Cornell University

"Out of Breath: The Making of Pneuma on the Early Modern Stage"

Thursday, October 10, 2019 at 4:30pm

Klarman Hall, K164
232 East Ave, Ithaca, NY 14853

Fall workshop led by Stephanie Shirilan (Syracuse University) and Alison Calhoun (Indiana University, Bloomington).


When early modern dramatic poets and theater architects represented spirit, breath, and wind, how did they engage in contemporary debates about the movements of the soul and the materiality of air? This workshop examines the labor and mechanics of producing and staging pneuma on the early modern stage from the perspectives of early modern psychology, theology, natural philosophy, and medicine. Participants will be invited to discuss pre-circulated draft papers from two projects exploring these questions as they bear on the French and English stages. Alison Calhoun proposes stage machines as epistemological tools that bridged the gap between artisanal (techne) and philosophical knowledge, especially as the machines display a controlled, visible mechanics of how air might move and be moved. With the theater as laboratory, the spectators as witness, she explores how these machines might be understood as experiments that challenge the mechanical limits of physiological processes and how that challenge relates to the materiality of the passions. Stephanie Shirilan studies respiratory labor in Shakespeare’s history plays in the light of its absence from contemporary narrative accounts of the dying breaths of loved ones. She suggests this is because the struggle for breath was read in the period as a sign of worldly attachment, a literal refusal to give up the ghost. Her investigation illuminates the economic and religious roots of an enduring medical stigma against respiratory disease that naturalizes labored breath as proper to laboring bodies and reads respiratory ease as a sign of innate nobility and grace.


Co-sponsored by the Central New York Humanities Corridor Working Group on Scientific Norms and the Concept of the Normal and the Cornell Department of Romance Studies.

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