Shaping Sense The Paramaterial Phantasy Sat, 04 Feb 2017 15:59:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Donald Trump Woodcut: Megalomanicus Logorrheus Sat, 04 Feb 2017 15:59:38 +0000 It has been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I was asked on Twitter to share my Donald Trump woodcut: Megalomanicus Logorrheus. If not used for profit, feel free to use these images in any way you see fit. And here’s a black and white version for those who want to print it yourselves: […]

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It has been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I was asked on Twitter to share my Donald Trump woodcut: Megalomanicus Logorrheus. If not used for profit, feel free to use these images in any way you see fit.

Donald Trump-Senseshaper-Megalomanicus Logorrheus
And here’s a black and white version for those who want to print it yourselves:
Donald Trump-Senseshaper Megalomanicus Logorrheus- Black and White

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“Print is Dead”: More Medieval and Early Modern Inspired Woodcuts, With a Second Edition of Henry VIII, HVIIIERS Gonna HVIII Mon, 04 Jan 2016 17:15:35 +0000 It has been nearly a year since I have posted to my website, but, rest assured, I have continued my engagement with the medieval, early modern, and printmaking worlds. I want to assure you that this website, like print itself, is not dead. You can always find these woodcuts and many others at my Etsy […]

The post “Print is Dead”: More Medieval and Early Modern Inspired Woodcuts, With a Second Edition of Henry VIII, HVIIIERS Gonna HVIII appeared first on Shaping Sense.

It has been nearly a year since I have posted to my website, but, rest assured, I have continued my engagement with the medieval, early modern, and printmaking worlds. I want to assure you that this website, like print itself, is not dead. You can always find these woodcuts and many others at my Etsy shop. To commemorate the year and to confirm myself in my woodcutting and printmaking hobby, I carved this woodcut of Johannes Gutenberg and titled and captioned it, “Print is Dead.”

In my last update, I introduced the world to the first edition of my Henry Tudor woodcut, “HVIIIERS Gonna HVIII,” which has shocked me in its popularity. As a result, the first Henry block has warped and has become difficult to rely upon to make good prints. Accordingly, I redesigned and recut it, pushing the HVIIIERS Gonna HVIII print into a second edition.

As apparent from my previous posts on early modern erotic woodcuts, I also decided to try my hand at copying one of my personal favorites, a posture from Pietro Arentino’s I Modi. Aretino’s ribald poems were based on a series of paintings by Italian artist Giulio Romano, which were then turned into engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi, and then copied by unnamed woodcut artists throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. Following this long and proud tradition, I decided making copies of Aretino’s postures would be a perfect way to promote my push to #DeDigitizeTheArchive. I developed #DeDigitizeTheArchive to encourage others to rematerialize digital artifacts through copies and manipulations. This process exposes the ways in which copies never fully faithfully reproduce the originals, creating unique objects with every instance of reproduction.

As further instances of my attempt to #DeDigitizeTheArchive, I also carved several other copies of lesser known early modern woodcuts. I typically just chose early modern woodcuts that strike me for one reason of another and that have some relationship with my scholarly interests.

The first is a copy of a demon dog found in John Phillips’ The Examination and confession of certaine wytches at Chensforde in the countie of Essex from 1566 (STC 19869.5). I have a special interest in early modern witchcraft, and this unusual dog, featuring a key in his mouth, and a whistle around his neck, appears to have been produced specifically for the vision of the devil offered by a child under examination in the course of Phillips’ narrative.

In addition to the devil dog, I also made a woodcut copy of some anti-Catholic propaganda from 1581. Taken from Stephen Batman’s The doome warning all men to the iudgemente (STC 1582), this woodcut depicts two faces, one of a Catholic priest, and one of a fool, surrounded by the motto “Aliquando Sapientes Stulti,” which translates simultaneously as “Sometimes the Wise are Fools” and “Fools are Sometimes Wise.”

My interest in printing and in my project to #DeDigitizeTheArchive also led me to attempt a copy of Wynkyn (Wynken) de Worde’s printer’s device. This copy proved exceedingly challenging for all of its detail, and, while I’m not entirely satisfied with the centaur’s face, it turned out better than expected. this year, I plan to follow this up with several other printer’s devices including Aldus Manutius and William Caxton, even if print is dead.

I have loved Robert Greene since my undergraduate work at the University of Illinois, and the title page woodcut of Robert Greene’s first conny-catching pamphlet, A Notable Discovery of Coosenage (1592). I’ve often thought that if I were to start a motorcycle gang, that I would use this woodcut on the MC patch. This might be the most badass rabbit of all time.

This year also saw my first commissioned professional woodcut. George Washington University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI) asked for a woodcut copy of Thomas Coryate riding an elephant. It bears GW MEMSI’s motto, “The Future of the Past.” As Coryate’s Traveller for the English Wits (1616), from which the original of this woodcut was taken, puts it:

Loe heere the wooden Image of our wits;
Borne, in first travaile, on the backs of Nits;
But now on Elephants, &c:
O, what will he ride, when his yeares expire?
The world must ride him; or he all will tire.

Aside from these more strict copies, I also continue to explore the intersection of meme culture and medieval and early modern woodcuts with my captioned prints, and I have followed up this tradition with several new ones in the past year. Whereas #DeDigitizeTheArchive encourages people to rematerialize digital artifacts that were either born digital or which have been digitized from material books, the intersection between meme culture and woodcuts produces an interesting conjunction. Meme culture promotes a play with image and text that depends upon an almost identical and lossless image copy with endlessly variable text, my woodcuts produce copies of images that, while reproducible, depend upon the material condition of their reproduction. An under- or over- inked block can produce variations, while the carved text fixes the image into a more permanent context. Many have asked why I carve the captions rather than use some method of moveable type to change those captions. I find that the carved text more thoroughly roots the image in a particular context, with a specific meaning. Such is not the case with memes, but, like memes, woodcuts are reproducible with multiple variations, but variations of a different order.

This first woodcut combines meme culture with the early modern, since it is a copy of Moll Cutpurse’s (Mary Firth’s) portrait originally found on the title page of Thomas Middleton’s “The Roaring Girle. Or Moll Cut-Purse” from the 1611 edition (STC 17908). If any figure embodies the ethos of “thug lyfe” in the early modern period, it would be the Roaring Girl herself, Moll Cutpurse.

While the Bard may be over-represented in early modern critical traditions, I caved to pressure and a request to produce a William Shakespeare woodcut. This commissioned print might appear in print later this year.

While most of my woodcuts this year were related to the early modern period, I could not leave the medieval behind altogether, and decided to make one of Francesco Petrarcha (Petrarch). As Petrarch should have written to Laura,

Hey, I just met you,
And this is crazy,
But I wrote some sonnets,

And while related to neither the medieval nor early modern periods, no process of #DeDigitizingtheArchive would be complete without something born digital. In service of this, and because I needed something easy to occupy my hands while in the process of quitting smoking, I decided to make a one that everyone can get behind, a smiling poo emoji woodcut. Maybe with this woodcut, print really is dead.

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HVIIIers Gonna HVIII: Henry VIII and Other Senseshaper Woodcuts Inspired by the Medieval and Early Modern Periods Fri, 20 Feb 2015 17:25:07 +0000 While I have not been posting to this blog on early modern vision as regularly as I want, I have been busy making more woodcuts inspired by the medieval and early modern periods. While my Henry VIII woodcut attained some popularity on social media sites not long after I made it, I had yet to […]

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While I have not been posting to this blog on early modern vision as regularly as I want, I have been busy making more woodcuts inspired by the medieval and early modern periods. While my Henry VIII woodcut attained some popularity on social media sites not long after I made it, I had yet to post it to this site. As always, some of my prints are available at my Etsy store, and some are available on shirts and other products through my Zazzle shop.

The first two woodcuts were inspired by my reading of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies.

The next woodcut emerged from Twitter commentary on my Henry VIII print. James Chetwood (@chegchenko) suggested I make a Richard III woodcut with the caption “III Behaviour.” I loved the idea and took him up on it.

I couldn’t leave Elizabeth I out of the mix.

But I didn’t stop with monarchs and figures that feature in Mantel’s novels, I also made a few woodcut prints that are more generally related to the medieval and early modern periods.

Apparently, my hubris knows no bounds since I tried my hand at copying several details by Albrecht Dürer. My first attempt was just okay, but I was satisfied with my attempt to copy the master.

My second attempt to copy Albrecht Dürer went a little better as I copied the melancholic face from his Melencolia I (Melancholia I).

I also tried my hand at copying a detail from Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (Nascita di Venere). I worked on this one primarily as a study in ways to woodcut hair.

Although not as detailed as the Dürer or the Botticelli copies, I have been doing some John Dee and Rosicrucian reading recently, and decided I needed to have a woodcut copy of Dee’s Monas Hierogyphica on my wall.

But I also did not leave behind my literary interests. While I’m proud of how my woodcut talents are developing, you might answer, along with Chaucer’s Harry Bailey that they are “nat worth a toord.”

Thanks for looking! As always, if a print or shirt of one of my woodcuts isn’t currently available, let me know in an email or a comment and I will post them as soon as possible.

…And I promise to return to early modern vision posts soon!

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“Their phantasies differ”: The Phantasy in Raleigh’s translation of Sextus Empiricus Sat, 03 May 2014 21:20:02 +0000 The “Sceptick,” first published in 1651 and attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh, offers one of the first known English translations, albeit unacknowledged, of portions of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines. While it is not a pure translation, and while it only offers an expurgated version of Sextus’ classical skeptical work, it is undoubtedly based on portions of […]

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The “Sceptick,” first published in 1651 and attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh, offers one of the first known English translations, albeit unacknowledged, of portions of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines. While it is not a pure translation, and while it only offers an expurgated version of Sextus’ classical skeptical work, it is undoubtedly based on portions of the Outlines.

While Thomas Nashe mentioned an English translation of Sextus as early as 1591, no translations have yet to be found. In his essay attatched to the first edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Nashe says,

…that our opinion (as Setus Empedocus [sic] affirmeth) gives the name of good or ill to every thing. Out of whose works (latelie translated into English, for the betterment of unlearned writers) a man might collect a whole booke of this argument, which no doubt woulde prove a worthy commonwealth matter, and far better than wits wax karnell: much good worship have the Author. (Nashe in Sidney, A4v).

I will return to the question of good and ill below, but, for now, want to point out that there was at least talk of an English translation well before the publication of the one attributed to Raleigh in 1651. It is possible, even if unlikely, that Nashe was familiar with Raleigh’s translation in manuscript as it was not published until well after Ralegh’s death.

Another mention of Sextus comes from a seventeenth century text that offers an account of Sextus’ influence in England in the early seventeenth century. In his biography published much later, Joseph Mede purportedly encountered the work of Sextus Empiricus in the early 1600s while at Cambridge, producing a crisis of sense in which he took the entire world for a phantasm.1 What is clear is that Sextus had made some impact in England by around 1600, well in advance of the “Sceptick.”

Published in 1651 as “Sir Walter Raleigh’s Sceptick, or Speculations,” the publication never acknowledges the work as a translation, and we do not know how early it was composed, or even if Raleigh penned the translation at all.2 Nevertheless, the “Sceptick” provides an expurgated and bare-bones translation of Sextus’ work from roughly I. 40 to about I. 98, though it cuts much of the original text. This section, where Sextus lays out the “Ten Modes” of suspension of judgment or skepticism, develops the tropes of skepticism. While Raleigh’s “Sceptick” never refers to the ten modes, he does follow many of them over the course of his expurgated translation.

For example, Raleigh’s “Sceptick” begins as follows:

His first Reason ariseth, from the consideration of the great difference amongst living Creatures, both in the matter and manner of their Generations, and the several Constitutions of their bodies. (Raleigh 1-2).

Compare this to Sextus’ Outlines, I.40, which begins:

The First argument (or Trope), as we said, is that which shows that the same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to differences in animals. This we infer both from the differences in their origins and from the variety of their bodily structures.

This is just one example where Raleigh closely follows Sextus, and although he does not translate the entirety of sections I.40 to I. 98, nearly everything in the text does follow lines of the original.

While there is enough evidence in the progression and tropes used in the short treatise to consider it an expurgated translation of Sextus’ work, I would like to call attention to several key differences in the way in which the translation deploys some of those tropes as they pertain to the faculties of the mind. The “Sceptick” continually refers to an element that is not made much of in Sextus’ Outlines. The “Sceptick” attributes the problems of the senses to a problem of the phantasy or the imagination. In this aspect, the original remains relatively silent, but it becomes a major focus in the sixteenth- or seventeenth-century translation. While never mentioned in the sections in Sextus, the phantasy takes center stage in Raleigh’s expurgated translation. Raleigh refers to the phantasy or imagination no less than eleven times over the course of the short treatise. Compared to the original, the treatise accentuates the role of the phantasy, locating many of its questions within the problematic faculty.

Speaking of the various ways in which different animals copulate and engender, the “Sceptick” concludes,

These great differences cannot but cause a divers and contrary temperament, a qualitie in those creatures, and consequently, a great diversitie in their phantasie and conceit; so that they apprehend one and the same object, yet that they must do it after a divers manner; for is it not absurd to affirm, That creatures differ so much in temperature, and yet agree in conceit concerning one and the same object? (Raleigh 3).

Compare this to the similar conclusion in Sextus which says,

It is natural, then, that these dissimilar and variant modes of birth should produce much contrariety of sense-affection, and that this is a source of its divergent, discordant and conflicting character. (Outlines I.43).

In the “Sceptick,” the different ways of bodily formation result in or from different temperaments that manifest “a great diversitie in their phantasie and conceit.” The modern translation of Sextus merely says that the different modes of birth produce different types of “sense-affection.” The sixteenth or seventeenth century translation places the “phantasie” at the center of the controversy, since the quality and receptiveness of that faculty depended upon the temperament of the body in which it was housed. The phantasy or the imagination stands central to the later skeptical questioning of sense in this first argument or trope of skepticism.

The relative importance of the phantasy in explaining sense perception as well as its deficiency continues in the next sections. Sextus continues,

Moreover, the differences found in the most important parts of the body, and especially in those of which the natural function is judging and perceiving are capable of producing a vast deal of divergence in the sense-impressions owing to the variety in the animals.” (Outlines I.44).

Whereas Sextus refers more broadly to the parts of the body “of which the natural function is judging and perceiving,” the later translation names the faculty specifically. The “Sceptick” puts it,

But this will more plainly appear, if the instruments of Sence in the body be observed: for we shall find, that as these instruments are affected and disposed, so doth the Imagination conceit that which by them is connexed unto it. (Raleigh 3-4).

For the later translation, the problems of the external senses are inextricably bound up with the problems of the inner faculties.

If the differences among various animals matter, so too do the differences between men. As the “Sceptick” puts it,

If then it be so, that there be such differences in Men, this must be by reason of the divers temperatures they have, and divers disposition of their conceit and imagination; for, if one hate, and another love the very same thing, it must be that their phantasies differ, else all would love it, or all would hate it. These Men then, may tell how these things seem to them good, or bad; but what they are in their own Nature they cannot tell.” (23-24).

Just as the different temperaments among various species of animals differ and produce alternate modes of sensation, so too do the different temperaments among humans. Here, the phantasy or imagination plays an important role in a way less emphasized by Sextus.

The passage that comes closest to the above is as follows:

Seeing, then, that choice and avoidance depend on pleasure and displeasure, while pleasure and displeasure depend on sensation and sense-impression, whenever some men choose the very things which are avoided by others, it is logical for us to conclude that they are also differently affected by the same things, since otherwise they would all alike have chosen or avoided the same things. But if the same objects affect men differently owing to the differences in the men, then, on this ground also, we shall reasonably be led to suspension of judgment. For while we are, no doubt, able to state what each of the underlying objects appears to be, relatively to each difference, we are incapable of explaining what it is in reality. (Outlines I. 87).

Determinations of pleasurable and painful or good and bad depend not only upon the individual making the evaluation but also upon the quality and condition of that individual’s faculties. In Sextus, he does not mention the faculty responsible for the evaluation, but, once again, the phantasy or imagination play a crucial role in the “Sceptick.” In both cases, the diversity of opinions create a situation in which truth cannot be judged correctly. For Raleigh in particular, the evaluation of good and bad depends upon the phantasy in particular. Whereas Sextus continually refers to suspending judgment on these matters, the “Sceptick” rarely translates those passages, instead leaving the matter in a more extreme form of doubt.

By the time of the translation, the phantasy had become such an important component of explaining sensation and perception that it also became implicated in the skeptical questions posed by Sextus. The phantasy was important for expressing the continuity between the body, mind, and soul, but because it assumed such an important position, it also embodied many of the problems of epistemology. It’s paramaterial quality, placing it somewhere between the material and the immaterial, between the body and the soul, supposedly explained how a soul could perceive through the material body, but that paradoxical quality also opened up the possibility of epistemological questions.3

The radical potential of Sextus’ position here, as Thomas Nashe had pointed out in his “Somewhat to reade for them that list,” was that, because of the phantasy’s relationship to the body and its importance in determinations of good and ill or good and evil, the notions of good and ill might not have anything to do with something found in nature, but that instead depended upon the temperament, quality, and condition of the receiving phantasy. Determinations of good and ill might be a mechanistic process and one that depended more on the body than upon the mind. Because of its in-between status, the phantasy could be dangerous to the more immaterial mind and soul precisely because of its link to the body.

