Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"How like a God": Shakespeare and Early Modern Apprehension

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"How like a God": Shakespeare and Early Modern Apprehension

Article excerpt

WILLIAM AUSTIN, arguing for the felix culpa in his 1635 book of meditations, explains that the first iteration of God's word was a light that we only "apprehended," though we "comprehended it not": like a bolt of lightning in the darkness, it was no sooner grasped than lost, allowing for our fortunate redemption in the light of Christ. (1) The distinction between apprehension and comprehension that Austin makes had become increasingly common in the period, as reflected in other theological works, in psychological treatises, and in popular entertainments like A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Theseus notes that the "seething brains" of lovers and madmen "apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends" (5.1.5-6). (2) Yet because apprehension was also differentiated from the work of the outward senses, it occupied a mercurial place in early modern models of the psyche. Adrift between perception and understanding, "apprehension" named something like the becoming of knowledge. Often, this liminal function carried connotations of fearful, even pathological excess, as in Theseus's account, or of fallen inadequacy, as in Austin's. (3) Yet apprehension also appeared as a Promethean moment in the workings of the soul, as in Hamlet's reflection that man is merely "noble in reason" but "in apprehension how like a god" (2.2.272-76). (4)

This essay measures these two Shakespearean moments of apprehension--Theseus's and Hamlet's--against the term's psychological and theological uses in order to map its volatile role in the period, particularly in its imperfect opposition to comprehension. I argue that apprehension marked an initial act of knowledge that exceeds perception but falls short of understanding, while partaking of both. This makes apprehension a site of acute confusion within early modern epistemological theory, but I will also point to a sense of radical possibility that emerges from this confusion: a wonder at how powerful and even creative apprehensive acts of knowledge can be. If apprehension was viewed in most cases as a failure of human understanding--an imperiled or subhuman knowledge--in others it marked the flash of a transcendent spark within orderly thought, either as a divine way of knowing or as an apotheosis of the human one. Apprehension occupied the borderlands of what we now call cognition; it named knowledge at its inception, or thought without understanding. With readings of the passages in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet as my touchstones, I will argue that this epistemological liminality made apprehension particularly suited to a description of the kind of awareness on which theatrical practice depended, both for actors and for audiences. My argument thus brings into focus a discrete, historically situated experience of knowledge at the intersection of natural philosophy, poetics, and performance. My goals in the essay are threefold: I aim to map an elusive concept in early modern psychology; to suggest its relationship to Shakespeare's sense of theatrical practice; and, in closing, to establish some of its methodological implications for recent studies of early modern cognition and experience. (5) As I hope to show, apprehension presents new challenges for such studies by dramatically re-opening the question of how early moderns thought about the experience of thinking.

There is, at first glance, virtually no suggestion of a redemptive aspect of apprehensive knowledge in Theseus's speech on the detrimental effects of "strong imagination." Apprehension is at best ecstatically delusional and at worst terrifying, but it is in any case a symptom of minds in crisis. A reminder of the context here: Theseus and Hippolyta have just heard the play's lovers tell over the chaotic, even terrifying events of their night in the woods. Hippolyta comments, "Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of." Theseus replies,

   More strange than true: I never may believe
   These antique fables, nor these fairy toys. … 
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