The Storms of Othello in 1613

David M. Bergeron (University of Kansas) 

In the opening landscape of Ben Jonson’s first Jacobean entertainment, Masque of Blackness (1605), the playwright, with the assistance of Inigo Jones, presented an artificial sea with waves that seemed to move, billow, and break, “imitating,” Jonson writes, that “orderly disorder which is common in nature.” Shakespeare offers something similar in Act 2, scene 1 of Othello, an orderly sea storm in Cyprus that leads to the disorder and destruction of the Turkish ships. This storm, unlike those in Shakespeare’s other plays, does not adversely affect the principal characters, only the Turks. The Venetians on shore watch in orderly fashion the disorder of the sea and recognize that the weather has defeated the enemy. I will argue that the tempestuous weather of late 1612 and early 1613 provided a vivid context for the court spectators who watched the King’s Men perform Othello in early 1613. Weather, leading to destruction in actuality and in the play’s fiction, also summons up recollections of the battles of Lepanto (1571) and the Spanish Armada (1588), both affected by unexpected weather, which assisted the Christians at Lepanto and the English in 1588.

Shakespeare’s main source for the play, Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, does not include such a storm nor any anticipated danger on Cyprus. Shakespeare inserts the destructive storm as a way of solving an emerging narrative problem: the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, to which Othello has been sent by the Venetian Senate. The playwright would have known of the impact of weather on Lepanto probably from King James’s poem Lepanto or Richard Knolles’s recent Generall Historie of the Turkes and about the Armada in numerous recollections of the battle, such as Merlin’s speech in Prince Henry’s Barriers, prepared by Jonson and performed at court in 1610, the first entertainment for the eventual creation of Henry as Prince of Wales that year. Continuer la lecture

Annonce de publication

Écrire la catastrophe. L’Angleterre à l’épreuve des éléments (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles).

Sous la direction de Sophie Chiari

Parution le 14 novembre aux Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal [cliquez ici]

De par sa situation insulaire, l’Angleterre n’a cessé de s’approprier les récits des catastrophes naturelles qui ont façonné son histoire pour se forger une identité́ poétique qui lui est propre et affirmer une sensibilité particulière aux phénomènes extrêmes. Cet ouvrage se propose d’explorer la première modernité anglaise (XVIe – XVIIIe siècles), époque du « petit âge glaciaire » où l’écriture du moi l’emporte peu à peu sur l’écriture du nous, à travers le prisme de catastrophes naturelles vécues ou fantasmées par les dramaturges, les poètes, les théologiens, les philosophes et les explorateurs de la période.

Entre mathématisation du monde et reconstruction du réel, l’écriture de la catastrophe participe autant d’une volonté de résilience que d’un désir de mise en scène, comme le montrent les treize chapitres du livre : les récits d’événements hors-normes sont tous soigneusement construits et contribuent à unir une contrée en proie à des tensions religieuses et à une forte instabilité politique. Il s’agit pour les écrivains de dépasser la terreur suscitée par les inondations, les vents violents, les tremblements de terre et le froid glacial, afin de promouvoir une vision sociale prônant l’entraide et une réflexion sur la manière dont foi et science peuvent se nourrir l’une l’autre, sans oublier de mettre en avant l’image d’une Angleterre endurante et conquérante.

Cette poétique du cataclysme permet en outre de mettre en lumière les rapports que les contemporains de Shakespeare, de Bacon ou de Cook entretenaient avec une Nature désenchantée et progressivement muée en « environnement ». Plus encore, elle nous conduit à mieux comprendre comment et pourquoi l’avènement de l’Anthropocène, ère géologique qui correspond au moment où les effets de l’activité humaine ont véritablement commencé à modifier notre écosystème, est situé par certains climatologues au début du xviie siècle.

Continuer la lecture

The Lisbon Disaster viewed from England

Pierre Lurbe (Faculté des Lettres, Sorbonne Université)

The Lisbon earthquake of November 1st, 1755 was by far the most significant natural disaster of the entire 18th century. On that fateful day, an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, razed the Portuguese capital almost entirely to the ground, causing the death of at least 50,000 out of its 275,000 inhabitants, and fatally weakening Portugal as an international power. The moral and intellectual consequences of the event were no less far reaching, whether one thinks of Voltaire (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, 1755 ; Candide, 1759), or of Immanuel Kant, the author in 1756 of three works exploring the causes of earthquakes. What is less commonly known, at least on this side of the Channel, is that the Lisbon catastrophe had a particular resonance in England, as London had been struck by an earthquake a mere five years before. Even though the London earthquake had resulted in minimal damage, it had nonetheless led to much soul searching and moral introspection (sermons and specially written hymns and poems), as well as to musings on the natural causes of such phenomena. The Lisbon disaster therefore gave renewed urgency to the questions and worries that had been triggered by the 1750 London earthquake. The English responses to the Lisbon tragedy took several forms, ranging from first-hand accounts of the earthquake – a number of English merchants were on the spot –, to poems, sermons and admonitions from clerics of various stripes, including the founders of Methodism, John Wesley and George Whitefield. This presentation will focus on two issues : the way in which the various English writers, who were all Protestants, dealt with the fact that the stricken city was a Catholic one ; the need to combine the explanation of earthquakes by natural causes, with a theological framework in which they were viewed as the expression of divine judgment, a complex intellectual exercise that led at times to some unexpected transactions between these potentially contradictory requirements.