While Nashe does not specifically speak of the phantasy, the translation of Sextus in the “Sceptick” does attribute evaluations of pleasurable and painful, good and ill to the individual phantasy. Instead of locating truth in Nature, the skeptic questions what Nature can actually be meant by the very word. Human animals, according to both Sextus and the author of the “Sceptick,” have not right to claim a better grasp of reality than animals, and one can never privilege one man’s phantasy over another. Instead, one should doubt the truth of any information acquired through the senses and, consequently, all of epistemology.

For the translation, it is the phantasy and its problematic relationship to the body that inspires epistemological questions. The phantasy, which elsewhere helps secure the links between perception and thought, remains a problematic faculty, and the problematic nature of that phantasy renders all that passes through it into doubt. For Sextus, the faculty itself was not singled out, but the translation locates many of its skeptical questions in relation to the dangerous faculty of the phantasy or imagination.

The appearance of the phantasy or imagination in the “Sceptick” manifests the importance of that faculty in sixteenth and seventeenth century expressions of skepticism. While not a major focus in Sextus’ expression of classical, pyrrhonian skepticism, in the early modern period, the phantasy was a key player in expressions of skepticism because of its importance in explanations of the relationship of perception and cognition.

Works Cited

(Empiricus.), Sextus, and Robert Gregg Bury. Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Harvard University Press, 2000.

Raleigh, Walter, Sir, 1552?-1618. Sir Walter Raleigh’s Sceptick, or Speculations and Observations of the Magnificency and Opulency of Cities, His Seat of Government, and Letters to the Kings Majestie, and Others of Qualitie : Also, His Demeanor before His Execution. London : Printed by W. Bentley, and are to be sold by W. Shears, 1651. Early English Books, 1641-1700 / 224:27.

Sidney, Philip, Thomas Newman, and Thomas Nash. Syr P.S. His Astrophel and Stella Wherein the Excellence of Sweete Poesie Is Concluded. To the End of Which Are Added, Sundry Other Rare Sonnets of Diuers Noble Men and Gentlemen. At London : Printed [by John Charlewood] for Thomas Newman, 1591.

  1. For more on Mede, see my previous post on him here.  (back)
  2. While clearly marked as Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Sceptick,” it is possible that a publisher attached his name to sell more copies.  (back)
  3. For more discussion of what I am calling paramaterial, please see my other digital essays. Look at either my previously mentioned post on Mede, this one on Shakespeare, or this one on Hamlet in particular.  (back)
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The Cheerios and Coca Cola Super Bowl Controversy: Capitalism with a Human [Multicultural] Face Tue, 04 Feb 2014 14:45:04 +0000 Since the Super Bowl I have been thinking about the Cheerios and Coca Cola commercials that created a torrent of racist Tweets and commentary. The Cheerios commercial featured a beautiful biracial family. The Coca-Cola commercial played “America the Beautiful” in a multiplicity of languages. The Cheerios Super Bowl Ad The Coca Cola Super Bowl Ad […]

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Since the Super Bowl I have been thinking about the Cheerios and Coca Cola commercials that created a torrent of racist Tweets and commentary. The Cheerios commercial featured a beautiful biracial family. The Coca-Cola commercial played “America the Beautiful” in a multiplicity of languages.

The Cheerios Super Bowl Ad
The Coca Cola Super Bowl Ad

That right wing bigots took offense to such ads, however, was not what surprised me. We could have foreseen just such an up swell of racism from the Twittersphere if we simply remembered that an earlier Cheerios commercial back in May featuring a biracial family caused a similar explosion of social media bigotry.1 What shocked me was the response by those people on the left who championed Cheerios and Coca-Cola on social media.

My colleagues and friends on the left championed both Cheerios and Coca Cola as brands with progressive leaning politics, the one with its depiction of a perfectly lovely and normal biracial family and the other with its expression of the multiculturalism that makes America great. I saw Tweets and Facebook posts that extolled both companies for being on the right side of cultural issues. With those sentiments, I agree, but I was nevertheless baffled by those responses from people who otherwise challenge the existing social order and cite Slavoj Zizek with regularity. The problem here is that the two ads function as calls to capitalism and consumerism just as any ad run during the Super Bowl is intended to do.

I do not fault Cheerios or Coca Cola, and do think their decision to run ads that challenged the very narrow view of America and of families and of what America or American families are supposed to look like. In those respects, I too laud those companies for their more inclusive and holistic view of them. The problem, for me, is that in doing so, those commercials represent a more insidious attack on the left and on progressivism precisely because they co-opt those very positive elements of progressivism into a form that still constitutes a call for conspicuous consumption. It is the combination of those two elements that I, as a leftist, find offensive.

While some may see the commercials as offering a better form of capitalism, I find such moves somewhat coercive when it comes to the way co-opting the left becomes a type of coercion that wrenches social issues into the service of capitalist ideology. The implicit message behind such moves is that multiculturalism can be brought to you by Coca Cola or that racial harmony can be achieved through a bowl of cereal. What such ads give us is capitalism with a multicultural face; capitalism with a biracial face. But both simply give us capitalism in a form more palatable to the left and it is that form that makes it more problematic as an expression of progressivism.

Even as I write this, I find myself drawn towards praising both companies for their messages, and from within the realm of late capitalism both offer positive examples of marketing that is more inclusive. That is what makes this cooptation all the more seductive and potentially dangerous in my eyes. Let’s be clear. Coca Cola and Cheerios both made choices to go with advertisements that present a form of progressivism, but those moves were calculated moves intent upon promoting their brands. The intent, even if it was within the minds of those who made or those who approved the ads, was not to present a progressive message but to sell goods and to increase market share. They know those on the left are vulnerable to such advertisements.

The real problem here is that the market is so quick to exploit progressive causes for monetary gain, and while they do do some social good, they are, at their core, nothing but calls to capitalism. Let’s not go the way of the religious right who buys chicken sandwiches to show their love of God; let’s not be so readily fooled into believing that buying certain products, goods, or services actually help either racial harmony or multiculturalism. Let’s remember that these types of products of popular culture only provide us with an image of capitalism with a human—albeit biracial or multicultural—face.

  1. Of course, that must come as news to MSNBC who fired an intern for commenting on this fact before the Super Bowl even aired last night. I trust, after last night’s display of vile racist Tweets, that intern has been issued an apology and has been offered her job back.  (back)
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How to Make a Woodcut: Senseshaper’s Process of De-Digitizing the Archives Tue, 28 Jan 2014 15:39:55 +0000 Several months ago when I started making woodcuts and posting the results to Twitter and Facebook, some asked me to write a blog post explaining my process. I got sidetracked, first, by teaching myself how to make handmade rag paper and, second, by requests that I set up an Etsy shop to sell some of […]

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Several months ago when I started making woodcuts and posting the results to Twitter and Facebook, some asked me to write a blog post explaining my process. I got sidetracked, first, by teaching myself how to make handmade rag paper and, second, by requests that I set up an Etsy shop to sell some of the state woodcuts that I’ve been making. In the first, I’ve made progress but have not yet mastered the art of making paper. In the second, I did open an Etsy shop and have been surprised and excited that so many people have started to purchase woodcut prints. My most popular so far are the prints I’ve designed, cut, and printed of the states. As of today, I’ve done one fifth of the United States.1 I thought I would take a break from carving states to fulfill my long overdue promise and talk about my process.


Here is the woodcut that I’ve made specifically for this post:

Senseshaper Woodcut- Heavy Inking

It is based on the very rough version I made early in my woodcutting hobby as sort of a mock printer’s device.


As you can see, the earlier version looks much rougher (and, because of that, somewhat preferable). Part of this has to do with the skill I’ve acquired through practice, and some to do with my switch from scrap wood from my garage to higher quality pine and poplar, but it also has a lot to do with the tools I used to produce each. When I first started, I used very crude tools that I purchased for under $10 at Michaels along with an X-Acto knife. I quickly found them too limiting and moved to much better tools like the Ramelson Woodcarving Tool Set. Lastly, I moved to professional PFEIL “Swiss Made” chisels, and, instead of an X-Acto knife, a couple of Flexcut knives. I find the most useful purchases for making relief cuts are PFEIL’s # 11 0.5MM, # 11 1MM, # 11 1.5MM, and # 15 1MM, and Flexcut’s mini-pelican knife. Unfortunately, I have not found a set that has the smallest of the PFEIL chisels, but they significantly seem to maintain their edge longer than the cheaper Ramelson tools. I have yet to purchase these chisels in shorter lengths, but plan to do so as soon as I sell a few more woodcut prints to help pay for them. If you do not want to spend the money, the Ramelson tools are still vastly superior to the cheap carving sets like the one I listed above or that you can purchase at a store like Michaels.  If you go with either the Ramelson or the PFEIL, you will also want to purchase a sharpening tool, and, so far, I’ve found the Flex Cut SLIPSTROP to be handy and easy to use. I will update my blog if I find any better tools to use, but I cannot imagine any better chisels than the PFEIL chisels and the Flex Cut mini-pelican knife.

Step One: Make a design in Photoshop

You start on the computer? Yes. Fire up your favorite graphic software and create a design that you like. My main interest in woodcutting began with my scholarly interest in early modern woodcuts, so many of my woodcut attempts have been in de-digitizing the archive (#DeDigitizeTheArchive!), but, for this woodcut, I designed my symbol using a re-digitization of the earlier woodcut I made.2

Senseshaper woodcut- Meta

After I have a version that I like, I de-digitize the image by printing it on an old HP inkjet printer.

Step Two: De-Digitize the Image


Since I do not consider a printed image significantly de-digitized, I want to transfer this image to wood. It took me some time to discover how to do this with any consistency, but I have found a process that works for me using a technique that was often used in the early modern period. Rather than using the much simpler transfer process with something like Mod Podge, I opt to use the much more simple yet much more difficult process of using water to transfer the image from my printed sheet to a block of wood.3

Step Three: Transferring the image to wood

As I said, it would be easier to transfer my printed image to wood using something like Mod Podge, but I prefer the older method of using simple water in my process of de-digitization. The first problem is learning how to center your printed image on the block of wood. What I do is to draw what will ultimately become the black border on the surface of the wood. Typically, I go with a 1/2 inch border, and here I draw lines for each side of the woodblock into which I will place my image.


Next, I center the printed image to the border lines, and tape the top securely to the woodblock.


My next step is to use a paintbrush to coat the surface of the woodblock with a thin layer of water.


One trick I have learned while doing this process several dozen times is to then lightly wipe away the excess water with your hand. The water transfer process can be tricky. If you use too little water, you will not get a dark enough transfer; if you use too much water, the ink will start to run and you will end up with an un-useable blob.


The next step is to make sure your printed copy does not move around too much on the board as you slowly go over the entire surface with a spoon. You want to rub firmly in a circular pattern over each detail of the image.


Since I had not carved in select pine in a while and had been using the much denser poplar, I did not put quite enough water on this block, but, as it was a relatively simple design, I got enough detail to make a useable transfer. Don’t worry if you mess up this step (and you probably will the first few times anyway), since you can always either try the other side of the board or sand the board down and try again.

Here is the transfer that I ended up with:


If I had used just slightly more water, the transfer would have been much darker, but this was enough detail to make a decent woodcut. When the lines are light or where I did not apply enough pressure to transfer the ink, I use a fine tipped calligraphy marker to fill in spots that I want to make sure not to cut away.


When starting off, I would recommend using the marker to go over any spots on the wood that you want to make sure not to cut away. It is easy to lose track of where you are cutting once you get a chisel in your hands and are hacking or carving your way through the block. The darker the details and the lines, the less likely you will be to cut away something that you want to keep.

Step Four: The carving

If you have some good quality tools like the PFEIL chisels I mentioned earlier, you will not need to worry as much about the directions of your cuts, but you do, as a rule, still want to try, where possible, to cut with the grain of the wood you carve. The better the tools and the sharper they are, the better they will do when cutting against the grain, but even then you will get some fraying or splintering in some places. With the Ramelson chisels, you will only want to cut against the grain when you absolutely need to, and you can use your Flexcut knives to cut the areas like curves or lines that go against the natural grain of the wood. This is especially true of a wood like pine. With higher quality and denser woods like poplar, they will be more difficult to cut, but you can cut against the grain with more confidence.


With my PFEIL chisels, I typically start by marking out the borders of the negative space of the woodcut. The negative space in relief printing will appear white once the woodblock is inked and printed. The positive space is the original raised surface of the wood that remains once you are finished carving, and this will be the surface of the block that takes the ink and will appear as black. I typically begin by outlining the negative space with a boundary to cut down on the number of times a stray chisel will slip into the parts that I want to keep as a positive space. I start with the major outlines, and work my way to the more fine details. Once I have carved an outline to help protect my positive spaces, I then use one of my larger chisels to carve away anything that remains white (what will be the negative space of the finished print). I typically try to carve away from the central details of the print. This will help ensure that any stray marks will be in the border of the woodcut rather than in the central details.


Once the major negative spaces are cleared away, I move onto the details. In this woodcut, it is the “face” of my symbol. To do this, I follow the same procedure by outlining the negative space and then carving out the interior. Whereas I typically try to carve away from the details of the positive space, here, I just carved with the grain and towards the center of the negative spaces.



Once I have the central details carved out, I then switch to my finer chisels and work on the borders around my text boxes.


As you can see, when I began cutting against the grain, I got some splintering as I cut. Not to worry, however, I will get to a new trick that I have discovered for repairing small errors while woodcutting, including this type of splintering and stray marks.

Which is good, because I also made a more grievous error while carving out the border.


With the splitting I was getting on the border, I tried to mitigate it by sharpening my tools.

Step Four A: Sharpening my tools

While some splintering while cutting against the grain is unavoidable, I sharpened my 1 mm chisel to cut down on the amount. If you have a Flexcut SLIPSTROP, the process is fairly easy to hone a dulled chisel. As of yet, I still have not had to technically sharpen any of my chisels, but using the strop will hone them into a fine sharpness and doing so with regularity on a fine chisel like the PFEIL chisels should keep me from needed to sharpen them for quite some time.

First, you want to apply the provided compound (the yellow crayon-looking thing) onto one of the curved grooves on the back of the block. Since I am honing a small chisel, I use the smallest curved groove.


Second, you run the chisel along the curved edges away from the chisel’s point in slow and steady motions, making sure that all of the surfaces of the chisel’s point have been polished.


Third, you flip the block over, and run the interior edge of the chisel along the appropriate groove.


That’s all there is to it, and you can get back to carving! While I still got a little splitting and splintering after honing my chisel, it did cut down on it quite a bit.

I will return to these errors in the next step, but, first, I turn to the lettering to see if I will have any more errors to correct.


When I started woodcutting and using this border design, I did so because it was easier to carve letters as negative spaces rather than as positive spaces. As I have improved it would be easier now to carve my letters as positive spaces, but I keep to this form for two reasons. First, I simply find the white lettering and a black background more aesthetically pleasing. Second, I like the idea of making my words and lettering from absence rather than presence. The linguistic dimension of my woodcut design notes the absent presences that language signifies. Mystically reaching towards the realm of the real while at the same time never fully reaching it, language operates as a type of social magic that generates presence from a foundational absence; it generates a reality out of a lack of substance. This is the main reason I have chosen to keep carving the words out of my woodcuts even though it would be much easier at this point to simply carve them as letters.

Surprisingly, I didn’t make any major errors while cutting out the letters. With those negative spaces carved out, I’m ready to try to repair the splintering and the stray marks I have made while carving.

Step Five: Using KwikWood to clean up any errors

When I started making woodcuts and I made an error I thought I either had to live with them or start the whole process from the beginning. Recently, I discovered something that has been a real help to keep me from either letting those small errors go or cutting the whole thing again. What I discovered is called KwikWood. Initially, I thought I was only going to be able to find it at a specialty shop, but found out that any local hardware store will most likely carry it.  KwikWood is an epoxy that responds to chisels and sanding just like real wood after it hardens. You want to take the cylinder of epoxy from the package, remove the protective seal and slice off a very small amount from the end of the epoxy.



Then you want to start mashing the bit you have sliced off into a ball. Keep pressing on the ball until the KwikWood blends into a uniform color.



After the epoxy has been mixed thoroughly, you can then pull off small chunks to fill various errors, cracks, and splits.


Then trim away the excess with a chisel or knife. You can wait until the KwikWood hardens, but for this instance it was just as easy to clear the excess while it was still wet.



After all of the errors are corrected, you are ready to take your woodcut to press.

