Shakespeare's Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory

By Mary Thomas Crane | Go to book overview

3
Twelfth Night: Suitable Suits and the Cognitive
Space Between

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, as almost all critics have noticed and as its subtitle attests, is about desire, especially as it relates to identity and disguise. 1 Most have read the play as showing the characters experiencing a movement from false or obstructive desires to acceptable ones and thus simultaneously clarifying their identities. The defining characteristics of acceptability differ depending on each critic's approach; a New Critical reader such as John Hollander sees limitation of excessive appetite as the key, while in Coppélia Kahn's psychoanalytic reading each protagonist must move from narcissistic desire for a similar object to a more mature relationship with someone different. 2 New Historicist approaches have focused on the need to channel desire toward someone of appropriate social status. 3 Relatively few critics have suggested that desire or disguise in the play remains uncontrolled; however, Barbara Freedman's Lacanian reading stresses the ways in which the play represents desire as inextricably related to loss, while Geoffrey Hartman celebrates language in the play as coining “its metaphors and fertile exchanges beyond any calculus of loss and gain.” 4

In seeking modern or postmodern terms for the movements of desire in the play, these critics have failed to notice the ways the play itself calls attention to a contemporary means of conceptualizing the simultaneous expression and control of desire and the assumption and revelation of identity through disguise. In this play Shakespeare explores multiple senses of the word suit, which in the early modern period named a nexus of ways in which desire was both satisfied and controlled, as well as ways in which clothing was used both to reveal and to conceal the self. Like house in The Comedy of Errors and villain in As You Like It, suit in Twelfth Night delineates another set of spatially structured concepts for understanding how subjects become themselves by interacting with other subjects and with their material environment; suits of various kinds thus form the interface between self and other and between physiological and cultural components of identity. Critics have generally pointed to a trajectory from one state of desire or identity to another, but in my view the play emphasizes cognitive process rather than historical or personal prog-

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