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Like Furnace: Sighing on the Shakespearean Stage

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series (PLSM)


Sighs, sometimes accompanied by tears and groans, are everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays and yet have received almost no attention in scholarship on the passions and early modern theater. References to sighing are often taken as a commonplace rather than as potential cues to embodied action or clues to a character’s emotional state, and yet, sighing had anatomical, humoral, spiritual, and pathological significance in early modern culture. Constant sighing was viewed as a key external symptom of melancholic afflictions such as lovesickness. With such ideas in mind, Chalk explores the representation of sighing on the Shakespearean stage in relation to medical and philosophical writings on the phenomenon. Visceral, vital, non-verbal, and affective, sighing was more than merely metaphorical: its use in Shakespeare often signifies the physicality and theatricality of the passions as necessarily performative phenomena.

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  1. 1.

    Problems of Aristotle, K4r. Variant versions of the “Problemata Aristotelis” were widely circulated, in manuscript and print form, throughout early modern Europe and, although often trading on the authoritative classical namesakes of Aristotle or Alexander of Aphrodisias, were anonymous works addressing largely contemporary concerns. See Blair further, “Authorship.’”

  2. 2.

    Problems of Aristotle, K4r-4v.

  3. 3.

    Descartes, Passions of the Soul, 88.

  4. 4.

    All quotations from Shakespeare’s plays follow Norton Shakespeare, cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. 5.

    Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. (2018), s.v. “sigh.” Oxford University Press., accessed September 23, 2020.

  6. 6.

    Cooper, Thesaurus Linguae Romanae Britannicae, “Suspiro.”

  7. 7.

    Cooper, Thesaurus, “Suspiro,” “Suspiriosus,” and “Suspirium.”

  8. 8.

    Descartes, Passions, 106–7.

  9. 9.

    Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum, 184–85.

  10. 10.

    Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum, 184–85.

  11. 11.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 135–36.

  12. 12.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 157.

  13. 13.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 160–61.

  14. 14.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 157–58.

  15. 15.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 158–59.

  16. 16.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 158.

  17. 17.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 160–61.

  18. 18.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 161.

  19. 19.

    Tsentourou, “Sighs and Groans,” 264.

  20. 20.

    Tsentourou, “Sighs and Groans,” 265.

  21. 21.

    Cooper, Thesaurus, “Suspiro.”

  22. 22.

    Kuriyama, Expressiveness of the Body, 249. For further consideration of the breath as wind in classical thought and medicine, a view that persisted in early modern culture, see especially 245–51.

  23. 23.

    Cooper, Thesaurus, “Spiritus.”

  24. 24.

    See Kuriyama, Expressiveness of the Body, 246.

  25. 25.

    Paster, Humoring the Body, 41. Paster’s ground-breaking work is foundational to any such consideration of humoral bodies in early modern thought and texts. For more on the deeper interrelations between wind and the passions in the period, see especially 38–43.

  26. 26.

    Harvey, “Passionate Spirits,” 370.

  27. 27.

    Harvey, “Passionate Spirits,” 376.

  28. 28.

    Lemnius, Touchstone of Complexions, 4.

  29. 29.

    For more wide-ranging considerations of lovesickness in the period and in Shakespearean drama see Beecher and Ciavolella, “Jacques Ferrand”; Dawson, Lovesickness and Gender; Neely, Distracted Subjects; Wack, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages; and Wells, Secret Wound.

  30. 30.

    Boaistuau, Theatrum Mundi, O5r.

  31. 31.

    Boaistuau, Theatrum Mundi, O5r.

  32. 32.

    Boaistuau, Theatrum Mundi, O5r.

  33. 33.

    Boaistuau, Theatrum Mundi, O6r-6v.

  34. 34.

    Coeffeteau, Table of Humane Passions, 171.

  35. 35.

    Du Laurens, Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight, 118.

  36. 36.

    Ferrand, Erotomania, 106. Ferrand repeatedly notes symptoms like paleness, solitude, and weeping and includes “frequent sighings, continuall complaints, importunate praises of their Mistresses, and the like,” as among “the manifest signes of Love” and later contends that: “There is besides, no order or equality at all in their Gesture, Motions or Actions, and they are perpetually sighing, and complaining without any cause,” 104, 112.

  37. 37.

    Ferrand, Erotomania, 132–33.

  38. 38.

    La Chambre, Characters of the Passions, 33–34.

  39. 39.

    La Chambre, Characters of the Passions, 34.

  40. 40.

    La Chambre, Characters of the Passions, 95–96.

  41. 41.

    Dawson, in Lovesickness and Gender, draws a similar conclusion: “In the drama, conventions of lovesick dress and behavior act as a convenient shorthand for characterization, enabling lovers to display their passion without saying a word,” 36.

  42. 42.

    Sighing might also demarcate the drug-induced young lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We certainly get a clue to such when Oberon instructs Puck to seek out Helena, whom he will now know by her current state of being: “All fancy-sick she is, and pale of cheer/With sighs of love that cost the fresh blood dear” (3.2.96–97)—again, with reference to sighing’s blood-draining consumption.

  43. 43.

    Lemnius, Touchstone of Complexions, 143.

  44. 44.

    Lemnius, Touchstone of Complexions, 15–16.

  45. 45.

    Roach, Player’s Passion, 47.

  46. 46.

    Roach, Player’s Passion, 52.

  47. 47.

    Roach, Player’s Passion, 52–53.

  48. 48.

    Menzer, “Actor’s Inhibition,” 85.

  49. 49.

    Menzer, “Actor’s Inhibition,” 86.

  50. 50.

    Menzer, “Actor’s Inhibition,” 103.

  51. 51.

    Schoenfeldt, “Aesthetics and Anesthetics,” 34.

  52. 52.

    Elyot, Castel of Helthe, 52r-53v.

  53. 53.

    Elyot, Castel of Helthe, 53v.

  54. 54.

    Totaro, “‘Revolving,’” 140.

  55. 55.

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I am immensely grateful to Michael Schoenfeldt, Tanya Pollard, and Reto Winckler for their generous feedback on an earlier version of this essay, and to all of the participants in the “Performing the Humoral Body” seminar at the 2018 Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Los Angeles.

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Correspondence to Darryl Chalk .

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Chalk, D. (2021). Like Furnace: Sighing on the Shakespearean Stage. In: Kenny, A., Peterson, K.L. (eds) Humorality in Early Modern Art, Material Culture, and Performance. Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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