Step Six: Taking your woodcut to press

Before I started making woodcuts, helping to prompt my adventures in woodcutting, I built a printing press. While I have modified the press since I built it, I followed Charles G. Morgan’s wonderful free instructions for constructing a Bottle Jack Press.4


First, you want to ink your print. While oil-based inks are preferable, I typically use Speedball water-soluble block printing ink because I can find it in larger quantities at the local art store, Texas Art Supply, and because the water-based ink serves for easier clean up. If you have a smaller tube, you want to squirt a small amount of ink onto a flat surface like a piece of glass or, what I have found incredibly useful, a Speedball Bench Hook/ Inking Plate. If you have one of the larger 16 fl. oz tubs that I listed above, you can use a scraper to dig a small amount of ink out of the vat, and apply it to your glass or inking plate.


Next, you want to spread the ink as thinly as possible with a 2 inch scraper. After the ink is sufficiently thin, you will use a brayer to apply the ink to your block. Brayer is really just a fancy name for a rubber roller, and I currently use a Speedball 6 inch brayer. I started with the more readily available 4 inch brayer, but found that the more coverage in a single pass the better so I upped it to the 6 inch. Roll the brayer on your glass or inking pad just as you would with a paint roller, making sure that the brayer is evenly coated with a thin layer of ink. Once that is finished you are ready to apply the ink to the block itself.


Roll your brayer over the entire surface, making sure all of the positive space receives ink. You will most likely need to re-ink your brayer several times over the course of this process. Eventually, your block will look like this:


At this point, you want to check to make sure you have not forgotten to carve away anything that was supposed to be a negative space, and you can touch up any areas with your Flexcut knife or PFEIL chisels.5 Once you have checked and fixed anything you see, you are ready to center the block on a piece of paper. I typically lay out my paper close to the inking block in advance so as not to give the ink any chance to dry while it is on the block.


Center the block as carefully as you can before dropping it on your piece of paper. Currently, I am using two different cotton papers, one a blend, and the other 100% cotton, both made by Southworth. The first is an Antique Laid 25% cotton paper that has faux chain lines, and the second is a Business 100% cotton ivory paper. The 100% cotton has a nice feel to it, but the antique look of the other gives it a nice look. It is tough to determine which to use, but for this print, I decided on the 100% cotton. These are the best papers I have found so far—that is until I can master the art of handmade rag paper.


The good thing about printing on 8.5 x 11 inch paper is that since it will not fit neatly in an 8 x 10 inch frame, centering issues can be corrected when you cut the paper for your frame. Still, the more centered the better. After the block is applied to the paper, you want to carefully turn it over and use your spoon to trace the major details. This will help ensure that the more detailed portions of your print will take more ink in the pressing process.


After rubbing the surface with a spoon, you are ready to take your woodcut to the press!


I typically press my prints—especially the ones for sale—several times in different directions to make sure I have a dark and consistent print. In this instance, I did not do this for the first press and I will show the results of each type of pressing below. After your print has been pressed, you are ready for the reveal.


And here are the results from the second heavily inked printing:



Slowly peel back the paper from the block, and set it aside to dry.


Water-soluble inks will dry relatively quickly (within a few hours), but oil-based inks should wait at least a full day or more.

Step Seven: The finished prints

Senseshaper Woodcut- First Printing

Senseshaper Woodcut- Heavy Inking

You can find more of my woodcuts in this earlier post, and feel free to visit my Etsy store if you want to buy any prints.

  1. You can see some of them here, or you can see them on the Etsy site.  (back)
  2. You can see an earlier gallery of my woodcuts here.  (back)
  3. I have yet to try Mod Podge, but I hear that you can get very detailed transfers to wood by using it. Personally, I prefer the water process because it is not as clear when the transfer is complete, allowing for more variation between the printed image and the woodcut the process will ultimately produce.  (back)
  4. I will add another post later concerning the modifications I have done to the original design, but Morgan’s instructions are great and will get you set up with a press for a little over $100.  (back)
  5. See my previous note on the chisels I actually use with frequency.  (back)
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The post How to Make a Woodcut: Senseshaper’s Process of De-Digitizing the Archives appeared first on Shaping Sense.

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The First Cuts are the Deepest: Senseshaper’s (Zachary Fisher’s) First Months of Woodcutting Wed, 15 Jan 2014 18:32:25 +0000 This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Senseshaper's WoodcutsWhat started as a way to occupy myself as I grappled with whether or not I wanted to continue pursuing my PhD in Renaissance Literature from the University of Virginia has transformed into a mild obsession. As any of you know who are friends […]

The post The First Cuts are the Deepest: Senseshaper’s (Zachary Fisher’s) First Months of Woodcutting appeared first on Shaping Sense.

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Senseshaper's Woodcuts

What started as a way to occupy myself as I grappled with whether or not I wanted to continue pursuing my PhD in Renaissance Literature from the University of Virginia has transformed into a mild obsession. As any of you know who are friends with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter will know by now, about two months ago I started cutting wood.1 Even since my earlier post, I have improved my skills, have finally purchased professional grade tools, and have become a little more daring in my designs. This post will be composed of a collection of prints made during my first two months of my woodcutting hobby, and I hope I will continue to add similar posts every month to chart my progress and development.2

Some have encouraged my obsession and insanity by inquiring about buying prints. I have finally caved to the pressure and have set up an Etsy site, and you can find details about that site at the bottom of this post.3 But first, my first few months of woodcutting:

I. The early woodcuts

II. Real wood and getting better

III. New tools and more experimentation

IV. Christmas gifts

Risking becoming “that guy,” I decided to use my new hobby to make some homemade Christmas gifts for my wife and our family. My wife first asked me to make a woodcut of the University of Virginia’s (UVA’s) Rotunda, and it turned out much better than I’d hoped.

I also wanted to make something for my wife, so I decided to make a woodcut for each state we have lived in either together or separately. The first, of Illinois, I made for my parents as a Christmas gift, but decided that they would look great as a set for my wife. I designed each first in Photoshop and then made a series of woodcuts featuring the state’s name nestled within the border of a state outline.

V. My first commission!

One of my wife’s friends saw the state outlines I made her, and offered me my first woodcut commission, making the state of North Carolina. If you like these and want to see me do one of your state, let me know and I can make one and put it up on my Etsy site.

Visit my Etsy store.

For those of you who prefer the pure simulacra without an element of the Real:
Visit my Zazzle store.

  1. I discussed my early attempts in this post.  (back)
  2. Don’t worry though, this blog will still be populated by both digital essays on the early modern senses as well as the occasional absurdist early modern posts most likely involving GIFs, silly early modern memes, and ribaldry.  (back)
  3. Or you can click here to go directly to the Etsy shop now. It is still in development, but, if you so desire, you can order a selection of the prints I have made available. I’m willing to post others for sale, so if you see one that you want, just let me know either in an email or in the comments to this post, and I will post them for sale. I will also be digitizing my woodcuts and putting them up to my Zazzle store soon, so check there if you would prefer one of the woodcuts in T-Shirt form.  (back)
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The post The First Cuts are the Deepest: Senseshaper’s (Zachary Fisher’s) First Months of Woodcutting appeared first on Shaping Sense.

“In my mind’s eye”: Species, Phantasms, Skepticism, and the Phantasy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in Early Modern Theater Sun, 22 Dec 2013 17:19:11 +0000 Part I. “He thinks tis but our fantasy”: The Ontology and Epistemology of Ghosts and Spirits In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the skeptical and possibly Stoic Horatio reveals to the melancholic eponymous prince that he has seen a phantasm. Before Horatio can even reveal his harrowing yet problematic tale of seeing a “form like [Hamlet’s] father,” […]

The post “In my mind’s eye”: Species, Phantasms, Skepticism, and the Phantasy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in Early Modern Theater appeared first on Shaping Sense.

Part I. “He thinks tis but our fantasy”: The Ontology and Epistemology of Ghosts and Spirits

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the skeptical and possibly Stoic Horatio reveals to the melancholic eponymous prince that he has seen a phantasm. Before Horatio can even reveal his harrowing yet problematic tale of seeing a “form like [Hamlet’s] father,” Hamlet declares, “my father–methinks I see my father” (Shakespeare Hamlet I.ii. 83). Despite Horatio’s apparent skepticism during and following his encounter with the phantasm of Old Hamlet, one senses apprehension in his uneasy response, “O where, my lord?” (84). Horatio, who, along with Barnardo and Marcellus, witnesses the appearance of a phantasm resembling the dead king in the first scene, confronts a melancholic prince who reports encountering another type of phantasm “in [his] mind’s eye” (84) of that same dead king in the second. Both visions present types of phantasm, and both relate to the faculty of the phantasy or imagination and to theories that explained ordinary as well as aberrant perception through phantasms or species. The two forms constitute different species of species or phantasm, but, in many theories of perception and cognition current in the later sixteenth century, they correlate and depend upon a similar explanatory system. While commentary assigned the phantasy an important role in mentally picturing objects or people that were not present before a perceiver, it also assigned the phantasy a special role in explanations of aberrant perception including those generated by a polluted body and those caused by witches and devils sometimes thought responsible for visions of the dead. Discourses on both of these forms of aberrant perception and on hallucination developed their explanatory systems through similar paradigms of the early modern sensorium, depending heavily upon a specific construction of the imagination or phantasy and the types of objects in which it mediated. We have two types of phantasms here that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but those two types of phantasm or species might be closer than they initially appear.

Though largely ignored in early modern criticism, nearly every text explaining some aspect of perception and simple cognition in the sixteenth century draws upon the quasi-Aristotelian construction of the sensorium and often upon the Thomistic and Baconian notions of the species or phantasms to explain sensation, perception, and at minimum simple thought.1 This is true of the medical tradition as they crop up in authors as diverse as Andre du Laurens to Ambroise Paré, to Johann Weyer, to Helkiah Crooke, to Robert Burton. It is also true of discourses of demonology and witchcraft from Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger to Johann Weyer, to Reginald Scot, to King James. It is equally true, I argue, of literary texts which produced and were produced by these other traditions as explanatory systems within their pages or within their performances. I have already discussed their importance in some speeches from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, in this post, I turn to his Hamlet.2

What does separate the two and the objects in both visions, those of Hamlet I.i. and I.ii.? We have a Ghost. We have Hamlet’s report of an image of his deceased father in his phantasy or imagination. One we see on the stage. The other remains forever invisible, inaccessible, and illusory. Both species or phantasms seem distinct and separable phenomena, but, if we look at discourses the sensorium and discourses on witchcraft in the sixteenth century in conjunction, we begin to see resemblances between Old Hamlet’s two types of appearance within the play. The phenomenon Horatio experiences in I.i. has external confirmation, certifying that his experience did not derive solely from his own mind, but Horatio remains reluctant to account the apparition a true spirit or ghost of the dead king. With the second type in the second scene, Hamlet knowingly pictures the dead king, his father, in his mind’s eye. While Hamlet’s mental phantasm of his dead father can only be revealed through Hamlet’s oral report, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the character does indeed retain a phantasm of his father that, while supplemented by his private phantasy, conforms to and was produced by the actual presence of his Old Hamlet. Both discourses on the sensorium and those on witchcraft often draw from theories of the species, and both offer sometimes differing accounts about what actually happens when someone witnesses the appearance of a spectre, but both also typically rely upon the same underlying quasi-Aristotelian theory of sensation to explain both theories. Some authors accepted the real presences of ghosts and spirits, but many more, at least by the late sixteenth century, seem to question their reality, thinking them as Horatio initially does, as nothing “but… fantasy” (I.i. 21). While some allowed for the appearance of actual spirits of the dead, those ghosts are often discussed as appearing within the phantasy or imagination by offering or manipulating the species or phantasms within the faculty. Rather than the King’s two bodies, Hamlet presents us with the King’s two phantasms. While tangentially touching on the frisson caused by the death of the king’s natural body, the play also presents us with two of his phantasms.

The objects of the phantasy, the phantasms, like the sensible species to which they were related, had an in-between status and played important roles in mediating the relationship between the external and internal senses. If we turn to Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum, heavily dependent as it is on Thomas Aquinas, we find an explanation of demonic manipulation through the senses in general and the phantasy in particular. Kramer and Sprenger deploy the popular form of the quasi-Aristotelian and Thomistic theory of the sensorium to explain the effects not only of delusions generated from melancholy in the phantasy, but also those directly caused by some malevolent spiritual force. Just as melancholic spirits could enter and influence the sensorium by generating false species or phantasms, so too, according to the witch-hunting pair, malevolent and benevolent spirits could enter the spirits of the brain and alter them. The point of vulnerability was either the weak external senses themselves or, and far more often referred to, the unreliable phantasy within the internal sense. As their Malleus Maleficarum puts it,

For Fancy or imagination is as it were the treasury of ideas received through the senses. And through this It happens that devils so stir up the inner perceptions, that is the power of conserving images, that they appear to be a new impression at that moment received from exterior things. (Kramer and Sprenger 50).

Here, the spirits of the brain are susceptible not only to the influence of the material of the body, but also to the influence of another form of spirit. The main point of attack for both the matter of the body but also the forces of the immaterial supernatural realm converges in the phantasy. Both the body and the spiritual realm can exploit the vulnerability of the faculty to produce delusions or illusions, making one experience something that is not there. It is this paradoxical paramaterial nature of the faculty, its spirits, and its objects that generate the potential for doubting the reliability of perception and of experience.

At the same time, not much separates the objects of delusion from those of actual perception. As Kramer details just before launching into his explanation of supernatural influence on the sensorium, the theory of ordinary perception relied heavily upon the central placement of the phantasy or imagination which received the impressions of objects. As they say,

It is to be noted that Aristotle (De Somno et Uigilia) assigns the cause of a[[aritions in dreams through local motion to the fact that, when an animal sleeps the blood flows to the inmost seat of the senses, from which descend motions or impressions which remain from past impressions preserved in the mind or inner perception; and these are Fancy or Imagination, which are the same thing according to S. Thomas. (Kramer and Sprenger 50).

The same structure of the sensorium explains the sequence of impressions that convert a material external object into something more immaterial that can interact with a perceiver’s immaterial soul. Sensation, perception, vivid pictures of past impressions, dreams, and delusions caused either by the natural body or by supernatural forces all made inroads within an individual perceiver through the open and vulnerable phantasy.

Horatio, who says the Ghost “…is but [Marcellus and Barnardo’s] fantasy,/ And will not let belief take hold of him” (I.i. 21-22) until he must admit that it is “something more than fantasy” (52) after he witnesses its appearance for himself, proclaims,

Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes. (54-56).

Horatio and the soldiers maintain a distinction between the “fantasy” and perceived reality. Only Horatio’s “sensible and true avouch” of his “own eyes” can convince him of the truth of their previous report of the apparition. While the three maintain a distinction between a “fantasy” and reality, the case becomes much less clear when we explore the two in contemporary accounts of the sensorium. The phantasy was tasked with creating vain fantasies from the substances stored in the memory, but it was also responsible for the processing of ordinary perception, the very matter and source of Horatio’s “sensible and true avouch.” The matter becomes even more difficult when we also examine contemporary discourses on ghosts and spirits which also were thought to operate through the gate of the phantasy. While the three maintain a binary between the fictitious fantasy and true perception, the case might not be as clear as one might think.

Equally unstable is the distinction between matter and spirit, between bodies and souls, between appearance and illusion. While the soldiers’ “fantasies” are supposedly as substanceless as the Ghost they report, both actually are granted a material reality in contemporary accounts of the sensorium. Even the products of delusion within the faculty were granted a paradoxical nature that sat somewhere between the material and the immaterial. Neither wholly material nor wholly immaterial, neither wholly external nor wholly internally derived, the two types of species or phantasms, in their paradoxes, generate epistemological problems, but, by comparing the two, we can also see underlying similarities between them and their positions within similar early modern theories of the sensorium. It is this quasi-material aspect of both the senses and their objects that prompts me to coin the term “paramaterial,” which allows me to discuss the conflicts and contradictions embodied in early modern ontology and epistemology. While not a contemporary term, I do think it captures the paradoxes of the early modern embodied mind and helps expose the ways in which the individual perceiver was thought to engage with the world at a sensory level.

In the second Quarto, Horatio speaks a speech not found in the Folio of the same play. While of questionable authorship, the lines compare interestingly to the image of Old Hamlet Hamlet reports possessing in his mind’s eye or phantasy. When speculating about the meaning of this “portentious figure … so like the King” (106.2-106.3), Horatio calls it “a mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye” (106.5). While the Ghost has been confirmed as something more than “fantasy,” it’s persistence in the phantasy takes on a seemingly in-between nature of the Ghost itself. It is a “mote,” a substance, but a miniscule substance so small as to be close to lacking substance at all. In contrast to the vain fantasy that Horatio suspected the apparition of being, it has a quasi-substantial nature, and one that persists in the quasi-matter of the brain, its spirits. The paradoxical nature of the phantasy and its objects bridged the divide between the material and immaterial, the world and soul, the natural and the supernatural, but it was a bridge that was potentially fraught with ontological and epistemological trolls lurking just beneath. Once early moderns abandoned Galenic medicine and quasi-Aristotelian constructions of the sensorium, this bridge would be washed away for good, leaving a gulf between the world and a perceiver.

