Simular proof and senseless feeling: Synaesthetic overload in Cymbeline

Chalk, Darryl (2020) Simular proof and senseless feeling: Synaesthetic overload in Cymbeline. In: Shakespeare / Sense: Contemporary Readings in Sensory Culture. Arden Shakespeare Intersections. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, United Kingdom, pp. 245-268. ISBN 978-1-4742-7323-7


Cymbeline is filled with moments where characters are forced to process complex sensations. In these instances of intense sense-awareness, standard sensory experiences overlap and become confused, challenging in particular the veracity of the ‘surest sense’: sight. Touch, hearing, and taste regularly supplant seeing as modes of determining the legitimacy of objects or events. Innogen, upon waking from her drug-induced coma, which has been “murd’rous to th’ senses” (4.2.330), and finding what she thinks is the headless corpse of Posthumous, cannot believe what she sees—her “dream” (299) must be “felt” (309) as she touches parts of Cloten’s body to confirm the seeming “shape” (311) of her beloved. The “simular proof” (5.6.200) concocted by Giacomo to falsify Innogen as an adulterer, a “picture, which by his tongue being made” (175), dupes Posthumous into seeing what he only hears: a synaesthetically confused vision of the false Italian “tast[ing] her in bed” (2.4.57). The play features repeated images of the senses pushed to their limits: eye-strings crack, ears are infected or wounded, taste is overwhelmingly bitter or poisonous. Becoming ‘senseless’ (the term appears more frequently in this play than in any other by Shakespeare) is a frequent response to such sensory overload as characters are seized by sleep or dream states and the desire to be unfeeling. With such ideas in mind, this paper will examine Cymbeline’s intricate sensorium, reading its synaesthetic perceptions in the context of emerging early modern thinking about the embodied mind’s interaction with the world in treatises concerned with medicine, disease, and the passions.

I suggest that these moments produce cognitive rupture, upsetting the process of perception so that normally distinctive and heirarchised senses blur, morph into, or stand in for, one another in ways entirely consistent with contemporary ideas about perception and the potentially fraught relationship between the five senses and the imagination. Synaesthesia need not necessarily always be evidence of perceptual confusion or sensory impairment, of course. As Jennifer Waldron has shown (by way of Daniel Heller-Roazen) it can simply be a way of explaining the complex multi-sensory way in which an individual encounters any object. Derived from the earlier term sun-aesthesis, it can mean both ‘sensing with’ and ‘joint perception’, suggesting that it is impossible for most human actions and interactions “to be tied to one sense”. Early modern discourses on the senses confirm that the embodied mind’s engagement with the world is indeed always-already multi-sensory, but they also repeatedly suggest how easily this process can be corrupted. In Cymbeline, sensory overlap becomes a constant and troubling emblem for duplicity, misperception, and emotional excess.

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Item Type: Book Chapter (Commonwealth Reporting Category B)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Permanent restricted access to Published chapter + Front Matter, in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - Faculty of Business, Education, Law and Arts - School of Creative Arts (1 Mar 2019 -)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - Institute for Resilient Regions - Centre for Heritage and Culture (1 Aug 2018 -)
Date Deposited: 07 Dec 2020 23:03
Last Modified: 04 Jan 2021 00:41
Uncontrolled Keywords: Shakespeare, Cymbeline, theatre, the senses, emotion, imagination, the passions, cognition, history of medicine, synaesthesia, early modern drama, Renaissance drama
Fields of Research (2008): 19 Studies in Creative Arts and Writing > 1904 Performing Arts and Creative Writing > 190404 Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies
20 Language, Communication and Culture > 2005 Literary Studies > 200503 British and Irish Literature
Fields of Research (2020): 47 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 4705 Literary studies > 470504 British and Irish literature
36 CREATIVE ARTS AND WRITING > 3604 Performing arts > 360403 Drama, theatre and performance studies
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): E Expanding Knowledge > 97 Expanding Knowledge > 970119 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of the Creative Arts and Writing
E Expanding Knowledge > 97 Expanding Knowledge > 970120 Expanding Knowledge in Language, Communication and Culture
Socio-Economic Objectives (2020): 28 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 2801 Expanding knowledge > 280122 Expanding knowledge in creative arts and writing studies
28 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 2801 Expanding knowledge > 280116 Expanding knowledge in language, communication and culture
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