Continuer la lecture

The Plague of Gnats in Early Modern England

Sophie Chiari (Université Clermont Auvergne)

As early as 1546, the Italian physician Fracastoro put forward the contagion theory and, in 1578, he was followed by Massari who similarly questioned the traditional aetiology of miasma. Yet, this medical breakthrough was by no means unanimously accepted in early modern Europe. Shakespeare’s contemporaries still blamed the bad air (literally, malaria) rather than the mosquitoes of the Kent and Essex wetlands for the poor health conditions of its inhabitants. No wonder if references to the ague in connection with toxic air permeate sixteenth-century texts: in the foggy and unwholesome atmosphere of Dunsinane, as Macbeth finally prepares to withstand the assaults of Macduff’s troops, he asks his men to ‘let them lie [here] / Till famine and the ague eat them up’ (5.5.3-4).

Intriguingly, while the real cause of malaria continued to be ignored by most Elizabethan and Jacobean subjects, ‘gnats’ were generally considered as pasture pests which had to be eradicated. Seldom understood as the cause of disastrous epidemics, they were nonetheless seen as symptoms of a degraded world. Early modern playwrights like Shakespeare implied that pests generally thrived in wet, unhealthy climates: the ‘breese’ mentioned by Scarus in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (3.10.14) both ties in with the ‘tokened pestilence’ (3.10.9) mentioned a few lines earlier and with the emollient climate of the Nile region. Furthermore, what was often described in Reformation England as ‘vermin’ was traditionally regarded as a harbinger of disasters. As part and parcel of the Egyptian plagues, it provided monitory examples to all those convinced of the sinful state of the English nation, as can be seen on the frontispiece of Wither’s Britain’s Remembrancer (1628), where a ‘dismall Cloude / Exceeding blacke’ hovers over a map of England (Gilman 2009, 46). Continuer la lecture

Eco-catastrophe in the Late Works of Michael Drayton: The Invention of the Disaster Epic

Todd Andrew Borlik, University of Huddersfield

The late works of Michael Drayton revel in apocalyptic calamity. Irked that the public had turned a deaf ear to the warnings sounded in his Poly-Olbion, Drayton became convinced England was over-depleting its natural resources, and destined to suffer a self-inflicted disaster of Old Testament proportions. In the late 1620s Drayton penned ‘Mother Redcap’s Tale,’ in which tainted rain drives the entire population wetted by it mad, evoking King Lear; An ‘Elegy to my Noble Friend, Master William Browne, of the evil time,’  which invites his friend to ‘be silent and with patience see, / What this mad times Catastrophe will be’ (3:209); ‘The Tenth Nymphal,’ in which a homeless satyr laments a treeless Britain; Noah’s Flood, a poetic re-telling of the biblical deluge, and republished his grisly account of the Plagues of Egypt in Moses His Birth and Miracles. While some seventeenth-century thinkers such as Godfrey Goodman subscribed to Lucretian theories of nature’s senescence or cosmic decay, Drayton stands among the first writers in English literature to foresee an anthropogenic environmental disaster, and to bewail its dire consequences for other species. Sadly, critics have overlooked Drayton’s late work—misled by its ostensible religious content—or simply dismissed it as out of step with its time, in that he persisted in writing bitter satire in the style of the late Elizabethan period well into the Caroline era. Continuer la lecture

Extreme Weather: Shakespeare, Natural Disaster, and Atmospheric Phenomena

Geraldo U. de Sousa (The University of Kansas, USA)

The word “disaster,” borrowed from the French, implies “an event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature,” a calamity, “a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage and loss of life” (OED).  From an early modern perspective, the definition of “natural disaster” poses  additional challenges, because what we may consider “natural,” without supernatural or providential agency, was often perceived as “unnatural,” an aberration from the customary order of things. In this paper, I will use the phrase “natural disaster” in a general sense, but I will also tease out the tension between natural and unnatural in a coincidence of opposites.  Whether viewed as natural or unnatural, disasters do evoke fear, expose human vulnerability, and raise questions about survival and our exposure to forces unknown or beyond human control. Gaston Bachelard suggests that a dialectics of inside and outside hinges on such moments. Our bodies, our homes, our properties, and our daily habits of life are thrust into uncertainty or disarray.

Climatologists and historians have documented a hemispheric, perhaps global cooling of the Earth, a period known as the Little Ice Age, extending from 1300 to around 1850. The Earth’s cooling has been attributed to various causes such as volcanic activity, cyclical lows in solar radiation, variations of the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt. Major volcanic activities—the eruptions of the Taal Volcano on the Island of Luzon, Philippines in 1572 and from 1605 to 1611, the Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1595, the Huaynaputina, Peru, in 1600—affected the Earth’s climate globally, as documented regionally by contemporary accounts, studies of tree rings, sediment strata, and volcanic particle deposits in layers of polar ice. Continuer la lecture

An Ecocritical Approach to Manuals of Navigation: The Art of Navigation by Martín Cortés, a Case Study

Anna Demoux (Université Clermont Auvergne)

In 1558, Steven Borough visited the navigational school in Seville and brought back to England a copy of Martín Cortés de Albacar’s Arte de Navegar (1551). The English navigator had his copy translated by Richard Eden and published by Richard Jugge as the Art of Navigation in 1561. This paper will aim at offering new perspectives on this work, the first English manual of navigation, as critical consensus generally presents it. The preliminary investigations focus on the last two chapters of the second part of the text “intreating of the motions of the Sun, and the Moon, and of the effects caused thereby”: they are entitled “Of certain signs which prognosticate tempests, or fair weather” and “Of the bright & shining exhalations that appear in tempests which the Mariners call Santelmo, or Corpus sancti.” Continuer la lecture