While I do think much more of a connection between a perceiver and her world was secured through theories of the paramaterial mind, there were other ways in which ontological and epistemological questions could emerge. The problem of the species or phantasms and the difficulty in determining with certainty the true from false perceptual impressions led to important ontological and epistemological questions well before the time of Descartes.3 Epistemological problems emerge from within these earlier (paramaterial or quasi-Aristotelian and Thomistic) systems that allows for both the possibility of actual spirits and for the persistence of phantasms in the mind that an individual can experience as being present. While Hamlet in the early portion of the play clearly does not confuse the image in his mind’s eye with actual presence and while the phantasm always-already has a subjective component, that phantasm still maintains a link—and, in some versions, I would argue a substantial link—between his mental image and the physical reality of his father.4 As many natural philosophers pointed out, an abundance of melancholy in the body’s “spirits” could produce experiences in which phenomena occurring entirely within the mind could be experienced as occurring without the mind.

The problem, for early modern philosophical skeptics, was that such potential for confusion emerged from a paramaterial model that implicitly or explicitly accounted the image in the phantasy as essentially the same object. A particularly vivid imagination could produce images that, when pulled from the recesses of memory, could trick the external senses into experiencing their appearance as a true report.5 This was supposedly especially true of melancholics who had an abundance of black bile in their substance and spirits. Speaking of the appearance of “black forms” to melancholic people, the English translation of the French physician Andre du Laurens explains that things within the eye or within the mind can be seen as if they existed without in his treatise on melancholy. He says,

The melancholike partie may see that which is within his owne braine, but under another forme, because that the spirits and blacke vapours continually passe by the sinewes, veines and arteries, from the braine unto the eye, which causeth it to see many shadowes and untrue apparitions in the aire, whereupon from the eye the formes thereof are conveyed unto the imagination, which being continualie served with the same dish, abideth continuallie in feare and terror. (Du Laurens 92).

The forms from within the brain can be taken as if they were true presences, especially in the melancholic phantasy, but this extended as well to other complexions as well. The false sights could further misinform the reasoning capacity, since reason depended upon the phantasy’s objects for its working. These types of false report could even undermine the “Captain” of the mind, reason. As the English edition has it,

The imaginative facultie doth represent and set before the intellectuall, all the objects which she hath received from the common sence, making report of whatsoever is discovered of the spies abroad: upon which reports the intellectuall or understanding part of the minde, frameth her conclusions, which are often false, the imagination making untrue reports. For as the most prudent and carfeull Captaines undertake very oft the enterprises which prove foolish and fond, and that because of false advertisement: even so reason doth often make but foolish discourses, having been misse-informed by a fayned fantasie. (Du Laurens 74).

The phantasy could trouble the proper workings of the human reason, and it was precisely because of the conflicted and paradoxical nature of the faculty and its objects that produced epistemological problems.

These natural accounts, drawing from Galenic humoralism, tend toward closing the perceiver from the world by casting mental objects with more of a subjective component and taint. It is for this reason that I, in part, contrast these relatively closed-off natural accounts with the openness of paramaterial theories by calling them perimaterial. While it is my contention that theories of a truly closed-off perceiver did not come into full emergence in the West until well after the discovery of the retinal image, I do this to contrast the medical and natural accounts which emphasized a subjective component to all perception with paramaterial ones which emphasized more of an openness to the world, both in terms of the natural and the supernatural worlds.

The epistemological problem available within this model derives from the fact that the mental phantasms or images retained an ontological connection to their originals. The memory of a particular person included sensory data and phantasms or species that mimetically reproduced external reality. While the subjective reception and response to a particular phantasm differed among perceivers, the phantasm included the attributes of its external causal agent or object, containing within it a mimetic copy of sensible reality. Despite the repeated emphasis on the conformity of mental and external objects, the phantasy still colored its phantasms with a subjective taint. As du Laurens has it, reason could be “misse-informed by a fayned fantasie,” not only when experiencing forms of things not actually present, but also in the immediate reactions to ordinary and immediate sensation of a perceptual phenomenon. Evaluations of “good and bad” and “pleasant or painful,” in many popular sixteenth century theories of perception and cognition, depended upon the “Captain,” reason, who evaluated and kept the phantasy or imagination under its control.6 Such evaluations could “color” perception, just as a colored lens could alter the appearance of objects or the entire phenomenological field.

Freud distinguishes mourning from melancholia based on the nature of the lost object and the extent to which mourning includes a self-loathing. In the case of ordinary grief, the distraught feelings that result from the loss of a person emerge from a subject releasing its libidinal attachment to that object. In melancholia, a similar grief emerges from a subject even if a specific object cannot be located or determined whether by the subject herself or by others. The mourner and the melancholic remain passionately attached to an object or objects, even if, in the case of a more general melancholia, that causal object cannot be identified.7

If I am correct about the way sixteenth-century popular thought cast the perceptual process as something I call paramaterial, then Hamlet’s phantasm in I.ii. retains a connection to its originary cause, his father’s person. In sixteenth and early seventeenth century theories of melancholy, the melancholic “fixated” or “doted” upon a limited number of objects. As du Laurens conventionally treats in his fourth chapter, early moderns thought that “melancholike persons have all of them their particular and altogether diverse objects whereupon they dote” (Du Laurens 96). In this case, the phantasm of Hamlet’s father might literally occupy the paramaterial spirits of his brain, while at the same time retaining some connection to the physical presence of his father that was the original cause of the phantasm stored in Hamlet’s memory. I do not want to say that even in the most extreme form of the paramaterial I am sketching here that the retained phantasm was solely the product of the external object. While I do think it retained a connection to its extra-mental original in many theories, it was always-already noted that those mental objects were shaped in substantial ways by a perceiving subject.

With any perceived phenomena, the individual perceiver “colors” perception. This is true of even the most simple form of direct perception. Things become even murkier when considering memories or subjective evaluations, especially memories of something so wrapped up in personal experience like the memory of dead fathers. From a modern perspective, nothing connects the sensory system to the mental processes, but such was not the case in many pre- and early modern systems of perception. While Hamlet might idealize his father and his impressions and evaluations might be colored through his personal phantasy, in many accounts of the sensory system, something linked the perceptual apparatus to cognition. Even if much of what someone thought had a personal tinge or taint, some kernel of the real was theoretically mediated through the sensorium.

As Freud himself would argue, Hamlet idealizes his father. He seems, to Hamlet, the paragon of “man” whose death has led to the loss of the very category of “man.” It is Hamlet, significantly, who is the first to “call” the apparition his father, even if he continues to doubt and test his own perception and interpretation of the phenomena. Whereas Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus are more content to call the Ghost a “thing” (I.i. 19), an “apparition” (I.i. 26), “like the King” (I.i. 41) and an “illusion” (I.i. 108), Hamlet says to this “questionable shape, “I’ll call thee Hamlet,/ King, father, royal Dane” (I.iv. 25-26). While remaining skeptical of whether or not it is a true spirit, Hamlet nevertheless calls it his father, whereas Horatio remains much more skeptical of its import and significance.

Hamlet himself, who sees his father as “a man” which he “shall not look upon his like again” (I. ii. 186–187), the image in his mind’s eye continues to have a direct relationship to the man itself through the system of the sensitive soul. The phantasm of his father in his mind’s eye, or phantasy, remains connected to the phantasm stored his memory, the original of which was created by the actual person of his father. Less clear, however, is the “marvel” witnessed by Horatio, Marcellus, Barnardo and ultimately by Hamlet himself. This ghostly apparition presents an alternate side of debates on the faultiness and vulnerability of perception available to early modern theories of perception. In the play, it remains unclear whether or not an apparition appears solely to the sense or if it is either conjured by a demonic or angelic presence within the minds of the witnesses. Since the initial appearance of the ghost occurs to multiple people (and, as I shall discuss below, significantly to the audience as well), it would seem that its presence is external in origin, but the problem here is that some theorists of demonology suggested that the devil’s influence could produce mass hallucination by directly altering either the visual species presented to the external senses or by altering the phantasy of observers together in a collective hallucination.

For some, perceived angelic, demonic, or ghostly apparitions resulted from a disordered melancholic phantasy. Such explanations became standard within medical discourses from around the mid-sixteenth century onwards. Characteristic of this explanatory system was du Laurens, who argues that many of these appearances were of this order. Outside of the early modern medical tradition, however, others allow and acknowledge presences that exceed the natural as true, but often question whether those apparitions were actually the souls of the dead. The German Ludwig Lavater, in his Of Ghostes and Walking Sprites (1572), a popularly reprinted English translation that William Shakespeare might have consulted, posited that unusual specters could appear, but denied that they could ever be the actual souls of the dead. For Lavater, the phantasms were either angels or demons that took on the form or guise of the departed rather than the spirits of the dead in and of themselves. Lavater devotes a great amount of time to answering how one can determine whether a particular apparition was either demonic or angelic in nature, devotes the second part of his treatise to “discusse what manner of things they are, that is, not the souls of dead men, as some men have thought, but either good or evil Angels, or else some secrete and hid operations of God” (Lavater Author’s Epistle Sig b.ii.r). Lavater largely leaves aside the question of whether or not they have a true presence, but does argue that such apparitions are decidedly not the souls of the deceased.8

Cautioning against malicious devils who assume a pleasing shape to delude and tempt observers, Lavater states that the only real way to know if a spirit is good or bad is to consider the nature of their requests. Lavater applies first John to the realm of ghosts and spirits, saying,

Saint John saith in hys first Epistle and fourth chapter: Dearly beeloved, beleeve not every spirit, but trie the spirits whether they are of God: for many false Prophetes are gone out into the world. Heereby shall yee knowe the spirit of God. Every spirit that confesseth yt Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God, and every spirite whiche confesseth not, that Jesus Chryst is come in the flesh, is not of God, etc. Heere he speaketh not of spirites which falsly affirme themselves to be mens soules, but of those teachers whiche boaste of themselves that they have the spirite of God. But in case we must not beeeve them being alive, much lesse ought we to credite them when they are dead. (Lavater 203).

In addition to speaking correctly of God, a good angel will request positive actions from an observer while evil spirits will request the performance of evil deeds. Old Hamlet’s demand for vengeance, from something like Lavater’s standpoint, would tend towards the demonic. From such a vantage point, the ghost’s demand for revenge serves as an even more effective way to damn Hamlet’s soul by encouraging blood vengeance against his uncle than in “tempt[ing him] toward the flood” (I.iv. 50) in the way Horatio warns Hamlet against. Shakespeare provides very little clarification of the matter by only allowing Old Hamlet to speak directly to Hamlet, without the confirming observation and experience of witnesses.

Since the only time the ghost appears again onstage with a potential witness is during the closet scene where Hamlet speaks “with th’ incorporal air” (III.iv. 109), Gertrude can neither see nor hear it, the exact nature of the ghost remains ambiguous and complicated. If the initial appearance was a mass delusion of the order discussed in witchcraft discourses, either Gertrude is hindered from receiving the sensible species of the apparition, or Hamlet’s encounter occurs, like the earlier image of his father in “his mind’s eye,” only in the phantasy. This is, of course, not to say that Hamlet is necessarily delusional here, but the ambiguity involved here does expose the problems inherent in the role of the phantasy in sixteenth century constructions and the way that those problems could generate skeptical potential.


II. “Is not this something more than fantasy”: The Epistemological and Skeptical Potential of Paramaterial Phantasms

Classical Stoics had attempted to ensure the certainty and reliability of ordinary perception by creating two distinct types of perceptual phenomenon, cataleptic and acataleptic. The first, cataleptic perception, accounted for perception that occurred in the presence of an external object, while the second, acatleptic perception, accounted for perceptual phenomena occurring in the absence of an external object. For the Stoics, delusions fell into the category of acaleptic impressions, which being considered distinct from cataleptic impressions, did not question the reliability of perception or the knowledge available through the senses. Instead, reason could recognize and account for their divergence from supposed reality. Skeptics, however, challenged the separation; arguing that, in essence, all perception is acataleptic, or, at best, could not be entirely distinct from cataleptic ones. Skeptics like Sextus Empiricus could argue that since there was not an external judge of the matter, one needed to suspend judgment.

In an early modern expurgated English translation and adaptation of Sextus Empiricus, sometimes attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh alone, the phantasy becomes a central focal point for skeptical questions and questioning. While not stating it directly, the phantasy comes to play a central role in many of the aberrant perceptions that help unsettle the certainty available to humans through the senses. While Sextus and Ralegh’s adaptation, the Sceptick, never mention supernatural manipulation, it does draw from Galenic medicine to undermine the reliability of ordinary perception. Again, melancholy becomes the main culprit.

Melancholy was the humor traditionally associated with madmen. Capable of producing delusions and hallucinations, when in over-abundance, the humor was a dangerous one even with its positive associations with genius, literary or otherwise.9 For skeptics, the type of melancholic delusion undermined the reliability of the senses precisely because there was not an objective and impartial way to determine which impression was correct. Stoics attempted to use melancholy to separate cataleptic from acataleptic impressions, likening delusions to powerful imaginings of absent objects.10 For skeptics, rather than solidifying a strict binary opposition between ordinary and aberrant perception, the moments of recognizable failure or diversity of opinions on a particular matter of dispute question the reliability of perception and judgment in its presumed “normal” state. As Raleigh puts it,

If then it be so, that there be such differences in Men, this must be by reason of the divers temperatures they have, and divers disposition of their conceit and imagination; for, if one hate, and another love the very same thing, it must be that their phantasies differ, else all would love it, or all would hate it. These Men then, may tell how these things seem to them good, or bad; but what they are in their own Nature they cannot tell. (Raleigh 23-24).

The “diverse temperatures” and “divers disposition[s] of their conceit[s] and imagination[s],” produce different impressions, but, unlike the Stoics or other “Dogmatiques,” this does not give a basis for providing a way to determine the relative truth of one over the other for the skeptic. Instead, the variation compels questions about the reliability of all perception. Because of this, the skeptic is not led to a judgment apart from knowing the limitations of his own position, leaving the skeptic with only a “report” rather than “truth.” As Raleigh’s Sceptick concludes, “I may then report, how these things appear, but whether they are so indeed, I know not” (Raleigh 31). Whereas the Stoics tried to clearly distinguish cataleptic and acataleptic impressions, the skeptics saw no such clear separation. Instead, nearly all sensory information was potentially acataleptic in nature, and that it was therefore necessary to suspend judgment on the certainty available through them.

Ralegh’s Sceptick begins by probing what it sees as a false dichotomy between human and non-human animals. For the text, as it was for Sextus’ Outlines from which much of the Sceptick is lifted, the form and natures of the external senses, their “temperatures” of various forms of sentient life, and the condition and quality of their internal senses, produce different impressions that the phantasy or imagination received and upon which reason and judgment depended. As the Sceptick puts it,

if the instruments of Sence in the body be observed … we shall find … that as these instruments are affected and disposed, so doth the Imagination conceit (sic) that which by them is connexed unto it. (Raleigh 3–4)­.

For this text and for Sextus’ Outlines before it, the external senses were vulnerable to misapprehension which could shape the impression offered to the phantasy, since “according to the diversitie of the eye … offereth it unto the phantasie” (Raleigh 6), but so too could the phantasy alter the impressions of its own accord, depending upon the temperament of the perceiver as well as upon the related quality and condition of the spirits filling the brain. Both the external and the internal senses could alter the forms which they received, and both were locked in a mutual embrace of sense shaping, especially at the point of their meeting in the faculty of the imagination or the phantasy.11 Both exerted a shaping influence on the species or phantasms originating in the forms of external objects, and both could generate and support skeptical arguments about the nature of reality and of the availability of certatinty.

While classical to sixteenth-century philosophical skeptics rarely mention the delusions caused by the devil, they too contain skeptical potential. Within the discourses of demonic influence, the skeptical logic could follow suit. This is precisely the logic involved in seventeenth-century French polymath, Rene Descartes, followed when he developed his thought experiment of the evil demon. As Descartes has it,

I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things. I shall stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation; and, even if it is not in my power to know any truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, that is, resolutely guard against assenting to any falsehoods, so that the deceiver, howsoever powerful and cunning he may be, will be unable to impose on me in the slightest degree. But this is an arduous undertaking, and a kind of laziness brings me back to normal life. I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while asleep; as he begins to suspect that he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant illusion as long as he can. In the same way, I happily slide back into my old opinions and dread being shaken from them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised. (Rene Descartes Translated by Cottingham 79).

Though I am not aware of direct earlier English skeptical texts which deal with demonic delusion, the instances of it provide potential for skeptical questions and concerns. If the natural could influence and shape sense in such a way as to undermine the certainty of perception and judgment, so too could the belief that the devil or his forces could also shape sense. Descartes’ evil demon thought experiment draws such conclusions to an extreme point, and Descartes therefore makes more explicit the skeptical potential already encoded in representations and discussions of demonic deception and illusion.

