Special Session for the MLA, 2012
Scenes of greeting, feeding, entertaining, and housing guests saturate Shakespearean drama, from the masked ball in Romeo and Juliet to the deadly sleepover in Macbeth and the terror of the extended stay in The Winters Tale. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, a wedding party frames the kinds of entertainments that Shakespeare provided for hospitality events at court. In Timon of Athens, hospitality tests the limits of friendship and the gift economy. In the Sonnets, hospitality entails testifying against oneself in order to clear new social and erotic spaces. Hospitality organizes human life in a social and natural world striated by existential vulnerabilities that follow from our affiliations with other people as well as our creaturely needs for food, shelter and clothing. Hospitality administers these multiple vulnerabilities through a signifying arsenal that harbors linguistic and musical performances alongside a diverse object world composed of special tools, foods, and fabrics whose efforts at ambiance lift the humble acts of meeting the needs of life into celebrations of surplus and acknowledgments of risk.
In Shakespearean drama and the worlds in which the plays took up residence, hospitality fashions an interface between politics and life, and hence constitutes a species of biopower. Hospitality is ritualized behavior that involves implicit or explicit theological dimensions, and hence contributes to political theology. Caught up in the routines of everyday life while drawing on law, liturgy, and myth for its armature of imagery, hospitality has enjoyed an afterlife in philosophy, phenomenology, and political theory in the writings of Derrida, Levinas, and Mauss. These writings take up hospitality as an existential script that shapes both our most intimate and our most public encounters with other persons and groups as well as our dealings with objects, animals, and environments. Managing social space and object economies while reflecting on law, God, and selfhood, hospitality is both concept and praxis, a way of thinking and a way of doing.
In “Environments of Entertainment in A Midsummer Nights Dream,” Julia Lupton demonstrates how acts of hospitality span the gap between theatrum and theatrum mundi, the latter understood as both the theater of daily life and the theater of the cosmos, in which humans are guests, not hosts and the spectacle rather than the spectators. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, Shakespeare accounts for environmental disturbances through a mysterious mix of magical thinking and rational analysis, by staging the fairies as symbolic projections that embody the real dependencies between ecological systems and human technologies. Moreover, he exploits and reflects upon holiday as a living theater of hospitality, a set of performance practices that respond to those dependencies not by placing them under human dominion so much as drawing them into regions of visibility, audition, and touch, for our awe, respect, and care.
In “Hospitable Justice in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Kevin Curran is concerned with the uses to which Shakespeare put legal subject matter and with the related question of what it means for a piece of writing by Shakespeare to be characterized as legal. Curran focuses on three sonnets (35, 49, and 88) in which the speaker acknowledges himself as the victim of a crime committed by the young man, but pledges to testify against himself on the young mans behalf. This strange justice, Curran argues, belongs to the philosophical tradition of hospitality, exemplified in a range of writings from St. Paul’s Epistles to work by Derrida and Lévinas. Returning Shakespeare’s sonnets to this strand of intellectual history is useful not only as part of the ongoing project of mapping out the contours of a philosophical Shakespeare, but also because it equips us with a language and a set of concepts ideally suited to making sense of the curious way in which Shakespeare uses law in these sonnets to reflect upon the nature of selfhood in scenes of sociality.
In “Hospitality and Aneconomic Community in Timon of Athens,” James Kearney attends to the ethical dimension of early modern economic thought by addressing a recurrent feature of the period’s literary and discursive landscape: the disavowal of the economic. When Shakespeare dramatizes hospitality in excess of economic reason in Timon of Athens, he articulates the desire for a mode of thought, or an approach to human relations, that eschews economic calculation. In Timon, the desire to disavow the economic is figured as an impossible desire; this impossibility is both maddening and generative in the play, issuing in an intriguing and somewhat surprising meditation on community. By placing Shakespeare’s play within a tradition of thought on community that extends from Aristotle and Seneca to Jean-Luc Nancy and Roberto Esposito, this paper explores the impossible ideal of aneconomic community that haunts Timon of Athens.
“Shakespeare and Hospitality” contributes to recent work on early modern political theology, which combines ethical, religious, psychoanalytic, and phenomenological approaches to human and transhuman interactions, conflicts, and conciliations. At the same time, the panel also links political theology to new work on environments, economics, and law not always associated with political theology.
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