Posted by: deannakk | December 11, 2018

“Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science” Book Talk

Book Talk Blog Post

On the evening of December 4, I somewhat nervously entered the Stimson Room of the Library to hear Professor Suparna Roychoudhury discuss her recently published book, Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science. The Stimson Room was warm and bright, with countless volumes of poetry lining the bookcases against the walls. Cozy sofas occupied the middle of the space, and large windows offered a view into the cloudless, starry night. The English department had arranged folding chairs in several neat rows, and copies of the book were available for purchase. People mingled, drinking cider and munching on cheese and crackers before the talk officially began.

I was nervous because being in a room full of intelligent, articulate academics is always a daunting task for me. I was worried that I would not understand the talk, and would have to nod and utter “ah”s of appreciation to feign a comprehension that I lacked. However, I admired Professor Roychoudhury, and as a student in her Renaissance literature seminar, I believed attending this event would give me valuable insights. The atmosphere of the room was so inviting, and the attendees so amiable, that I quickly forgot my trepidation, and chatted with friends, classmates, and professors before the talk began. When we all finally took our seats, I found myself absorbed in Professor Roychoudhury’s words.

Professor Roychoudhury opened her talk by discussing what led her to write the book in the first place. She found that scholarship concerning the impact of 16th century psychology on Shakespeare’s conception of the imagination in his plays did not exist. Surprised, she was so interested in this research problem that she decided she should be the one to investigate it. She prefaced her research by providing an overview of ancient and medieval ideas about cognitive psychology, or how the brain produces “phantasms,” mental images. Professor Roychoudhury also explained how the discipline of science, in the modern sense, arose in the 16th century, and how new notions about the mind influenced Shakespeare, even as classical philosophy remained entrenched in Renaissance thought.

Before she read the excerpts she prepared for us, Professor Roychoudhury outlined the chapters in her book and what they generally entailed. Chapter 1, Between Heart and Eye: Anatomies of Imagination in the Sonnets, examines questions about the head, heart, and eye and their relation to “fancy” in The Merchant of Venice. Chapter 2, Children of Fancy: Academic Idleness and Love’s Labor’s Lost, explores imagining as a leisure activity in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Chapter 3, Of Atoms, Air, and Insects: Mercutio’s Vain Fantasy, focuses on the immateriality of fantasy in Romeo and Juliet. Chapter 4, Seeming to See: King Lear‘s Mental Optics, studies vision as imaginative mental representation in King Lear. Chapter 5, Melancholy, Ecstasy, Phantasma: The Pathologies of Macbeth, analyzes mental illness as expressed in dreams and hallucinations. Chapter 6, Chimeras: Natural History and the Shapes of The Tempest, investigates nature’s relationship to the imagination, particularly in conceiving of the “unnatural.”

Professor Roychoudhury chose to delve into Chapter 4 in her talk. She explained Plato’s ideas about vision; he presumed that the eye sees by shooting a beam of light out onto the perceived object. Plato’s student, Aristotle, held the opposite view, asserting that light enters the eye, not exits it. Euclid, in his Optica, conceived of vision as geometrical problems, providing diagrams explaining perspective and other phenomena. This mathematical rendering of optics endured through the 15th century into the 16th century, with Johannes Kepler illustrating how the eye acts as a camera obscura (using a lens) in 1604. This discovery proved that vision produces pictures. However, Kepler’s theories also proved that vision is inverted because of how rays of light hit the eye’s lens.

Professor Roychoudhury provided us with a handout of significant passages in King Lear:

Gloucester. Dost thou know me?

Lear. I remember thine eyes well enough. Doest thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid. I’ll not love. Read thou this challenge; mark but the penning of it.

Gloucester. Were all the letters suns, I could not see.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Lear. Read.

Gloucester. What, with the case of eyes?

Lear. . . . Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light, yet you see how this world goes.

Gloucester. I see it feelingly.

Lear. What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears.

(4.6.133-37, 140-47)

Lear. Get the glass eyes, / And, like a scurvy politician, / Seem to see the things thou dost not.


The significance of Renaissance optics appears in King Lear, where Shakespeare plays with the trope of the blind sage. The tradition that losing one’s vision results in an increase in one’s insight was firmly established by Shakespeare’s time. Yet, it was now understood that the eye errs in seeing, leaving the mind to correct what the eye perceives, and the mind is not always able to do that. This revelation thus admits that both the eye and the mind can err, so wisdom and insight no longer entirely belong to either. Shakespeare uses Gloucester’s blinding to explore this problem.

The passages above detail the meeting of Gloucester, who is physically unable to see, and Lear, who is now mad and mentally unable to “see,” or reason. Gloucester, obsessed with the physicality of seeing, does not stop talking about his eyes or lack thereof. Meanwhile, Lear is absorbed with metaphorical eyes, invoking imagination to discuss how the mind works. Finally, Lear implies that one can see with “glass eyes,” remarking on the relative uselessness of physical vision. The appearance of seeing, achieved by wearing “glass eyes,” is, to Lear, equal to actually seeing. Thus, Shakespeare implicates the mistrust of vision and imagination in this scene.

I found Professor Roychoudhury’s arguments convincing. Her assertions were grounded in thorough close-readings of her texts, and she incorporated a number of Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern texts to bolster her conclusions. I appreciate how she identified a hole in the scholarship and filled it, establishing a relationship between Shakespeare and science that I have not encountered before and doubt will encounter often. I regard Shakespeare’s plays, and Early Modern literature generally, in a new light because of this book talk, and I know that the knowledge I gained from it will be invaluable as I continue my education.


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