Descartes’ evil demon has foundations in the discourses of the previous century. In the mid-sixteenth century, the Swiss physician Johann Weyer offered a Galenic account of the delusions commonly associated with demons, devils, and witches. For Weyer, nearly all forms of such delusion resulted from an overabundance of melancholy in the body and especially in the spirits of the brain. The most “vulnerable to the demons’ arts and illusions,” were the melancholics. Of the most likely to be attacks,

Melancholics are of this sort, as are persons distressed because of loss or for any other reason, as Chrysostom says: “The magnitude of their grief is more potent for harm than all the activities of the Devil, because all whom a demon overcomes, he overcomes through grief.” (Weyer 180).

While never denying the existence of demonic forces in the world, Weyer did provide an explanatory system that allowed for readings of some forms of delusion typically attributed to Witches and demonic forces to natural causes. The idea was not a particularly new idea even if the scope of his arguments included many forms of aberrant perception that for others fell under the purview of witchcraft and demonology. Weyer goes on to describe the devil’s powers over the body in terms that are not all that dissimilar from the ways in which Kramer and Sprenger describe them. Weyer details that a devil

…may assume some attractive form, or variously agitate and corrupt the thoughts and the imagination, until finally these people agree with his proposals, give way to his persuasion, and believe whatever he puts into their minds, as though bound by treaty—depending on his will and obeying him. They think that everything that he suggests is true, and they are devoutly confident that all the forms imposed by him upon their powers of imagination and fantasy exist truly and ‘substantially’ [in the theological sense] (if I may use this word). Indeed, they cannot do otherwise, since from the time of their first assent he has corrupted their mind with empty images, lulling or stirring to this task the bodily humors and spirits, so that in the way he introduces certain specious appearances into the appropriate organs, just as if they were occurring truly and externally; and he does this not only when people sleep, but also when they are awake. In this manner, certain things are thought to exist or to take place outside of the individual, which in fact are not real and do not take place, and often do not even exist in the natural world. (Weyer 181).

Weyer offers a more natural and material account of the delusions of devils, but also exposes the vulnerabilities to which early moderns attributed to the paradoxical phantasy. Even witch hunters Kramer and Sprenger acknowledged the possibility that natural causes resulted in some of the perceived phenomena, but part of their task was to separate the false from those of true demonic influence.

The most critical of demonic visions in the period was the English Reginald Scot, who, like and following Weyer saw most “demonic influence” as the effect of melancholy on the phantasy. Countering demonologist and theologian Jean Bodin for his attack on Weyer, Scot states,

But bicause I am no physician, I will set a physician to him; namely Erastus, who hath these words, to wit, that these witches, through their corrupt phantasie abounding with melancholike humors, by reason of their old age, doo dreame and imagine they hurt those things which they neither could nor doo hurt; and so thinke they knowe an art, which they neither have learned nor yet understand. (Scot 33).

Though he discusses the delusions of witches in particular in the above, the same holds for the melancholic visions of the dead and of other supposedly supernatural occurrences according to Scot. Though even more extreme than Weyer, Scot too never fully denies the presence and influence of the occult and the spiritual altogether. He, too, acknowledges their influence even if he, like Weyer, was condemned by James Stuart for supposedly doing so. The spiritual influence upon perception and upon thought, even for a skeptical challenger like Scot, was taken for granted in popular vernacular treatises. Though melancholic influence could explain many cases, it was not an exhaustive explanatory system. Even by the time of Robert Burton in the 1620s, explanations of the senses and of melancholy referred to demonic influence. All remain linked to discussions of the “reality” of spectral presences.12

In this way, the lack of certainty regarding the nature and significance of Old Hamlet in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play takes on new importance and significance. The play opens with questions about the nature and meaning of the ghost. The anxiety and uncertainty of the Danish state relates to the anxiety and uncertainty generated by the ghost’s appearance. Something is, after all, rotten in the state of Denmark. Lavater, who claims that true spirits cannot return from the grave, also conjoins anxieties over politics and the appearance of specters when he claims that phantasms who appear dressed in full armor actually speak to alterations of the state and political turmoil. Lavater notes that in

… the Court of Mattheus, surnamed the great Sheriff of the City, in the Evening after sun set, there was seen a man far exceeding common stature, sitting on a horse in complete amour: who when he had been there seen of many, by the space of an hour, in the end vanished away to the great terror of those that beheld him… Not long after, Henry the seventh Emperor, departed this life, to the utter undoing of all the Sheriffs.” (Lavater 68).

According to Lavater, armed apparitions foretell of turmoil within and alterations of state. Something is rotten in Denmark as it is under present threat of attack by Fortinbras’ army, who seems to have set his sights on Claudius to test his power thinking that Claudius’ “state to be disjoint and out of frame” (I.ii. 20), even as the former ruler’s spirit seemingly rises from his rotten and rotting body. Horatio, initially skeptical that the ghost even exists, wonders, without stating his queries in such terms, whether its appearance constitutes an acataleptic impression, existing only within the heads and minds of Barnardo and Marcellus.

Such issues are not necessarily new, being one of the most popular undergraduate discussion topics for seemingly as long as there have been Shakespeare courses, but framing the issue through a discussion of early modern theories of the sensorium brings to light how the two phenomena were related and similarly conceived and constructed in the period. While it cannot answer whether the ghost is true or false, a true spirit or a devil, or if it is a product of Hamlet’s madness, examining the theory of the senses allows us to see a range of responses available within the period. This framework allows us to see the multitude of ways in which this theory of the senses generated the potential for early modern skepticism well before Descartes, even if Descartes explicitly addressed and amplified their skeptical potential.13 Additionally, these issues bring into relief problems inherent in the nature of the stage itself in earlier theories of perception, and sheds light on some of the Protestant fears and anxieties regarding the potential of fictions in general and of the stage in particular.

Even if Lavater might not be a direct “source” of Hamlet in a traditional sense, an early modern audience member familiar with the popular Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Night (1572) would have a sense that all might not turn out well for the Danish power by the play’s end. Such a reading might have an even broader base even for those unfamiliar with Lavater directly, but, in any case, Lavater shows us how readily the idea of spirits and the threats to or alterations of the state are linked within the popular imagination. Even if the ghost is read as a malicious devil lacking the true substance of the murdered monarch, it still might represent a harbinger of such problems and alterations of the Danish state.

Skeptical in his own right and possibly conforming to the Stoic distinction between cataleptic and acataleptic impressions, Horatio, it seems, demands confirmation as to whether or not Marcellus and Barnardo suffer from an acataleptic impression of the dead king, but even when his own experience proves it true, his skepticism extends to precisely what the apparition is supposed to mean. Even if they collectively confirm the presence of something “like” the dead king, the meaning of the its appearance can mean a variety of things. It may, for example, still be the deceiving demon that Horatio later cautions Hamlet against. Having proved through personal experience and having confirmed through collective experience that something is present, Horatio, like, to a lesser extent, Hamlet, must determine the origins and meaning of its appearance. His seemingly Stoic sensibilities and his non-philosophical skepticism creates a situation where he is never fully assured of the ghost’s meaning that he personally witnesses. Like Lavater, too, he tends to doubt the actual presence of the dead monarch while simultaneously holding open the very real possibility that it is some sort of qenuine quasi-physical vision which he leaves to Hamlet to determine.

It is tempting to think that the apparition witnessed by so many parties in the first scene of the play foretells of an alteration of the state in a similar way. Old Hamlet’s Ghost, similarly armed in full armor, might be the harbinger of a time of great political unrest and disquiet, and, might, even reveal the ultimate transfer of power to Fortinbras. This is neither to say that Shakespeare read Lavater, though it is likely Shakespeare knew of him, nor to suggest that Shakespeare would have necessarily held the same views even if he had read Lavater, but it is intriguing to consider that the play poses both issues in conjunction and contention within its opening salvo, issues that will never fully be resolved even by the play’s end. The ghost’s appearance leads to the “utter undoing” of Denmark’s ruling order, ultimately transferring power from traditional Danish royalty to Fortinbras, a foreign authority and power.

For someone of Lavater’s persuasion, a spirit in full armor represents an omen of an impending alteration of state. In Shakespeare’s play, the status of the ghost remains unclear, but its appearance both shows that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark and helps precipitate the alteration of state in the form of Fortinbras’ ultimate assumption of the throne. Noting the parallels between Lavater’s take and Shakespeare’s play does not necessarily resolve whether or not the spirit is either the actual spirit of Old Hamlet or if it is a demon assuming the guise of Old Hamlet, but it does allow us to feel the presence of the supernatural in the world of the play. As with Macbeth, the issue remains open as to whether the apparition, like the witches, help cause the events or if they merely foretell of their coming. While I am not trying to say that a stance like Lavater’s is the only conclusion or that Shakespeare directly draws from Lavater, I do think such a reading would have been available to some within Hamlet’s original audience.

Several readings, presumably, would have been available to a contemporary audience, existing simultaneously within the realm of interpretive possibility. The first, those that who accepted without question the existence of true ghosts and spirits like Kramer and Sprenger or James Stuart could see the Ghost as the true form of the dead ruler. The second, those that acknowledge the possibility of marvelous sights and visions, like Lavater, could see the political significance of the armed spirit’s appearance while denying the possibility that they are true spirits or souls of the dead. The third, those who attributed most aberrant perception to natural causes and to melancholy like Weyer or Scot, could see the apparition as the projection of disordered and melancholic bodies and minds. All of these types, including the last, however, typically acknowledge the possible real influence of benevolent or malicious spirits even as they disagreed about the extent to which those entities could shape sense and what those appearances meant, and, though I have separated them into distinct types here, they often blend and merge with one another.

As I said previously, the natural explanations of those like Weyer and Scot tend towards what I call a perimaterial order which closes some of the connections available between a perceiver and her world. Kramer, Sprenger, and James all leave open the full paramaterial possibility that the supernatural world can inform and influence either the world or perception. As I said before, however, even the most extremely natural in their explanations of aberrant perception, prior, at the very least, to the seventeenth century, still often saw the perceptual process, in ordinary perception, as remaining open and positioned somewhere between the material and immaterial; a place that I continue to call the paramaterial. If we look back at the description of the Devil’s powers in Weyer that I cited previously, his explanatory system is not all that different from those found in Kramer and Sprenger even as the scope of his natural explanations are much broader.

In spite of this, James Stuart still famously referred to both Weyer and Scot as proclaiming a Sadducceanism, denying the realm of the spiritual and the soul altogether. While those like James Stuart mischaracterized Weyer and Scot, very few even by the late sixteenth century openly held such an extreme position and accounted for all such phenomena through Galenic medicine. This is not to say such a position was entirely unavailable, but was much more uncommon than it would seem if one was only familiar with critics of natural approaches like King James. While not exhaustive, these three types of reader constitute what I find to be the most common early modern responses to witchcraft phenomena. I have yet to find someone who explicitly denies the influence of the supernatural altogether in the way that James suggests. Though Reginald Scot comes the closest, the response to his Discoverie shows how dangerous such outright denials would have been as well as to show the limits of skeptical questions regarding supernatural influences.

On the naïve level, those who accept the ghost as the true spirit of the dead king can see the play, as Hamlet does, as a simple tale of revenge prompted and sanctioned by Heaven and Hell. Such a view, while naively accepting the presence of the fictional ghost, allows for an extreme form of paramateriality in which natural and supernatural realms interact and merge within the perceived world. For those more skeptical of supernatural influence, they could see the appearance of a form like the dead king as a sign of Hamlet’s melancholically produced delusion; a projection of his sunburned brain upon the political and familial situation. In this, an astute reader must acknowledge that the form visible to others in I.i. has an existence independent of Hamlet’s mind, yet, they can still question the reality of the experience of the speaking spirit that confirms for Hamlet his “prophetic soul.” As such, however, the initial appearance to others might simply mean, as Lavater says of his armed spirit, that change is coming to the ruling order. In both types of reading, natural explanations might explain the spirit that speaks to Hamlet directly. In accordance with this natural account and more perimaterial reading of the ghost’s subsequent appearance and conference with the titular character, the ghost becomes a phantasmal projection of Hamlet’s interior phantasm. The “man” Hamlet reports seeing in his “mind’s eye” in I.ii. is made manifest on the stage. As such, Hamlet’s supposed internal vision becomes physical as the actor playing the Ghost offers its own “impressions” on the external and internal senses of the audience.

The speaking spirit Hamlet later encounters, for most purposes, should be bracketed off from the visible spirit of act I.i.. As is well known, while the visible apparition has multiple confirming witnesses, the spirit that speaks only does so to the character of Hamlet. Since Gertrude does not perceive the spirit during the closet scene, it calls into question whether the speaking spirit Hamlet encounters and converses with previously, and we can never be sure if it constitutes either an externally or internally constructed phantasm. For physicians like Johann Weyer, many witchcraft phenomena emerge from melancholic matter within the spirits of the brain, which cause the perceiver to experience that which is within as if it came from without. The self-identifying and self-reporting melancholic prince may experience such events without their actually being present.

III. “Who’s there?”: Performing Phantasms

Complicating matters even further, however, is that the audience does experience the ghost’s words both in the earlier scene and in the later closet scene. The situation in Hamlet differs dramatically from Macbeth’s encounter with the dagger which, depending upon the production, either chooses to display a visible dagger to its audience or to rely solely upon Macbeth’s self-report. With Macbeth, the dagger scene either confirms that a supernatural presence propels the eponymous character towards action or reveals Macbeth’s possibly delusional private phantasy. The audience’s understanding can be pushed in either direction depending upon whether or not the director chooses to display a visible dagger or not. In Hamlet, we encounter the ghost along with the other characters, even when someone like Gertrude within the world of the play cannot. For us, the physical presence of the actor upon the stage creates a disjunction in which the audience is either pulled into Hamlet’s private experience or which confirms the supernatural reality of the ghost’s real presence.

Again, this fact does not help us resolve the central problem of whether or not the apparition is either the spirit of the dead king, if it is a demon in disguise, or if the speaking spirit is supposed to be the psychomachic projection of Hamlet’s melancholic brain, but, had Shakespeare not included the Ghost’s dialogue, a director could more easily decide to either highlight Hamlet’s emergent madness by not staging the ghost’s physical presence or more strongly confirm our link to the central character by showing him to us. Instead, Shakespeare provides a phantasm that speaks which must—at least if they decide to preserve the lines—impress a physical presence upon the audience. Even if we speculate that Hamlet talks to the incorporeal air, we are provided some form of physical presence. We, in essence, share the same perceptual field with Hamlet, encountering both the visual and auditory impressions the actor playing the ghost provides us.

The melancholic Prince might not be above the level of hallucination since the black bile was the one most related to aberrant phenomenal experience and delusion. As Lavater says,

…it can not be denied, but that some men which either by dispositions of nature, or for that they have sustained great misery, are now become heavy and full of melancholy, imagine many times with themselves being alone, miraculous and strange things. Sometimes they affirm in great soothe, that they verily hear and see this or that thing, which notwithstanding neither they nor yet any other man did once see or hear. (Lavater 10).

Many late medieval and early modern physicians would agree. For example, Du Laurens speaks of melancholics similarly, claiming that melancholy generates false perception and sensory experience. He says,

The melancholike partie may see that which is within his owne braine, but under another forme, because that the spirits and blacke vapours continually passe by the sinewes, veines and arteries, from the braine unto the eye, which causeth it to see many shadowes and untrue apparitions in the aire, whereupon from the eye the formes thereof are conveyed unto the imagination, which being continualie served with the same dish, abideth continuallie in feare and terror. (Du Laurens 92).

From such a position, the material or natural account, or perimaterial reading, could argue that apart from the more broadly visible spirit of the early scenes, that he ghost is a product of Hamlet’s melancholy. The image of his father, in the spirits of his brain, become, for him as for the audience, a visible and auditory reality. Hamlet, who “dotes” upon the image of his dead father and whose “prophetic soul” already suspects his uncle for murder, may be feeding his own fear and terror with a projection from his phantasy. Such a position places the philosophical skeptic in a situation where all of sensible reality might seem little more than a phantasm or an imagination. If melancholy can produce delusions of reality from the depths of the brain, what is to secure the reality of any perception?

Humoral theories held sway well into and sometimes past the seventeenth century, but, in each, the presence of an abundance of melancholy in the spirits of the brain, and especially its presence in the phantasy could produce delusions and hallucinations. While we cannot say definitively whether Hamlet suffers from demonically inspired delusions or that he suffers from melancholic hallucinations, he does report that the image of his dead father is an object upon which he fixates or “dotes.” Humoralism was still current even by the time of Burton in the early seventeenth century in both natural and supernatural forms, the paramaterial and the tending-towards-the-perimaterial. While a majority of his Anatomy of Melancholy describes the material, natural, and non-natural causes and effects of melancholy on perception and upon thought, he also includes sections on supernatural causes of melancholy. Burton will not settle whether they have mostly material causes, but he does expose how melancholy and witchcraft merge in the popular imagination when he says,

Agrippa and Lavater are persuaded that this humour invites the devil to it, wheresoever it is in extremity, and, of all other, melancholy persons are most subject to diabolical temptations and illusions, and most apt to entertain them, and the devil best able to work upon them. But whether by obsession, or possession, or otherwise, I will not determine. (Burton Pt I. 200-201).

