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"Shakespeare’s Substance: A Reading of the Sonnets" (NEH, 2009–2010)
Shakespeare's Substance is a book about the 1609 quarto of Shakespeare's sonnets. It argues that the selves imagined in the poems are responsive to a philosophical tradition ultimately traceable to Aristotle's “Metaphysics” and “De Anima” and transmitted through the Scholastic reconfiguration of the classical understanding of being and animation. As part of their erotic argument, the poems bring under pressure a vocabulary that points to Aristotle's attempts to describe growth and characteristic change via a set of related binaries: form and matter, substance and accident, potency and act, activity and passivity. Shakespeare probes this language for its uncharted effects, and for its ongoing capacity to produce new forms of relation, whereby a thing might be itself only in relation to something else. The key concept for that meditation is substance, a word that enters English through the Latin substantia, which translates Aristotle's ousia. Substance, Aristotle writes, is "the what" that a thing is, such that to ask "what is being" equates precisely to asking "what is substance" ("Met." VII.1.5). This basic connection illuminates the conceptual work that Shakespeare's poetry does when, for example, he wonderingly inquires of the young man, "What is your substance" (53). The question hides a non-tautologous tautology. 'What' is your what-ness, Shakespeare asks, what 'is' your is-ness? Heard thus, the question indexes the poems' work to test, within a late Petrarchan tradition, 'how' beauty can have the effect it has on the world, and second, how the beloved can be the kind of thing that a poem might actually transmit across time—not as a body, then, but as something equally describable as substance. So Aristotle's vocabulary helps Shakespeare probe the hyperbole of Petrarchan praise for all the ways it can produce philosophical and literary sense. In the process, the poems fashion a lyric subjectivity that is itself in its capacity to change and effect change—a philosophical argument painfully realized across the sequence through the overwhelming presence of those erotic others that define self.
Editorial Board, Shakespeare Quarterly