Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

The Complexity of Dance in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

The Complexity of Dance in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Article excerpt

Dance is a vehicle for interaction, communication, and transformation within Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595-1596). In exhibiting these complex behavioural patterns, dance falls under the purview of complexity theory, which is interested in how systems are created and changed through the interaction of different parts. The aim of this essay is to use the lens of complexity theory to reconsider the role of dance in three key passages of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.1 This analysis will demonstrate that dance does not simply reinforce a sense of harmony or, conversely, social disorder, but instead Shakespeare uses dance to create and negotiate moments of crisis or 'bounded instability'. These are the moments which shape the characters, their social relationships, and their environments. In this way, dance is a complex mode of discourse that derails the linear movement of a narrative's 'straight Aristotelean lines'.2 As a vehicle for communication and for change, dance accomplishes two critical actions. First, it provides an alternative avenue for (often turbulent) interactions and dialogue. Second, it destabilises and changes the social relationships and environmental landscapes of the play.

Complexity theory is not simply a framework transferred from the sciences into the humanities. It is a 'way of seeing the world' that is flourishing in a variety of different disciplines in both the sciences and the arts.3 Joseph Dodds refers to '[t]he new nomadic sciences of complexity' for just this reason; they are applicable in various fields.4 It has already made a brief foray into the analysis of A Midsummer Night's Dream, via Bruce Clarke's article5 and Henry Turner's monograph, in which he argues that:

Shakespeare uses mythic symbols to describe the 'complexity' of natural forces, in the sense that modern science gives the term - the way in which many local factors quickly combine to produce effects that are impossible to anticipate and very difficult to model - with a clarity that would astonish a modern ecologist.6

Even in fields where complexity theory is not explicitly used, it is often implicitly present:

A few decades ago, it was still being described as the 'new paradigm' and an 'emerging worldview.' Now virtually all research in the physical sciences is implicitly complexivist - and one would be hard pressed to find research in the social sciences and humanities that is not deeply committed to such notions as co-participations, complex entanglements, decentralised structures, co-adaptive dynamics, self-determination, and non-linear unfoldings.7

A methodology that complements current and developing ways of understanding the world, complexity theory can be seen as a compatible addition to the scholar's toolset, not a replacement. As Amy Cook contends in her use of cognitive science, '[t]here is room in Shakespeare studies for the contributions of various approaches.'8

Complexity theory helps us to understand how the world works. It identifies systems in our natural and social worlds that exhibit certain behavioural patterns and aims to understand how they operate.9 Complexity is interested in complex systems - these are dynamic, self-organising, evolving systems that operate without any central control. These systems can be found in excitingly diverse fields: from the 'aggregation of the slime mold' to the creation of life, from the organisation of corporate bodies to the reshuffling of carbon atoms in a sea urchin embryo.10 From a human brain, to an ant colony, a city, a rainforest, climate change, even the cosmos itself.

These systems, while incredibly diverse, all share certain core behaviours.11 They are created and maintained by the ongoing interactions of their parts - not by a 'central controller' or leader.12 This is called 'self-organisation'. The phenomena that emerge13 from these interactions enable the system to continue changing and developing. …

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