Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution

Article excerpt

Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution, by Marcus Nordlund. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2007. Hardback $59.95, Paperback $27.95.

This in an important, brave, and urgently welcome study, engagingly written and beautifully respectful of both traditional and theory-based commentaries on Shakespeare. Attempting to bridge the widening chasm between "essentialists" (who celebrate a dramatist who was not for an age but for all time) and "constructivists" (who believe that he can be understood only as the product of historically specific social and cultural determinants), Nordlund grounds his exploration of Shakespeare's treatment of love in "a biocultural fusion of evolutionary and cultural/historical explanation" (5). A longstanding humanist tradition in Shakespeare studies, unabashedly subjective in its imaginative responses, has tended to regard Darwin's world-altering discoveries as either irrelevant or hostile to Renaissance high culture, while recent materialist criticism, fearing biology as the enemy of its egalitarian political agenda yet claiming to bring Shakespeare within the ambit of modern sociological and psychological theory, has grossly distorted the bard by presenting him as the embodiment of a false scientism and often as a site for polemically reductive discourses on patriarchy, gender, race, class, and elitist oppression. Nordlund' s ambitious project is to restore Shakespearean criticism to its time-honored function of analyzing the emotional richness and intellectual universality of the plays, to show why they merit the high value that readers and playgoers have assigned them over the ages, and to illustrate that the problems they explore often leave us with a powerful sense of the mysterious complexity of life. At the same time Nordlund seeks to account for these properties by appropriating the insights of modern science, by locating emotions and their representation in literature in the context of neurochemical adaptations in the limbic system and higher cortex of the human brain - physiological adaptations that were the same for homo sapiens in the sixteenth century as in the twenty-first, despite significant differences of culture and historical conditioning. As he puts it, "Four hundred years is a very short time in the history of the species, and most of the cultural heritage is shared" (126). In Nordlund' s approach biology, evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and anthropology become the partners rather than the opponents of philosophy, literature and art; he jettisons the rigid dichotomy between particulars and universals as a stumbling block - the fossil of a pre-scientific age - and embraces Dr. Johnson's famous praise of Shakespeare as "the poet of nature" with the vital corollary that the paradox of sameness within difference or its obverse is inscribed upon the human genome.

An opening theoretical chapter surveys and condenses a formidable complex of research on the hypothesis that human emotion originates biochemically without scanting the likelihood, derived from anthropology and social history, that cultural influences are almost equally important. Although Nordlund is careful to avoid the impression of oversimplifying problematic, perhaps insoluble, issues of causality, he nevertheless appears to accept as his premise a biological formulation about the etiology of love that comes short of certainty and about which scientists themselves disagree. The body of the volume then examines various kinds of love as staged by Shakespeare - the intensity of parental love in conflict with the Roman concept of honor or pietas in Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus; filial love in relationship to the imperatives of duty in King Lear; the tendency of romantic love to over- or undervalue its object in Troilus and Cressida and All's Well That Ends Weiland jealous love with the rage and violence it can unleash in Othello together with a fruitful parallel from The Winter's Tale. …