Reading the Early Modern Passions (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive. For more past programming from the Center for Shakespeare Studies, please visit the Center for Shakespeare Studies program archive.

This was a Mellon Weekend Seminar held from 1999 to 2000 and led by Gail Kern Paster. Visiting faculty, in order of appearance, included Steven Mullaney (English, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) and Catherine Lutz (Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill); William I. Miller (Law, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor); Zirka Z. Filipczak (Art History, Williams College); and Gary Tomlinson (Musicology, University of Pennsylvania).

Shakespeare's plays seem most accessible and immediate to student readers when the characters describe emotions-their own and others'. Shakespeare himself is popularly accorded exceptional-if not unique-perspicacity into the range of human feelings even though his knowledge about the emotions depends on a physiological and psychological paradigm we now regard as inaccurate. As scholars from such disparate disciplines as cognitive science, cultural anthropology, and literary history are well aware, the question of the universality and historicity of emotion remains an open one. This Center for Shakespeare Studies seminar was sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. With visiting lecturers from anthropology, literature, art history, and music, it investigated the central issues and controversies facing an historical epistemology of the early modern passions. The first session laid out the historical and theoretical terrain by emphasizing different taxonomies of the passions from classical and patristic to contemporary theory. This comparative examination were tested out in the second session against a close reading of a set of early modern literary texts. These were chosen in part on the basis of the selected participants' own research interests, but included such works as Hamlet and Othello along with Montaigne's Essais, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. The third session moved beyond verbal expression of emotions to look at early modern visual representations. The fourth weekend examined musical theories and expressions of the passions, and concluded, festively, with a related musical program of early music by the Folger Consort.

Director: Gail Kern Paster is Professor of English at George Washington University and, since January 1998, Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly. Her scholarly publications include The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare (1986), The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (1993), and, with Skiles Howard, "A Midsummer Night's Dream": Texts and Contexts (1998).