This blended explanation was the most common form not only in the seventeenth century but also in the sixteenth century. Neither fully subscribing to a fully material explanation, nor willing to allow for many supernatural causes, Burton and others often left the possibility open for each.

Similar issues emerge at the intersection of natural and supernatural causes of aberrant perception. The two attempt to explain phenomena attributed to devils and witches, but both explain an aspect of perception that calls into question the reliability of ordinary perception and experience. The two compete for dominance, but, it should be remembered that even the material accounts sound “modern,” they are decidedly not so. The natural or material readings are not perimaterial to the extent of modern understandings of perception and of the sensorium. Instead, they emerge out of Galenic medicine and a paramaterial model of the mind which continues to stress the relationship between external objects and a perceiver, despite the crises of sense available from within these earlier models. It was not, I contend, until the full collapse of the Galenic and Aristotelian conceptual orders, along with the discovery of the retinal image that ushered in a modern understanding of the subject and more modern perimaterial forms of perception and thought. It was an overall shift away from a shaping of sense and more towards a modern making of sense.

Though we can never provide a single answer to the questions around the margins of what the issue of the real presence of Old Hamlet means, we can explore how the different available possibilities might have appeared to different types of early modern audience members. In this, I somewhat follow the interpretive framework sketched by Gareth Roberts in an article on Doctor Faustus, “Marlowe and the metaphysics of magicians.” There, Roberts argues that three forms of discourse on witchcraft can be found in Marlowe’s play and within early modern culture at large. Roberts offers orthodox magic, high magic, and popular belief as interpretive frameworks, but I would like to frame my discussion through a triangulation of authors on ghosts and aberrant perception rather than through three different distinct types.14 To me, framing the issue through Kramer and Sprenger, Lavater, and Reginald Scot provides a useful triangulation through which to view range of responses to how theories of perception intersect with the notions of spirits and ghosts. Rather than just embodying three distinct types of theory of magic, these three groups of authors, to me, embody a spectrum of paramaterial theories of perception that are variously more open to external influence to the more closed and insular, and those that are open to supernatural causes and those that are more limited to natural accounts.

If we do not take the ghost as true, we are potentially engaged, therefore, in either a melancholic or a demonic vision along with Hamlet. The stage and the actors which occupy it provide us with a certain sensory experience, but, as with the ghost, our collective experience does not settle what such a phenomenon might mean. The actors themselves, like the potentially demonic spirit, assume and present forms that are not their own. Like the spirit of I.i., the actors offer a phenomenal reality complete with externally assured confirmation, but, as with the spirit, we neither know what those phantasms mean nor whether we should trust the appearances they present. In fact, at an important level, we know that the stage offers only an appearance or deception, but it one that is crafted to deceive. Such a fact does not necessarily equate the stage and its actors to deceiving devils, but it does open up the possibility.15

Since the devil, according to people like Lavater, assume forms that are not their own in order to deceive and trick their perceivers into either thinking or acting differently, the stage has the potential to do likewise. The physical presence of the actors offer sensible species of reality, but the illusion offered in the context of the theater shapes that into the phantasm of a character. The actors both are and are not themselves and are and are not their characters. The physical presence of the stage ensures that the phantasms have more of a unified aspect in the phantasies of their observers and auditors than with the phantasms constructed in the minds of those reading a book.16 For those reading about rather than experiencing the physical presence of another pulls fragments of others and things from the memory, reassembling and recombining them into the figure of a specific character, but an actor gives off sensible species that “impress” themselves on spectators. The character becomes linked in this way to a bodily presence, providing the phantasy with a phantasm that is both a true and a false phantasm. The ambiguous phantasm offered in the theater finds parity in the initial appearance of the spirit in Hamlet. The potentially deceptive nature of the ghost exposes the potential for the demonic nature of the theater.17

Even more strange, however, is that we more readily accept the presence and existence of the phantasm of Old Hamlet when we hear Hamlet’s report in I.ii. than we do of his deceased father elsewhere in the play. Hamlet’s self-report of the phantasm in I.ii. is entirely fictional and illusory; one that has no existence whatsoever. The actor playing Hamlet does not, unless he is legitimately mad or a very great method actor, have a phantasm of Old Hamlet present in his phantasy while he reports its presence. Unlike the “Ghost” we see and experience, we, as audience members, never receive a species or phantasm confirming its presence in the spirits of Hamlet’s mind. We take it at face value and as a genuine and true presence despite its noted absence. The mind behind the actor that we experience is entirely illusory in the way we experience it. Hamlet’s mind is the projection of depth from an illusory surface. In this way, the play gives us more cause to accept the reality of the supernatural than it does in the acceptance of other minds.

The actor may, like the audience by this point, imagine the phantasm of the actor who plays the Ghost within his mind. In doing so, we create a phantasm of a character who is never fully present—much like the phantasm that appears to the soldier in the first scene of Hamlet. The character is only a phantasmal projection which has no existence apart from the “spiritual” form we encounter along with other characters in I.i. The actor has a substantial reality, of course, but the character he plays is a pure phantasm. As with all imaginings of a fictional work, the phantasms are shaped through their context and depend upon and build from physical experiences whether present or those retained from the past. Watching an actor upon the stage, we have the sensible species of the actor, but, when reading, we construct that phantasm from parts already stored within the memory.

What separates our contemporary understanding from the sixteenth century’s understanding of spectatorship, however, is that sensory and perceptual phenomena—the sensible species and their mental equivalents sometimes referred to as phantasms—are, to some extent, theoretically preserved in the matter of the brain, and served as the basis from which thought and subsequent imaginings emerge. The mimetic qualities of the phantasy ensure, where cataleptic impressions are concerned, the relationship of external and internal objects. While “colored,” distorted, complicated, or complimented by the subject experiencing them, the mimetic nature of the sensitive soul preserves some kind of relationship between extra- and intra-mental objects through their persistence in the very matter of the brain. While supplemented with subjective evaluations, the system explains the relationship of external and mental objects through their retention and preservation in the mind. One would imagine that such a system would preclude the extreme skepticism found later in thinkers like Descartes, but the system had complicating factors which raised similar issues and generated epistemological problems.18

We often approach the early modern from the position of the modern, and often do so from a perimaterial perspective which developed, I argue, in the early seventeenth century. While I do not find Descartes solely responsible for this turn, he is positioned at a key moment where skepticism and newer optical theories converge. While Descartes countered skepticism he offered skepticism in an extreme form before doing so. Part of what allowed for the radical skepticism that Descartes goes on to try to defeat, I argue, is the discovery of the retinal image and its inversion, but he did articulate a form of philosophical skepticism that radically expands its epistemological horizons even if he develops tropes from earlier expressions of skepticism. Even later, another philosopher interested in optics and in defeating philosophical skepticism, Bishop George Berkeley, would counter this new all-encompassing type of philosophical skepticism by developing his Idealism. In the eighteenth century, Berkeley would offer, in his Idealism, an interesting parallel to Descartes’ evil demon. Instead of offering a thought experiment about universal deception at the hands of an evil demon, Berkeley offered what could be thought of as a universal illusion at the hands of God. In this sense, Berkeley offers phenomenal reality as a type of divine illusion in contrast to Descartes’ malicious devil which creates universal delusion.19 Whereas Descartes offers the possibility that a devil might delude us into taking a false phenomenal reality as a true one, Berkeley suggests that phenomenal reality might be a type of illusion structured and sustained by the godhead. Whereas Descartes develops and expands skeptical tropes available in the world of the pre-retinal image, Berkeley’s response, I believe, depends upon this new construction of the senses.20 While the Berkelean Idealism found later might be unavailable in this previous model, these previous models did often expose the faultiness of the phantasy and its objects. In these earlier models of the sensorium and the sensitive soul—at least in many vulgar formulations—the fact that the body could produce acataleptic impressions that emerged from humoral imbalances and the possibility that angels or demons could alter the perception of perceivers posed serious epistemological challenges and problems. The extremist form of those concerns emerge in the work of Descartes, but the problems of epistemology Descartes formulates in the Meditations are imperfectly mirrored in these earlier constructions.

When Descartes questions the sensible reality of his own body including the existence of his hands, he tellingly says,

Again, how could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass.” (Descartes 77).

Here, Descartes compares his skeptical assault on epistemology and ontology to the common motifs of the melancholic and delusional. He goes on to offer an extreme form of skepticism, including the Cartesian demon, that does doubt the existence of reality, effectively challenging any distinction that could be made between the sane and the mad, but this passage also reveals just how much skepticism, even after the discovery of the retinal image, depended upon the motifs and terms of Galenic medicine.

On the one hand, the delusions of “madmen” challenge the certainty of perception, and, on the other, an evil demon could be producing false phenomena that people experience as true reality. All of experience might, from Descartes’ exaggerated thought experiment, proceed from a devil which creates the illusion of sensible reality. Descartes’ evil demon, however, only constitutes an extreme form of the epistemological concerns already present in sixteenth century culture. The problems posed by a system that needed to acknowledge the influence of angels and demons upon sensation and upon material reality always-already contained the threat to the certainty available through perception.

Descartes’ evil demon, though he is more radically expansive in his thought experiment, exaggerates the fears and anxieties already contained within debates concerning the devil’s ability to manipulate perception and experience. This exaggerated form, however, explicitly exposes the skeptical questioning of the reliability of all human perception. Preceding Descartes, the fact that the devil could create false phantasms and phenomena expose the unreliability of perception, even if those questions were not framed as the devil’s ability to completely fabricate the whole of perceptual reality. As with Old Hamlet’s ghost, Macbeth’s dagger, and Faustus’ displays of skill, the fact that the devil could produce or shape appearance, species, and phantasms, opened the possibility that anything experienced could, in fact, not conform to reality or may be a demonically inspired delusion.

Those approaching delusion from the medical tradition, however, also undermined the reliability of perception, since the humoral condition and disposition of a perceiver might distort, or might even fabricate reality from yet another direction. Such accounts not only challenged theological discussions of spiritual influences, but also highlight the problems inherent in a system that saw more continuity between mind and body. The medical tradition provided a mechanistic hypothesis for aberrant perception and for cases of demonic manipulation. In this, there was the potential to clash with theological explanations, but this mechanistic model similarly undermined the certainty of perception. Again, this side of skepticism resurfaces in Descartes as he points to the delusions of madmen and melancholics to shake our faith in the reliability of ordinary perception. This strain, too, preceded Descartes, and had its foundations in classical skepticism as early as Sextus Empiricus, who argued that judgment could not be reached on the certainty of perception when a perceiver’s humoral disposition could color or manipulate it.

These natural and material accounts seem modern except that they build upon bases decidedly unmodern. ­The sensory system they build from remains firmly paramaterial at its core, but they also grow from and depend upon Galenic humoralism and quasi-Aristotelianism. Early modern skeptics, too, which resemble modern perspectives, often emerges through the discourses of Galenic medicine to trouble the reliability of perception and to argue that all perception is always-already colored by the individual perceiver. Despite these seeming similarities with a modern point of view, the theories of the sensorium emerging from those very same traditions offer the sensitive soul as positioned between the external and the internal, between the material and the immaterial, and between the external object and the mental object. While they acknowledge the shaping of species or phantasms by an individual perceiver, there is a relationship to the world established through them; a kernel of the real accessible to a perceiver. As Horatio claims of the ghost preserved in his memory after his encounter in I.i., it becomes a type of “mote” in the mind.

For the sixteenth-century translator of Sextus many assume to be Sir Walter Raleigh, the faculty responsible for such vulnerabilities is the phantasy or the imagination. Reason, the “Captain,” depended upon the objects and the evaluations offered by the phantasy, and, as du Laurens said, the phantasy could “misse-inform” Reason. The disordered phantasy affected judgment as well as perception, rendering, from a philosophically skeptical position, all perception and knowledge suspect. The phantasy, tasked with transforming sensory data into a form understandable to reason and the soul, remained linked to the body both in its situation within the brain, but also through the sensible spirits that filled it. The quality and condition of those spirits depended upon the humoral disposition of the humoral body as a whole, and a disordered mind could be the result of a disordered body which generated disordered or corrupt spirits. Such theories bring classical up to early modern theories in line with some contemporary movements in neurobiology. Such theories could classify mental as bodily problems and vice versa as coextensive and coexpressive, but, in the early modern period and previously, that point of connection and relation was often situated in the sensitive soul and especially its phantasy. For early modern skeptics rediscovering the classical skepticism of Sextus Empiricus, the phantasy or imagination was the sensitive soul’s point of vulnerability.

Responsible for the initial processing of sensible into mental species, problems within the faculty or within its spirits challenged the reliability of perception and the knowledge available through it. At the same time when mental objects theoretically retained a relationship to external objects, the fact that the recombinative phantasy produced new objects or altered existing ones challenged any unimpeachably secure mimetic bond. The system which theorized mimetic objects derived from the external senses as well as the produced objects in the phantasy grants the spectral objects of the mind a special ontological status. In effect, they become both present-absences and absent-presences. Such is the case with the phantasm of Old Hamlet within Hamlet’s “mind’s eye” which at once remains more linked to the one-time presence of the real dead royal father. The image in the faculty itself has an in-between status precisely by virtue of the process of mimetic-yet-quasi-material process which forged it within young Hamlet’s brain. At the same time, however, its appearance and substance in Hamlet’s mind bears with it a subjective sculpting, shaping, and framing. The model of the sensitive soul, however, granted those objects a paramaterial reality within the very substance of the mind.

Such a system could work in the opposite direction, granting the mental images that were the products of reading and other constructed phantasms a level of material reality. If I am correct to argue that vulgar understandings of the sensitive soul and it’s objects were granted a type of quasi-materiality, or, as I call it, paramateriality, then the new images formed in the phantasy either by reading or by dividing and recombining the parts of objects stored in the memory, they too would be granted a quasi-material or paramaterial status. Those paramaterial entities acquired through perception had their own affective power through the psychophysiological construction of the perceiver’s mind and body, and, so too, did the images constructed in the phantasy of the reader or audience member.

If I am correct that the images in the phantasy have a quasi-material or paramaterial presence in the early modern paramaterial mind, then the images constructed by the recombinative phantasy also, theoretically, has a quasi-material presence even in the absence of a truly external cause. In the context of the theater, the actors leave their presence, though a shaped one, within the minds of their audience. Becaue we are not yet to a cultural and historical situation where the objects of the eye have no relation to the objects in the mind, the audience is somewhat materially altered by their experience of the play, but wht remains “impressed” in their minds, the “mote to trouble the mind’s eye,” is somewhat an illusion, but has a quasi-material presence. The audience is left with illusory phantasms not all that dissimilar from those left by the Ghost within the world of the play.

As such and despite its relationship to the real body of the dead king, the spectral presence encountered in I.i. resembles the spectral presence within Hamlet’s “mind’s eye.” While the apparition in I.i. might not be the form of the actual dead king, the phantasm in Hamlet’s mind’s eye might not actually resemble the dead king. Like it, the mental species or phantasm and ifs meaning for Hamlet might be nothing more than an external form whose significance and reality cannot be confirmed. Hamlet’s impression of his father as a “man” whose like he will never see again transforms this phantasm from one as a man towards one like a god. This complicates matters for us as modern readers, audience members, and critics, since we cannot encounter the real presence of the dead Hamlet, but can only encounter his recreated and reconstructed ghost. That ghost may or may not conform to the real person of the dead king, but it might, in fact, remain a manipulation—either produced by the devil himself or through the colored lens of Hamlet’s phantasy.

The problem remains that for all of Hamlet’s testing, despite the revealed truth of the Ghost’s pronouncement that Claudius killed him, the ontological status of the ghost remains unclear, and would be so even if we did not encounter the ghost on the stage. The theater itself creates a space in which the sensible species or forms presented by its actors simultaneously create both presence and absence. We neither perceive just the actors nor do we perceive just the characters as we watch. Instead, as with the ghost who gives the impression of being Hamlet’s deceased father, those appearances are shaped in a way to deceive.

Theatricality within the play both grieves and encourages Hamlet. While he worries that Gertrude’s tears might be one of the many maligned “shows” of grief that lack substance, he is also motivated by the Player’s ability to alter his appearance in such a realistic way as to make his body show true emotion and feeling. The one makes him skeptical of outward shows while the other exposes his faith in the affective power and potential of fictions and realistic acting. In both cases, however, the shows reveal the possibility of a lack of substance, the shows may cloak the absent reality they perform.

