Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Review: Shakespeare Dwelling

by Sophie Emma Battell

Julia Reinhard Lupton, Shakespeare Dwelling: Designs for the Theater of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 272pp. HB $99, PB $30, PDF $29.99

Front cover of Shakespeare Dwelling[1] Recent developments in political theory, philosophy and ecocriticism have drawn attention to the vibrant world of objects. Building on earlier work by Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour, Julia Reinhard Lupton’s Shakespeare Dwelling: Designs for the Theater of Life is an original and compelling intervention in this lively critical field. Inviting us to look afresh at some of the everyday objects in Shakespeare’s drama, Lupton persuasively argues for the vital properties of torches, beds, blankets, platters, puddings, daggers, and marzipan. Over the course of five chapters, Shakespeare Dwelling assembles an intricate methodology that expertly combines phenomenology with modern design theory, together with early modern manuals on husbandry and housekeeping.

[2] Shakespeare Dwelling uncovers how, alongside its world-making potential, hospitality is part of the mundane rhythms and routines of domestic habitation. Famously in Macbeth, the regicide puts the world of the play spectacularly out of joint, but Lupton shows how the horror of this event comes largely from its intrusion into a cosy nocturnal environment of hosting which involves comfortable fabrics, pillows, blankets, and sleepy drinks. An emphasis on the everyday figures who perform dwelling on the Shakespearean stage—such as the serving-men in Romeo and Juliet who lay the table with plates, trenchers, napkins, and other dining paraphernalia—is revealing of the book’s overarching concern with ethics and is a welcome addition to the scholarly debate. Borrowing the idea of the ‘taskscape’ from social anthropologist Tim Ingold, Shakespeare Dwelling is also alert to the class politics of labour and the extent to which the exploitation of local workforces is often implicit in the production of ‘taskscapes’ of dwelling.

[3] The first chapter examines dynamic architecture in Romeo and Juliet, exploring the interplay between hospitality and space. Luton shows how hospitality raises the stakes of dwelling and how it uses the materials of design to display the household in a pleasing way for visitors, while simultaneously creating the conditions for violence and risk. One of the strengths of the book is that Lupton is a dazzlingly inventive reader of Shakespeare, who transmutes the most mundane or commonplace of household items into the site of rich philosophical enquiry. For example, the macho jostling of the Montague and Capulet men in the narrow streets of Verona reveals the consequences of failing to make room for strangers. Similarly, the soft light cast by Romeo’s torch generates a circle of warmth and romance, drawing the lovers closer together. While Shakespeare Dwelling does not define itself explicitly in terms of an ecofeminist approach, nevertheless, one of its recurring themes is the interconnection between nature, femininity and minimal architecture, as in the description of Juliet and her nurse by the dovecot wall.

[4] Turning to Macbeth, a play which centres on abuses of hospitality, the second chapter considers the softscape alongside other examples of soft architecture. Lupton notes how the reception and entertainment of guests requires all manner of fabrics and soft furnishings, from tapestries to bedroom canopies. Such preparation leads on to the murder of Duncan and the ensuing disruption of the circadian rhythms of normal life, including sleep and its rituals. Appropriately enough for a study of design theory, another benefit of Shakespeare Dwelling is its composition. Lupton carefully weaves the threads of her argument together, which not only gives the work a satisfying sense of cohesion for the reader, but elicits unexpected revelations about the drama. Building on the avian theme begun with Romeo and Juliet’s dovecot, the chapter on Macbeth looks at Banquo’s martlets, which are then likened to marzipan pigeons at an early modern banquet table. Comparisons between sumptuous sugary desserts and occasional architecture prompt further reflection on the elaborate infrastructure of hosting and the fragility inherent in temporary constructions, so drawing together dramatic theme, image and taskscape.

[5] Chapter three combines architectural and ecological assemblages with scripture and theology in order to present a messianic reading of Shakespeare and Wilkins’ Pericles. Drawing on the Book of Jonah and Pauline travelogue, Lupton asks whether the belly of a whale can provide another form of provisional shelter and, in the process, examines how biblical precedent informs the play’s own sustained interest in unconventional dwelling spaces. The chapter also engages with Marina’s improvised lodgings on the island of Mytilene. Constructed out of verdant natural resources, her shelter recalls the Birnam Wood foliage discussed in the preceding chapter while encapsulating the book’s wider concern with domestic architectures that are makeshift, transitory or ephemeral. Lupton finds an additional scriptural forerunner of Marina’s accommodation in the sukkah which Jonah temporarily occupies on the outskirts of Nineveh. While not everyone will be persuaded of such links, the overall reading offers new light on the play’s mysterious quality.

[6] Continuing her discussion of sleep in Macbeth, the next chapter on Cymbeline considers Innogen’s lavishly furnished bedchamber and its collection of props—including tapestries, candle, fireplace—all designed to promote nocturnal slumber. Tracing the play’s transformation in sleep routines from the minutely choreographed to the hastily improvised, Shakespeare Dwelling makes a larger argument about the dynamism of setting in Shakespearean drama, showing how such details furnish meaning and significance. Following on from this, Lupton discusses Innogen’s journey into the rural landscape of Wales, arguing that, in leaving behind her the rich comforts of the court, Innogen exemplifies philosopher Hannah Arendt’s definition of courage, exchanging private life for the public world of larger concerns.

[7] The fifth and final chapter usefully extends the association of the dessert course with household architecture, suggesting that the elaborate sugar concoctions of the seventeenth century offered opportunities for creativity and design. Reading the latter part of The Winter’s Tale alongside European cookbooks, Lupton demonstrates that puddings were the banquet’s mise-en-scène, making room for commensality and digestion. And yet, while Lupton offers a compelling critical interpretation of Perdita, the sheep-shearing feast in The Winter’s Tale, and the culinary significance of fruits, nuts, pastry and spices, the chapter is ultimately more about philosophical retrospection than it is about sugar, evocatively noting the religious dimensions of the meal as well as its therapeutic properties. An epilogue on stage combat emphasises that hospitality and live theatre performance are both unpredictable endeavours. The book ends by glancing towards the implications of trust and risk in a university setting, encouraging us to reflect on some of the challenges confronting the modern university.

[8] Shakespeare Dwelling is an impressive tour de force which surveys a remarkable range of influences on Shakespearean dramaturgy. The book will attract a wide readership from students and academics studying literature, philosophy, theology, design theory, food studies, and the history of the workforce. Although not strictly historical, it will nevertheless appeal to readers interested in material culture and daily life in the early modern household. Equally, there is plenty to enjoy for scholars of theatre performance, lighting systems and choreography. Developing a research methodology that favours assemblages or mixed design materials, Shakespeare Dwelling offers its readers a generous smorgasbord of entries into the plays, with surprising connections across diverse authors, periods and genres. The insightful comparison of the glass elevator in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to the little room of the sonnet is just one example of how Lupton’s readings open the plays to new interpretations. If some of the more playful comparisons advanced in the book—Duncan’s royal bedlinen and refugee camps, or Birnam Wood and fast-food trucks—are less immediately apparent to the reader, then it is surely because Shakespeare Dwelling encourages us to think harder about the different environments we inhabit and our relationship with the world at large. Given the present political and economic climate, it is clear that, now more than ever, the university needs thinkers like Lupton to allow us to see and hear these provocations.

Sophie Emma Battell, University of Zurich

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