portion of my last post’s title comes from the fifth act of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Hippolyta and Theseus discuss the strange alterations of love they have just witnessed in the forest. Hippolyta declares the speeches delivered by the lovers as “strange,” prompting The Duke’s declaration of the vulnerability of the Phantasy, its contribution to the shaping of sense, and its role the production and effects of fiction. Theseus claims,

…I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in the brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath a strong imagination
That if it would but apprehend some joy
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy a bush supposed a bear! (V.i. 2-22).

While Theseus refers to the tricks of the “imagination,” as I explained in my last post, I prefer to refer to the pre- and early modern faculty as the Phantasy in order to distance what we see there from post-Romantic cultural shapings. The Phantasy revealed in this passage details the conflicted space of the early modern Phantasy, exposing yet concealing the cultural tensions inherent in explications of the faculty.

STC 22302, title page

Title Page from the 1600 Quarto of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Phantasy, through Galenic humoralism, remained linked to the body in constructions of the mind and sensory system dominant into the seventeenth century. For Theseus, the Phantasy becomes distorted and divorced from reality when within the disordered body of madmen, lovers, and, to a lesser extent, poets. The “seething brains” of lovers and madmen produce “shaping fantasies” that exceed the capacity of reason, but noting their “seething brains” not only links the faculty to the body but also provides a pathology for their distorted sense of reality. The relative “hotness” of the brain and the spirits within it prove both a positive and a negative since it can distort reality yet can also produce alterations that both extend beyond the objects of the external world and of reason. Melancholy, the “black bile,” could be caused by the overheating and drying of the humors and could diminish the purity of the vital spirits. To put it simply, an excessively hot brain could burn the humors and diminish the quality of the spirits within the brain and the body as a whole. As Galenic science contends, the coextensive body and mind work in conjunction, and the boiling brains of lovers and madmen operate, not as metaphor, but as an explanation of how the coexpressive body and mind work in concert, offering a potentially physical account of mental phenomena. Theseus deploys Galenic humoralism to explain aberrant perception. In madmen, a “seething” brain produces and multiplies visions and experiences of devils. In lovers, a “seething” brain shapes fantasies divorced from the reality of external objects.

What remains interesting here is that Theseus associates madness and love with diseases that afflict the Phantasy in particular. I will post a discussion of early modern theories of love at a later time, but for now want to say that pathologized material accounts of love remained current in the period. While Theseus does not exclusively refer to love melancholy, love melancholy, like other forms of melancholy, was responsible for hallucinations and aberrant perception. Love itself, and the bizarre alterations of judgment that it produced could be associated with witchcraft. Just as Brabanzio accuses Othello of doing, Egeus accuses Lysander of “bewitching” Hermia to pervert her affections and judgment, and both expose how bound up worldly love was with the body and its status. While both plays dismiss the notion that either Hermia or Desdemona was “bewitched,” A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes occult elements absent from Othello. Some witchcraft theories argue that devils and demons could paramaterially shape the objects of the mind to produce perversions of perception and judgment.

It would seem that Theseus has been reading theories like those popularized by authors such as Johann Weyer and Reginald Scot. As I mentioned in my last post, some early modern physicians like Johann Weyer largely attributed the experience of witchcraft phenomena and of devils to the presence and overabundance of melancholy in the body and its spirits, and especially in the brain and in the spirits which filled its ventricles. The madman’s overheated brain, and thus full of melancholy, produced hallucinations of devils according to Theseus. While he, like Weyer, never denies the possibility of a devil’s existence or the possibility that devils can influence and act upon the body and mind, the threat of a perimaterial explanation of the human emerges from the sludge of the Phantasy. For James, such accounts were dangerous because, when taken to extremes, such Galenic explanations might deny the realm of the supernatural and the soul altogether. The danger sensed, for someone like James, was less that Galenic explanations collapsed body and mind, and more that, in doing so, they might also deny the existence of a Christian soul. Shakespeare, however, populates his play with other figures with supernatural powers to shape the internal and external senses. Instead of devils, Shakespeare gives us the fairy realm that actively manipulates human subjects.

As I will discuss further in a later post, psychophysiological accounts of the appearance of devils like the one Shakespeare offers, do not mean that all devils could be attributed to a perimaterial mind, and, despite James’ hyperbolic critique of Weyer and Scot, such explanations maintained paramaterial possibilities that connected the individual perceiver to the divine and demonic realms. Even with the most material accounts of mental phenomena available in the period, a perceiver and especially the perceiver’s Phantasy remained a conduit open to the spiritual and otherwise imperceptible realms.

The afflicted paramaterial Phantasy, however, could also “shape” perception in a way that went awry. The madman’s melancholic Phantasy could transform, as Theseus notes, a “bush” into a “bear” while a lover’s Phantasy could transform, as with the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet 113, a perceived object into another form. Theseus suggests that the Phantasy can alter perception in such a way as to “shape” a Helen from an Egyptian brow. The Phantasy, in these cases, does not so much “make” make mental objects, but, instead, shapes perceived objects in accordance with its own predispositions and concerns. The private Phantasy, while paramaterial in nature, shaped both the reception and judgment of objects, but judgment, too, had a private nature that shaped the affective power of perceived objects.