While the theory of the sensitive soul and its paramaterial objects might offer a way out of the appearance/ reality dichotomy to some extent, skeptical problems and questions still emerge from its very construction. The fact remains that, typically, we question less the reliability of the phantasy Hamlet sees in his mind’s eye, even as this phantasm is simply reported upon rather than physically observed. Plenty question the reliability of the other spectral and phantasmic presence of Old Hamlet, despite its physical appearance upon the stage. The two types of phantasms, however, reflect and resemble one another in the indeterminacy they can generate. On the other hand, we cannot see Hamlet’s phantasm of his father though we can see his supposed Ghost, but an image in the melancholic phantasy, it was theorized, could, under the right circumstances, be mistaken for reality and as an externally present form. While the second never explicitly happens within Shakespeare’s play, the possibility of such an occurrence, from within the discussions of the early modern sensorium, helps support the notion that the Ghost Hamlet later encounters only exists in Hamlet’s mind, the “coinage of his brain.” On the other hand, Old Hamlet’s appearance on stage confirms a physical presence to the members of the audience through sensible reality. At the same time, the closet scene reveals that not everyone can or should experience the presence of the Ghost from within the world of the play, but, yet, the udience receives his impression along with Hamlet. Though we are more prone to accept the “reality” of Hamlet’s reported phantasm early in the play, it is, paradoxically, that phantasm that does not and never existed. The actor we see upon the stage has no better or more real phantasm of Old Hamlet in his brain that we do as an audience member, but yet we question the Ghost’s reality though we directly experience him with our own senses, retaining a lingering impression of him well past the close of the play.

The nature of the stage’s effects upon spectators, especially if I am correct to argue that popular understandings of the species, phantasms, or forms are theoretically granted a type of paramaterial reality somewhere between material and immaterial, between world and soul, and between bodily and spiritual, one can being to understand why early moderns who opposed the stage found it such a demonic and subversive force.21 If we read the play as a way to seduce Hamlet towards a course of revenge that endangers Hamlet’s soul, we may equally see a narrative in which the power of the stage compels us to follow a like course. We experience a melancholic vision along with the Prince that may have a demonic origin as we find our catharsis through the sense shaping the play produces. We, like Hamlet, are potentially fallen, and the uncertainty which that fallenness generates, for the Christian tradition, denies the possibility for certainty, even if the objects of the senses remain more linked to their extra-mental originals.22

More to my purpose here, however, is the fact that, according to contemporary discussions of the senses and the sensorium, not much separates the supposedly external phantasms of ghosts from the internal phantasms of the mind and especially the phantasy. Both have the potential to generate philosophical skepticism, even from within a conceptual order designed to maximize the potential for certainty by underscoring a chain of mimesis that converts, by degrees the material into the immaterial, the bodily into something that can interface with the soul, and the world of objects and others into the world of the mind. The externalized phantasm of the Ghost cannot be proven with certainty despite the fact that the audience sensorially experiences him, while we never question the far more invisible and illusory phantasm of Old Hamlet supposedly available to Hamlet’s mind’s eye, though both are constructed from the same stuff, and that stuff is “such stuff as dreams are made on.”23


Bundy, Murray Wright. The Theory of Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought. Champaign, Illinois: The University of Illinois, 1928.

Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory. A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Clark, Stuart. Vanities of the Eye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Collette, Carolyn P. Species, Phantasms, and Images. vision and Medieval Psychology in The Canterbury Tales. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Du Laurens, Andreas Richard Surphlet translation. A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheums, and of Old age. London: Felix Kingston for Ralph Jacson, 1599.

Empiricus, Sextus. Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press Ltd, 2000.

Kramer, Heinrich, and Jakob Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Courier Dover Publications, 1928. Print.

Lavater, Ludwig. Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Night. London: Henry Benneyman for Richard Watkyns, 1572.

Maus, Katharine. “Sorcery and Subjectivity in Early Modern Discourses of Witchcraft.” Trevor, Carla Mazzio and Douglas. Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture. New York and London: Routedge, 2000. 325-348.

Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with. London: Th[omas] Cotes and R[obert] Young, 1634.

Park, David. The Fire Within the Eye. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1997.

Raleigh, Sir Walter. The Sceptick. London: Bentley, 1651.

Rene Descartes Translated by Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch. Selected Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. New York: Dover, 1972.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Norton, 1997.

Spruit, Leen. Species Intelligibilis: From Perception to Knowledge. Volume Two: Renaissance Controversies, Later Scholasticism, and the Elimination of the Intelligible Species in Modern Philosophy. New York: Brill, 1995.

Stuart, James. Daemonologie. New Bern, North Carolina: Godolphin House, 1996.

Tachau, Katherine H. Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundation of Semantics. Amsterdam: Brill, 1988.

Weyer, Johann. Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance. Binghampton, New York: 1991, 1991.

  1. Critics of the medieval period are typically much better in this regard. Mary Carruthers has two wonderful books on medieval thought. More recently, Carolyn P. Collette devotes an entire book, Species, Phantasms, and Images: Vision and Medieval Psychology in The Canterbury Tales, to the species and phantasms in medieval literature. To my knowledge, however, few critics have offered a sustained analysis of early modern faculty psychology and the objects of those faculties, especially as it relates to the literature of the early modern period. The rare exception is Stuart Clark’s brilliantly wonderful books, Thinking with Demons and Vanities of the Eye. The most comprehensive book on the historical constructions of the phantasy or the imagination from classical antiquity to the early Renaissance is still Murray Wright Bundy’s The Theory of Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought, originally published in 1928.  (back)
  2. See my previous digital essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream here.  (back)
  3. I do think the epistemological horizons of such questions greatly expanded, however, with the developments towards mind-body dualism on the one hand and towards a radical materialism on the other.  (back)
  4. I hope to add another post regarding the “substantial” nature of the phantasms and their meaning for mourning and melancholia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a followup to this post soon.  (back)
  5. For the material nature of the phantasms and their role in explanations of generation, see my previous post on Ambroise Paré. I hope to develop this further by expanding and extending the points I make there about the French physician to discuss English sources and discourses soon.  (back)
  6. See my forthcoming post on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, tentatively titled, “’True Substantial Bodies’: Phantas[e]ies of Devilish Sense Making,” especially the second section, “Of Good and Evil in the Paramaterial Sense.”  (back)
  7. As I said previously, I will try to develop these ideas further in a later post, but wanted to provide a brief sketch of an interpretive possibility here.  (back)
  8. See my essay on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and “true substantial bodies” to be posted in the not too distant future.  (back)
  9. See Lawrence Babb’s The Enlgish Malady, especially pages 106-110.  (back)
  10. See Murray Wright Bundy’s The Theory of the Imagination in Classical and Mediaeval Thought. On cataleptic and non-cataleptic impressions, discusses the impression in Stoic thought as follows:

    This mental impression which they regarded as basic for conceptual thought they called the ‘cataleptic phantasy’, the mental impression which compels assent or acceptance as true, a criterion of facts produced by a real object, and conformable with that object. The non-cataleptic phantasy, then, would be defined as the mental impression which has no relation to reality, or, if it has, then such that there is no correspondence between the appearance and reality, but only a vague and indistinct representation. (Bundy 88-89).

    He goes on to argue that the skeptics like Sextus challenged this distinction and declared all impressions essentially non-cataleptic.  (back)

  11. In truth, they commonly meet in the sensus communis, but, by the sixteenth century, popular discussions of the mental faculties often saw the “common sense” as a part of the imagination or phantasy.  (back)
  12. I will expand upon this triangulation in future post, but I do see the figures I offer here as providing a fairly comprehensive range of responses to the issue of demonic influence upon the world.I would love more feedback on this issue, so if you have any thoughts feel free to comment or email me directly at  (back)
  13. It is my contention that the discovery of the retinal image reinforced and helped the development towards systems that were more “natural” and perimaterial, further closing off the permeable boundaries of the earlier theories of perception and models of a perceiver.  (back)
  14. See especially pages 62-64.  (back)
  15. I do, however, think Marlowe more explicitly toys with this idea in his Doctor Faustus, where the demonic is explicitly linked to the problem of performance. In that play, so concerned as it is with the appearances, phantasms, and species conjured by the magician through the power and agency of his association with the demonic, Marlowe toys with the idea that the stage itself is a malevolent force of deception. Of course, Marlowe may be playing with such ideas to satirize or criticize them.  (back)
  16. I will discuss the role of the phantasy, the species and the phantasms in the process of reading in another post. I also hope to develop this aspect of live performance as it relates to early modern theories of perception further, and this should be taken as an exploratory essay to determine if the theory of the phantasms can help inform our understanding of medieval and early modern drama. I realize, at this point, I’m not saying anything particularly new about performance, but I do think our understanding of early drama and reading practices can be deepened by attending to the ways in which the sensitive soul played an important role in the experience of both types of fictions.  (back)
  17. While I will not go into the parallels in depth here, the demonic nature of the theater and of the manipulation of phantasms becomes even more clear in a play like Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. There, theater is used for malicious ends as Lucifer uses performance to turn Faustus away from thoughts about repentance and back towards the devil by presenting the true forms of the seven deadly sins. Additionally, Faustus’ “power” consists in manipulating appearance and reality through tricks and feats typically explained in witchcraft discourses through the devil’s ability to manipulate the phantasms and species.  (back)
  18. See, for example, my discussion of Joseph Mede who suffered a type of skeptical crisis of sense.  (back)
  19. I want to also suggest that this has something to do with Berkeley’s Catholicism. The species have historically played a major role in debates about and explanations of transubstantiation. I hope to soon develop my suggestive hunch here into something much more substantial.  (back)
  20. I will discuss Berkeley and his relationship to the new ocular anatomy in a later post.  (back)
  21. I will discuss this further when I post my pieces on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, skepticism, and faculty psychology at a later time. In brief, I argue there that Faustus plays with the notion of the theater as a space for demonic manipulation and delusion producing. While such critical territory has been well covered by others, I hope that by focusing on the phantasy and its objects, I provide a better framework for viewing the attacks on the stage as producing idols of the mind. I offer that those idols of the mind were much more concrete in their effects upon a spectator precisely because of the ways in which theologians, demonologists, and doctors represented the effects of sensed phenomena upon the individual.  (back)
  22. I would also like to mention another topic that interests me regarding the issues and concerns I raise here. Because the species or phantasms, from my point of view, remain somewhat attached to their originals, even when shaped by an individual perceiver, the melancholic or the one in mourning, like Hamlet, might potentially literally remain fixated on the object of their lost desire. I won’t develop this fully in this note, but I will add another post later that historicizes Freud’s notion of mourning and melancholia along these lines.  (back)
  23. I hope to find the time to offer my thoughts on The Tempest at some point, but I am convinced that the play is equally ripe for a paramaterial reading.  (back)
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The post “In my mind’s eye”: Species, Phantasms, Skepticism, and the Phantasy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in Early Modern Theater appeared first on Shaping Sense.

Making Woodcuts: Week One of a New Hobby Sat, 16 Nov 2013 10:35:20 +0000 As those of you who follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook already know, a little over two weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at the art of woodcutting. While my own scholarly interests tend more towards literature, early modern science, and philosophy, I have been spending nearly the […]

The post Making Woodcuts: Week One of a New Hobby appeared first on Shaping Sense.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook already know, a little over two weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at the art of woodcutting. While my own scholarly interests tend more towards literature, early modern science, and philosophy, I have been spending nearly the Wednesdays of the last six months or so Tweeting strange and unusual early modern woodcuts and engravings. At the beginning, I only Tweeted woodcuts, naming my enterprise #WoodcutWednesday and hoping that the hashtag would catch on with like minded Twitter early modernists. Since then, I expanded the hashtag to include engravings, effectively rendering it a misnomer.

If I can take the number of people responding to and re-Tweeting as any indication, #WoodcutWednesday has been fairly successful–although I still hope that one day lots of others will join in by contributing their own images and captions–despite my lack of training in art history. While I am still a novice in the realm of art history, last week I took steps to better understand the process of woodcutting by trying my hand at cutting my own. Whereas I Tweet early modern woodcuts without any art history training, now I’m starting to make my own woodcuts without any artistic talent. Welcome to the amateur show.

The results have been surprising to me. While far from “good,” the woodcuts I made over the course of my first week continued to improve, leading some of my friends on Facebook and Twitter to suggest that I should start an Etsy store to sell the prints I’ve made. I’m not sure what the market is for what I’m calling #ShittyWoodcuts or if I’m going to try to sell them, but I have happened on a new hobby that I think will remain lasting.

This post will chart my progress over the last week and provide a showcase for the products of my new hobby, but I hope to post a follow-up soon to describe and explain the process I have learned over the last few weeks to encourage and inform any other interested parties how they too can make some silly and shitty woodcuts. So far I’ve found it an enjoyable and rewarding hobby, and one I hope to continue for a long time to come.1

Three Sundays ago, my wife and I went to the nearest craft store, Michaels, to pick up some carving tools. Since I didn’t think I’d ever carve something that I would even consider printing, I did not pick up any of the items to make a print itself, but I just wanted to give the cutting itself a try to see what I could do. Not yet taking this seriously, I picked up this set of carving tools for under $10.2

Senseshaper-Carving Tools

That night, I unsuccessfully experimented with my new tools. To be honest, I did not even know yet what functions the different blades were intended to serve. Since I thought for sure this was going to be a failed experiment, I did not even buy any wood, instead using some old scrap pine that has been in the garage for months.

Here are a few pictures of my failed carvings of the first night.

Senseshaper-Woodcut-First Attempts

Senseshaper-Woodcut-Renaissance Fonts-First Cuts

As you can see, I thought small was the way to go, but, as I soon learned, one starting to carve fares better not on something small, but on something much larger that gives you plenty of room to maneuver, and, because of this is much more forgiving that the small blocks that I began with. As I learned over the course of the week, this is not true in the least. The larger the area, the greater margin of error.

Day 2: Some progress

As I grew more comfortable with the tools at my disposal, my carvings got better, even as I had learned to use some of them incorrectly by not using the right tool for the specific carving task at hand.

Senseshaper-Woodcuts-First cuts

My first designs mostly consisted of either letters modeled after the Gutenberg font or simple reproductions of early modern symbols. In hopes to eventually create a woodcut header for this blog, I chose a Gothic S, and attempted the word “Shaper.” I also attempted an early modern Scorpio symbol3, and one of John Dee’s symbols of the Monad Man. The Dee symbol, being the most simple, probably came out the best of these early experiments.

The oddball of this set is an original. When I had posted on Twitter that I was going to start trying to make my own woodcuts, one of my #WoodcutWednesday faithful, Diane Shaw (@Museocat), jokingly asked if I was going to attempt a “NotALion.” #NotALion has become a #WoodcutWednesday staple sub-hashtag where I poke fun at early modern attempts to illustrate what lions look like. Pretty much invariably they fail in this attempt. I’m still on a quest to find the first Western early modern realistic looking lion.4 Since the early moderns failed so miserably at it even with exceptional woodcutting skills, and since I liked the commentary such an image might make on Magritte’s La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images, popularly a.k.a. “This is not a Pipe”), I decided to produce a #NotALion of my own.

Senseshaper-Woodcut-NotALion-Drawing and MockUp


Notice the rough patters on the wood. As I would discover, I was using the wrong tool to create most of my cuts. The flat curved blade I used for almost everything was really designed to pry up larger chunks of wood from the surface. While functional, it created situations where the wood would tear into my designs. The other problem with this method was that the surface that was left was incredible rough. While it didn’t really affect the small designs I worked on on day two, on day three, when I worked on something larger, it would create a much bigger problem for the print.

Day 3: My first large original woodcut, and starting to get the carving bug

I started the day by deciding to finally find a brayer and ink. While my woodcuts were still ridiculously simple and crude, I wanted to print them to see what my carvings looked like once applied to paper. I returned to Michaels to find a Linocut kit that included a four inch brayer, black ink, a lino cutting tool, and a linoleum block. If I were to want to make linocuts, it would have had everything I needed to make my first. Here is the kit I purchased:

Speedball block printing kit

I considered switching to linocutting, but have, as of yet, resisted the urge. Carving into linoleum or linoleum blocks is purportedly easier and results in a cleaner design (you do not have to worry about a grain and because it is a softer material). So far, cheap wood is my medium of choice.

I also added a minor detail to the “Not a Lion” woodcut that I had planned on doing, but had resisted for fear of destroying it. It was this detail that launched me into the desire to make better designs and to challenge myself and my lack of talent.

SenseShaper-Woodcuts-First Cuts-First Prints

Senseshaper-Woodcut-NotALion-First Print

What I did not know at the time was that, with a lack of a press, one needed not only to apply pressure to the print and block, but that one also needed to rub the surface with a spoon to heat up the ink to help it transfer. Consequently, they came out incredibly light and almost illegible despite the fair amount of ink I applied to the blocks.

Eventually, I discovered this, and the process resulted in prints like the following:


The detail that stood out to me was how well the little scratches worked to create the impression of a lions paw on the capital L. While it isn’t anything spectacular, it was fuel for a growing fire. I decided to get a little more adventurous and began work photoshopping a design that would take me most of the next day to carve.

