Shakespeare's Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory

By Mary Thomas Crane | Go to book overview

5
Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability
in Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure was an early favorite of New Historicist critics, and no wonder: it clearly treats changing technologies of power, especially the appropriation by the state and stage of internalized methods of control that had previously been the property of other institutions, most notably the Catholic Church. Steven Mullaney describes the play as “a searching exploration of the shape a more intrusive form of power might take,” a form of power that he calls “apprehension” and Steven Greenblatt calls “anxiety.” 1 All agree that the play is about the power of ruling ideologies to shape early modern subjects and that the unruliness of those subjects is to be interpreted for the most part as a self-justifying construction of power. In Jonathan Dollimore's words, “We can indeed discern in the demonising of sexuality a relegitimation of authority.” 2 In these readings the unruly materiality of the subject itself is to some extent shortchanged; what seems important is external cultural interpretations of the body and bodily behavior. 3 Indeed, both psychoanalytic and New Historicist readings have seen the process of subjectification represented in the play as involving a kind of disembodiment. Janet Adelman, for example, argues that “the last scene is constructed to make invisible male power, rather than the visibly pregnant female body, the site of revelation,” so that “in the end, the replacement of the bodily female by the spiritual male dispensation seems complete.” 4 According to Mullaney, “The power of the stage was precisely the power of fiction, the power to induce an audience or an Angelo to view themselves as actors in their own lives, as artificial and artfully manipulated constructions, as indeed they were, whether they existed on-stage or off, whether they were constituted by a playwright or by larger cultural forces of determination.” 5

While Greenblatt, Mullaney, and other New Historicist readers of the play imagine immaterial and ubiquitous manifestations of power that are able to construct human subjects invisibly, the play emphasizes the physicality of both the body and the mind and the necessarily material forms that power must take in its attempts to shape them. By vesting the power of the state in the all-too-human Duke, the play insists on depicting power as it is embodied in a particular human agent who is vulnerable to the

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