind is a metaphor that helps audiences to think about how thinking works, or, in this case, how thinking is failing to work correctly. While we can describe, categorize, and name all the types of metaphors through which we figure human thinking, cognitive critics point out that we cannot think thought itself because thought is only available to be thought through metaphors that are prelinguistic, embodied, and determined by what Mary Thomas Crane calls, “prototypical categories” (16). Since the unconscious processes that create prototypical categories, i.e. the standard against which we measure what we perceive, are contextual, setting Hamlet within our immediate present offers some insight into our perilous, ecological moment. By emphasizing cognitive criticism’s insight into the production of meaning, in this paper, I will examine how the current state of the world’s water ways redounds onto Hamlet’s watery metaphors. In other words, given that the prototypical categories of water for modern audiences likely include ocean acidification, industrial effluent, and plastic gyres, I will explore the effects that contemporary toxicity has on our thinking about thinking in Hamlet.
Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin date the start of the Anthropocene, the age in which humans exert the greatest geological force on the environment, to 1610. If, as they suggest, the Golden Spike can be dated to 1610, then Early Modern English drama may speak to some of the terminal consequences of the age of man. Considering their connection, I argue that Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is not only a high-water mark of humanism, but also an exemplary instance of the human becoming a climatological force. Even before we meet him, for instance, Faustus is “swoll’n” (Prologue 20) and then later “glutted” (1.1.80) by a fantasy of accumulation that includes, but is not limited to, pearl, gold, silk, fruits, all the secrets of foreign kings, war machines, and Germany. So that Mephistopheles will “bring him” (2.1.101) grapes from the southern hemisphere and move trees at his command, Faustus signs his name in blood to a deed of gift. Faustus’s famous signature is itself a sedimentary layer in the literary historical archive that is freighted with both the citation of the Faustbook that precedes Marlowe’s play, as well as the destructive environmental conditions—expansion, extraction, and extinction—in which Marlowe’s text unfolds from the Early Modern period to the present. And while he may satisfy his appetite at the expense the environment he inhabits, Faustus is eventually incorporated into the deleterious environmental forces that, quite literally, undo him. That Faustus falls victim to a storm of his own making, presages the dangers of our own climatological moment.
The opening catastrophe of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is not simply a providentially ordained storm and shipwreck, but neither is it the singular expression of Prospero’s will. Beginning with the reading of the storm and shipwreck, this article argues that the play produces and reproduces itself through salvage. The actors, costumes, properties, and language that the act one catastrophe disperses, continually persist and recollect forming the larger ecology of the play. This ecology of salvage extends from the fiction of The Tempest to its stage materials, as garments, hand properties, and set pieces, which were recycled from prior early modern contexts into theatre storehouses, found their way onto the stage. What is emphasized by the constant recycling of the wreckage that the man-made storm leaves in its wake is that the past continues to exist in the present despite being transformed by human catastrophe. Ultimately, because the remainders made by the storm survive the very devastation they constitute, the play may be said to speak to a contemporary ecocritical desire to envision ways that people and things already endure man-made disaster.