The rough look that my lack of talent and inexperience produced, along with the form of the more modern woodcut reminded me of propaganda posters that either supported or challenged the dominant ideology, so I decided to run with this idea and make some fake propaganda of my own.

Day 4: Propaganda and the Dark Lord

The crude nature of my early prints reminded me of popular types of propaganda, and I decided to create a little satire of Uncle Sam for my next attempt. I started with this photoshopped mock-up.

Senseshaper-Darth Vader-I Want You-Carving

After I transferred the image to the woodblock, I set to work styling it into a way to make it work in woodcut form. The most difficult challenge for someone without much artistic ability was to render the pointing finger in a believable way in black and white. While I don’t think it turned out especially well, what I did was enough to make this gem of a faux propaganda poster:

For the details of Vader’s face and body armor, I tried something new. Rather than hacking them out with my cheap carving tools, I experimented with an Xacto knife. This experiment taught me that very fine lines could make for visible details in the print. Certainly, the woodcut as a whole was still very crude, but the detail began to click for me, and the feedback I received was enough to convince me that I needed better tools.

This fact was further confirmed when I turned to attempting to copy several of my favorite early modern woodcuts. The first

Day 5: Getting the Shakes

The following day I discovered that a shop specializing in woodworking was only a ten minute drive away from me. This was a surprise to me as it seems like everything in Houston was a forty-five minute drive from my house. The place, Woodcraft, is the type of store developed from a Ron Swanson/ Nick Offerman wet dream.

Woodcraft had a variety of small chisels and tools available ranging from the relatively inexpensive to the incredibly pricey. As I was on a budget and as this is still a new hobby, I went with the following moderately priced set.


Similar sets can be purchased through Amazon: Ramelson kit, but I’d still recommend going to a place like Woodcraft so you can examine the points in person. And, anyway, we all know Ron Swanson wouldn’t give his information to an online marketplace like Amazon.

After returning home with my new set of tools, I set to work on my first semi-complicated early modern subject, William Shakespeare. My first mock-up drawing turned out incredibly poorly as I transformed Billy Shakes into something of a cross between Paul Giamatti and Christopher Marlowe.


Not to be deterred, I started again, this time arriving at a base drawing that I was happy with and which was closer to the famous engraving of Shakespeare from the First Folio.


With a drawing that finally looked reasonable, I began using my new tools to carve the Bard’s face in relief. The design I chose here comes from the early modern Zazzle shirts I designed for myself several months ago.5

My new tools helped immensely as I carved away the soft cheap wood into the following relief:


Which resulted in my first printing:


While I still have ample room for improvement, I was fairly impressed with my first few woodcuts. It truly made a difference once I had the proper tools, and learned how to use them. While I still need to learn and practice the art of hatching and shading, my improvements throughout the week were as encouraging as they were shocking in my quick progress.

I knew that if I wanted to, I could retouch both the Vader and Shakespeare blocks to clean them of some of the stray marks left on these first trial prints, but I enjoy the rough look those unplanned marks produced. Part of the reason for some of the stray marks has less to do with the cut itself as it does with my inexperience at printing from blocks, my lack of a proper way to press them, and the fact that I am using a very small brayer and, presumably, poor quality ink. The brayer included in my purchased kit only has a four inch brayer which means that I must pass over the surface of the block multiple times in order to ink it completely. Every pass with the brayer increases the likelihood that it will ink aberrant slightly raised marks in the wood. These problems are compounded by the fact that in order to get the ink to a very dark black color, I needed to pass over every raised surface several times. For now at least, I’ll let those stray marks stand.6

It was at this point that hubris got the better of me. Having moderately successfully created a woodcut of Shakespeare, I decided to try my hand at a self-portrait. I took my Twitter avatar and attempted to woodcut-ify myself. The results were worse than I’d hoped, but at least I came away with something that resembled me even if it was a failure.


I forgot to add my jaw! Silly me. At this point, I decided that converting photos to woodcuts was beyond my nascent wood carving skills, so I turned instead to creating a symbol. I don’t want to compare myself to Prince, but I figured since I had already forged the new name of senseshaper for my online identity from the fires of the Internet, I could follow that up with converting that new name into a symbol.

While I was apprehensive about developing a symbol from two Gothic Ss, I ultimately decided to go for it. I mean, I won’t be stuck with it–even Prince abandoned his symbol eventually. I was able to get over my anxiety about the double Ss when the result came out looking like a Rorschach ink-blot. Not only did I enjoy the mirroring aspect it produced, but it also seemed to contain two hidden Ws for #WoodcutWednesday and, in some ways resembles an early modern #NotALion. I won’t bore you with the rest of my crazy justifications for designing this symbol, but it works pretty well as a Twitter avi. After designing it in Photoshop, cutting it into wood, printing a copy from the block, and redigitizing the symbol with my camera, I give you the following:


I was pretty satisfied. If only I were younger and had a devil-may-care criminal streak, I think I’d become a tagger and spray this symbol anywhere I went. Since I’m not and don’t, I’ll satisfy myself with using this symbol as a watermark for my blog images, occasionally draw it into the margins of my reading notes, and use it intermittently as a social media avatar.

Day 6: Big Papa

For my next act of woodcuttery, I left the early modern for a modern literary figure, Ernest Hemingway. As my silly border around the Shakespeare woodcut gained some very limited Twitter and Facebook acclaim, I decided to do a mashup of literary and rap cultures with this one too.


The design that I chose would not allow for the entire phrase to fit within the borders, so I decided to use this cut to hone my fine detail skills. I prepared myself for failure, since the lettering within borders was substantially easier than lettering cut into relief, but I decided to give it a go anyway.

The details worked better than anything I had accomplished thusfar, but I saved the most difficult task for last. The new tools, however, worked like a charm, giving the lettering a rough, but more smooth lines than the Xacto-knifed details of my earlier cuts. All told, I was pretty happy with the result.


And here is the detail of the floating lettering. This image makes me wonder if I should have done a carving rather than a woodcut, as the cuts in the wood offer a pretty amazing look and texture.


Big Papa was a nice close to my first week of carving. While my woodcuts are still crude and amateurish, I was pretty happy with my rapid improvement. I know I have a long way to go still, but I like the rough look these cuts produce. It’s one of the reasons I decided to carve in solid wood rather than opting for the much easier lincuts. I love to see the flaws, the grain, and where the wood works against any clean and flawless images. The main thing in favor of linocuts is that you do not need to avoid cutting against the grain, but I’m attracted to the idea that the wood and I work to compete and collaborate to produce a woodcut. The wood is never a passive subject of my cuts, but continually exerts it’s influence. I may try some linocuts soon or try to carve in better wood, but, for now, I’m happy with the look that my decent tools and very cheap wood produce.

Since this first week, I’ve made a variety of new woodcuts, and I’m contemplating the purchase of even more and sharper tools. I think this is a hobby I can come to love–and I better, since I just spent the last few days building a home printing press from scratch!7

N.B. I have been withholding this post since I started having problems with WordPress’ editor. I post it now in draft form, but will update and edit it once the editor is back to functioning properly. For gods sake, I’ve already constructed a printing press and would like to post on it, but I haven’t been able to edit this one properly yet. Please fix this, WordPress!

  1. If I do decide to open an Etsy store, don’t worry. I will create a separate blog and Twitter handle so I don’t annoy those who aren’t interested in them. For those of you who are interested in what I’ve been able to do this past week, the following maps the development of my new carving skills and progress.  (back)
  2. A similar, yet larger and more expensive set can be found here: Cheaper carving set


  3. It was, afterall, nearing my November 7th birthday. Scorpios unite!  (back)
  4. Let me know if you have a candidate!  (back)
  5. Read about them here or visit my Zazzle store here.  (back)
  6. If anyone has a strong opinion on whether I should keep or remove them, let me know in the comments of this post, on Twitter (@senseshaper), or on Facebook. So far, the consensus seems to be to leave them.  (back)
  7. I’ll probably post on this soon.  (back)
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Re-Membering the Penis in Early Modern English Woodcuts; Now with More NSFW GIF Mon, 04 Nov 2013 06:44:51 +0000 Last week I received the following Tweet from scholar and #WoodcutWednesday fan Sjoerd Levelt:   I’m not sure how I attained a reputation to have expertise on the history of art in general and of woodcuts of erections in particular–I have absolutely no formal training in art history, though I do have some experience […]

The post Re-Membering the Penis in Early Modern English Woodcuts; Now with More NSFW GIF appeared first on Shaping Sense.

Last week I received the following Tweet from scholar and #WoodcutWednesday fan Sjoerd Levelt:


I’m not sure how I attained a reputation to have expertise on the history of art in general and of woodcuts of erections in particular–I have absolutely no formal training in art history, though I do have some experience with boners and woodcuts, and have some knowledge of early modern woody woodcuts. While I was initially horrified that I was Sjored’s go-to source for information on early modern woodcut erections, I was happy that his query directed me to the fantastic image John Overholt, Houghton Library’s curator of early modern books and manuscripts had Tweeted earlier in the day.


Overholt followed Marcus Nevitt who cited David Cressy as speculating that A new Sect of Religion Descryed Called the Adamites (1641) “contains perhaps the first depiction of an erect penis in English popular print” (Nevitt 133).1 Overholt had his suspicions about the validity of Cressy’s claim, but it appears that each person in this chain of citation hedged their bets, even as they perpetuated the notion that A New Sect of 1641 contained the “first depiction of an erect penis in English popular print.” Even Cressy puts forth this claim tentatively, noting that it is “perhaps” the first, but it was enough to set a chain of authority going that self-perpetuated even as every person citing that claim had their own doubts.

The most horrifying aspect of Sjoerd’s question was that while I did not know to a certainty when the first erection was printed in English popular print, I did have an answer. Apparently, my knowledge of early modern dirty pictures is better than I thought, and I immediately thought of one woodcut from an early printed edition of Mandeville’s Travels without needing to consult any sources other than my own, apparently, equally dirty mind. The following image can be found in the Wynken de Worde edition of 1499 (STC 17247):

The image depicts two hermaphrodites confronting one another with their exposed and engorged–or, perhaps, more accurately, half-staffed–virile members. While not quite the full erection of the chap on the “A New Sect” title page, I believe this image puts to bed Cressy’s claim that the first erect penis did not appear in an English woodcut until 1641–unless, of course, hermaphrodites or “halfsies” don’t count.

There is reason to believe, however, that the early modern English were penis squeamish. Both the de Worde edition of 1499 and his (probable) next edition of [1503] contain the same graphic depiction of a hermaphrodites’ genitalia, including their erect penises. There is an eventual shift in the printing of Mandeville’s travels towards concealing their once very prominent members. If you look at Thomas East’s edition of 1568 (STC 17250), one sees the model for what subsequent printings in English would do with the woodcut of the hermaphrodites.

East’s hermaphrodites follow the same tendency found in de Worde’s earlier editions. De Worde showed the hermaphrodite as being composed of two halves, one male and the other female. His doing so gives the impression, even as the “monstrous” hermaphrodite mergers or blends the two genders, that the two genders are separate and distinctly separable–even when encoded within the same figure. Such a tendency reaches its limit, however, when we get to their privies. Their vaginas and penises exist one on top of the other, complicating the depictions of the hermaphrodites as being composed of two discrete halves. East’s hermaphrodites, however, by hiding their parts, more starkly divides the two genders whereas the naughty bits rise up to complicate the binarization of gender within the figures of de Worde’s hermaphrodites.

East’s approach would be the predominant model for many later editions of Mandeville in early modern England. It would seem that some form of self-censorship, if not mandated censorship, disappeared the penis from the Mandeville representations of hermaphrodites. From this point forward, the poor hermaphrodites are never (to my knowledge) re-membered to completeness. While I am not familiar with the scholarship on early sixteenth-century censorship, it strikes me that the figurative castration occurs after Protestantism, with its more rigorous policing of both aberrant and normative bodies, genders, and sexualities, came to dominance in England2.

There certainly were other depictions of erections that I know of prior to “A New Sect,” but those that I know of are typically not given the same amount of verisimilitude as either de Worde’s Mandeville or Bray’s “A New Sect.” These were the pointy, horn-like erections of pucks, devils, and satyrs.3 Here, for example is an image of Robin Goodfellow.


Notice that, unlike the de Worde and the Bray, Robin’s erection takes on a very animal and unrealistic form. The same type of erect penis can be found in a border detail of Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna of 1612 in several places, and in the central image here.


While still far more common in the emblem books and printed materials of the continent, many of the illustrations of Early Modern English erections take this form, a form somewhere between a horn and a penis, between the animal and the human. What is far less common–even if we cannot say when the first appears in print–is an erection with the same gestures toward verisimilitude that we find in de Worde’s hermaphrodites or Bray’s “A New Sect.”

While I am sure that there are more early modern woodcut phalluses to be discovered in the archives, I can definitively say that the A New Sect of 1641 does not contain the first depiction of an erection in English popular print, even if I can neither be certain if the de Worde Mandeville hermaphrodites constitute the first nor why the later editions censored them. Cressy’s claim, however, confirms my own earlier speculation that such depictions of aroused penises are rare in early English print. Flaccid penises are something else entirely, but there just aren’t many woodcut woodies in English popular print.

At this point, I can only speculate that some form of censorship was involved with the decision to castrate Mandeville’s hermaphrodites, and that forms of censorship kept realistic human erections from popularly printed English illustrations.

I thought the only responsible and scholarly response to Overholt’s fantastic find was to create a GIF. I’m pretty sure this GIF has potential legs considering the rampant fapping addictions plaguing the Internet at large. Let this GIF remind you to keep that flesh under control.4 I feel like I’m doing God’s work here.

Sorry to those of you who saw the original post earlier which was all kinds of GIF-ed up. For posterity, I leave it here. Some of you may even prefer and enjoy a little GIFus Interruptus.

By way of apology for my earlier mistake, I offer a bonus to those of you who have returned to see the “Downe Proud Flesh” GIF in all of its glory. We here at Shaping Sense have found a copy of the “Downe Proud Flesh” GIF as if scanned and digitized by EEBO rather than by Harvard’s special collections.5

This probably counts as too much of a juvenile thing, but I thought I’d also add a shorter and more lightweight version for your internet comment forum pleasure. You’re welcome Internet. Link, share, or steal to your heart’s content.

If this doesn’t end up in porn comments, all is not right with the world. This is the last addition. As Lacan and Žižek would say, ENJOY!

Works Cited

Cressy, David. Agnes Bowker’s Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Mandeville, John. Here Begynneth a Lytell Treatyse or Booke Named Johan Mau[n]deuyll Knyght Born in Englonde in the Towne of Saynt Albone [and] Speketh of the Wayes of the Holy Londe Towarde Jherusalem, [and] of Marueyles of Ynde [and] of Other Dyuerse Cou[n]trees. [Emprynted at Westmynster: By Wynken de worde, 1499. Print.

—. Than Is There an Other Yle Ye Men Call Dodye. [London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1503. Print.

—. The Voiag[e] and Trauayle, of Syr Iohn Maundeuile Knight, Which Treateth of the Way Toward Hierusalem, and of Maruayles of Inde with Other Ilands and Countryes. Imprinted [at London]: In Breadstreat at t[he nether ende,] by Thomas [East, 1568. Print.

—. The Voyages and Trauailes of Sir John Maundeuile Knight. Wherein Is Treated of the Way Towards Hierusalem, and of the Meruailes of Inde, with Other Lands and Countries. London: Printed by Thomas Este, 1582. Print.

Nevitt, Marcus. Women and the Pamphlet Culture of Revolutionary England, 1640-1660. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006. Print.

Peacham, Henry. Minerva Britanna Or A Garden Of Heroical Deuises, Furnished, and Adorned with Emblemes and Impresa’s of Sundry Natures. [London, Printed in Shoe-lane at the signe of the Faulcon by Wa: Dight.], 1612. Internet Archive. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.

Yarb, Samoth, active 1641. A New Sect of Religion Descryed, Called Adamites: Deriving Their Religion from Our Father Adam : Wherein They Hold Themselves to Be Blamelesse at the Last Day, Though They Sinne Never so Egregiously, for They Challenge Salvation as Their Due from the Innocencie of Their Second Adam : This Was First Disclosed by a Brother of the Same Sect to the Author, Who Went Along with This Brother, and Saw All These Passages Following. London: s.n.], 1641. Print.

  1. Nevitt cites this from Cressy’s book Agnes Bowker’s Cat, page 261, but I have not had a chance to consult Cressy’s book directly but I trust her footnote is correct.  (back)
  2. With a few notable exceptions, of course. But by the time Mary reached the throne, new methods and forms of censorship and self-censorship had taken root  (back)
  3. HT to @ExhaustFumes for reminding me of this first example  (back)
  4. I’m talking to you r/gonewild.  (back)
  5. Just kidding. We’re still cool, EEBO, but change your exclusive and exclusionary pricing model. It’s fairly disgusting. Open access NOW, motherfuckers!  (back)
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