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Home :: Archive :: 2010 :: July ::
SBReview_8: Phenomenal Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0270  Saturday, 11 July 2010

From:         Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:         Saturday, July 10, 2010      
Subject:      SBReview_8: Phenomenal Shakespeare

SBReview_8: 

Bruce R. Smith. _Phenomenal Shakespeare_ (Blackwell Manifestos).  Oxford: Wiley-
Blackwell, 2010. Hardcover: ISBN-13: 978-0631235484; 232 pp. US$84.95. 
Paperback: ISBN-10: 0631235485; US$29.95. Kindle: US$26.96.

Reviewed by James Mainard O'Connell, Assistant Technical Director/Shop Foreman, 
Columbia University

_Phenomenal Shakespeare_ proclaims itself a manifesto on the study of 
Shakespeare from the perspective of historical phenomenology, i.e., the study of 
historic knowledge through the phenomena we can observe with our five senses in 
the present. Despite some flaws, _Phenomenal Shakespeare_ successfully 
demonstrates that historical phenomenology is a legitimate lens through which 
Shakespeare can be studied. The work is divided into four chapters, a Prologue, 
and an Epilogue. The first chapter, a "how-to-do-it chapter" (xvi), is followed 
by three chapters that each seek to examine a different facet of Shakespeare, 
using phenomenology as the lens for study. As such, the book is as much a 
handbook as it is a manifesto.  

The author, Bruce R. Smith, uses the Prologue to serve three principal 
functions. The first is to clarify the differing ways in which he will refer to 
Shakespeare throughout the book-WSA  (William Shakespeare as Author), THWS (The 
Historical William Shakespeare), CWWS (Collected Works of William Shakespeare), 
and WSCI (William Shakespeare as Cultural Icon). This division of four divergent 
ways of discussing "Shakespeare" is a useful consideration in general, but it 
does not emerge as a major element in the book and is thus sometimes 
distracting. The second function of the Prologue is to begin defining historical 
phenomenology, but a clear, succinct definition of such does not emerge until 
the Epilogue. Rather, Smith discusses the etymology of "phenomena" as it relates 
to the writings of Francis Bacon. Finally, the Prologue addresses the purpose of 
the book, to provide "evidence that subjective experience of poems and plays 
written 400 years ago can be approached from the outside in culturally specific 
and politically aware terms" (xvi).

The first chapter, "As It Likes You," initially discusses the word "like" in the 
context of the title "As You Like It" and maintains that "like" means more than 
simply "to find agreeable or congenial," but also "as" or "seems ready to", 
among other meanings (8-9). Smith proceeds to argue that "it likes me" is an 
older form in which the object is acting upon the observer; he then examines the 
philosophies of Descartes, Bacon, and Husserl in relation to "it likes me." He 
writes that compared to Descartes and Bacon Husserl's philosophy "is very close 
to 'As it likes me'" (22). Finally, Smith challenges the new historicism's 
insistence on the "differentness of the early modern past" (23) by contending 
that the past and future are merely points on a continuum that always converge 
in the present and that many of the materials of Early Modern England are 
available for us to experience in the present; and that by experiencing them, we 
share an intersubjectivity with Shakespeare. This chapter, as the one that 
follows, is not always clear in its direction but successfully lays the 
groundwork for the remainder of the book.

The second chapter, "How Should One Read a Shakespeare Sonnet?" covers much 
territory and a variety of subjects, using sonnet 29 as the central focus of 
study. Among the subjects covered are writing out the sonnet as a means to share 
intersubjectivity with Renaissance readers, thought versus speech and which 
comes first, the importance of pronouns and the way they situate the reader and 
the author, and the value of considering "one" as the subject as opposed to "I" 
or "thee." In this chapter, Smith is not always clear about why he is leading 
the reader through these subjects or how these subjects specifically relate to 
historical phenomenology. As a result, the chapter feels more like jazz 
improvisation than a clearly reasoned argument, but the various subjects are 
each so well considered that the journey is well worth the lack of a clear 
destination.

"Carnal Knowledge," the third chapter, uses _Venus and Adonis_ as a means for 
exploring the relations of characters to the world-at-hand and readers to the 
world-at-hand, specifically in the realm of sexuality. It feels more organized 
than the previous chapters, as Smith defines its order near the beginning: "It 
will start with the printed book itself and move out by degrees into the ambient 
world." First, Smith explores the physical properties of the original printings 
of _Venus and Adonis_ and how those properties might affect the reader of the 
poem. He then proceeds to the visual representations of Venus and Adonis that 
might have been in the minds of the narrative's original readers and eventually 
to topics of sexuality such as the bedchamber's location, the etymology of 
"penetration," and the Renaissance sexual imagination. This chapter is 
insightful throughout, but not every idea is fully defined, and many of the 
insights could exist separately from a discussion of historical phenomenology.  

The fourth chapter, "Touching Moments," is the most successful, as it is the 
most focused and remains trained on the tangible. Using _King Lear_ as a 
touchstone, Smith discusses the sense of touch as it relates to a reader of 
Shakespeare and to the audience of Shakespeare's plays. After a discussion of 
Braille and the physical indentations on paper created by the Renaissance 
printing process, Smith establishes, by citing a 2007 virtual reality study that 
demonstrated a physiological response to viewing another person's suffering, a 
physical connection between audience and performer/character despite the 
distance audience members sit from the stage. By the end of this chapter, he 
demonstrates the validity of historical phenomenology in the study of CWWS 
(Collected Works, see above) both for scholars and for performers. 

Throughout _Phenomenal Shakespeare_, Smith maintains a striking balance between 
authoritative and good-humored tones, making his book palatable to a relatively 
wide academic readership. He does, however, seem to assume his readers come to 
the book with a basic knowledge of phenomenology, since he does not succinctly 
define it until the Epilogue ("you cannot know anything apart from the way in 
which you come to know it." [185]). Theatre professionals will not find 
_Phenomenal Shakespeare_ as useful as scholars will, with the possible exception 
of "Touching Moments"; and some readers may be turned off by Smith's Eurocentric 
choice of philosophers worth discussing. Despite these concerns, _Phenomenal 
Shakespeare_ is an insightful demonstration of how one might employ historical 
phenomenology in the study of Shakespeare. 


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