In a comedy concerned with the strange effects and alterations love produces, Shakespeare presents his own invisible forces to explain the oddities of love. The fairy realm manipulates the passions of unsuspecting humans, but does so in a particularly interesting way. Oberon and Puck’s love-weapon of choice is the juice from a flower, the “love-in-idleness” (II.i.168), whose “juice” can make a sleeping man or woman “dote” upon any living thing, human or animal. The fairy realm, as Oberon tells us of himself, remains “invisible,” yet it manipulates the human world through the application of material “juice” to the eyes of the play’s humans.

As with John Milton’s Michael, Shakespeare’s Puck applies a physical “juice” to the physical eyes. While Michael’s drops produce a spiritual vision, Puck’s juice alters the affections and judgment of perception. Descriptions of the internal and external senses often link reason and the judgment to eyes through the Phantasy. Reason, occupying the central ventricle of the brain, judged the Phantasy’s objects, and while the Phantasy itself shaped the objects of perception, differing judgments could differ as to their importance and significance. Early in the play, a distraught Hermia complains to Theseus that her father, Egeus, does not see with her eyes. Theseus, attempting to reconcile Hermia’s manner of seeing with her father’s, proclaims, “rather, [her] eyes must with [Egeus’] judgment look” (I.i. 57). The bridge between the physical eye and the judgment runs through the Phantasy, connected not only through the faculty itself, but also the “spirits” of the brain.

As I have discussed, the Phantasy could shape objects, but the judgment could also evaluate its objects differently depending on the perceiver. Judgment, however, also depended, at least in part, upon the objects the Phantasy provided. A corrupt Phantasy could trick Reason into judging incorrectly through corrupt or distorted objects. The same “shaping” of its objects also depended, in part, upon the quality of the “spirits” which served as its medium within the brain. Corrupt spirits as well as a disordered Phantasy could shape and distort the objects available for judgment.


The drops Puck applies to the eyes alter the affections and evaluations of his victims, turning loathed objects into loved ones and loved ones into loathed ones. Shakespeare and Milton create fictional drops to alter “vision,” but, despite the fictional creation, both also draw upon contemporary understandings of the sensory apparatus to lend those fictions plausibility. I am certainly not suggesting that many early moderns believed in mind altering eye-drops, whether they be hallucination inducing like Michael’s or affection altering like Puck’s, but both Shakespeare and Milton rely upon theories that interlinked the external and internal senses in a profound way. Theorists of the system explained that the physical sensory organs themselves were more connected to matter, but that their objects underwent a series of “abstractions” that eventually divested their objects of their material components in order to interface with a material soul. At the same time, quasi-material “spirits” were thought to mediate between the external and internal senses as well as among the faculties of the sensitive soul.

Some discourses on witchcraft like Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum allow for the devil’s manipulation of love and hatred through his alteration of the Phantasy or the objects of perception. I do not have the time to delve into such theories now, but those theories also inform A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the strange alterations love produces within it. Because of the paramaterial nature of the external and internal senses as well as of the objects of those senses, the fiction of mind-altering eye-drops, either divine-vision-inducing as in the case of Milton or love-producing as in the case of Shakespeare, operates upon the assumption that the physical and the spiritual, the material and the immaterial, remain connected and mutually informing.

In addition to the lover and the madman, Theseus includes a third figure linked to the Phantasy or imagination, the poet. The power afforded the poet, however, places us upon slightly different mental ground. Instead of the Phantasies of lover and madman which generate misperception, the poet actively manufactures “fantasies.” I will develop later the ontological status of objects within the pre- and early modern brain, but for now it is enough to point out how Theseus characterizes the poet as creating phantasms that are not only substantial but also transferrable. The poet Theseus imagines operates in excess of language, providing fantasies not only with a “name” but also provides them with a “local habitation” by turning them to “shapes.”

The poet’s ability to shape sense, I argue, extends beyond the linguistic, precisely because the poet shapes a mental object granted more than a nominal or linguistic existence. The objects in the mind, even if misshaped by the faculty of the Phantasy, are hallucinations, or are crafted by a poet, have a paramaterial quality by being placed somewhere between materiality and immateriality. As the Phantasy remained linked to the material external senses, its products, too, remain somewhere in the middle space between the body and the soul. The problematic faculty which remained linked, in many accounts, to the body also mediated the relationship between the body and soul, and between the world and a perceiver. Its objects, whether real or imagined, were theorized to have a material yet immaterial essence. The mental images conjured up by an author’s pen or “impressed” upon the external senses in the performance of a play, produced and shaped mental objects that both were and were not thought of in quasi-material terms.

One might argue that Theseus here speaks metaphorically of the affective content of fiction-making upon the brain, but, as I will offer elsewhere, the psychophysiological model current in the early modern period granted the faculties a quasi-material essence that extends, through a well-defined hierarchy, from material to immaterial, from corporeal to incorporeal. I do not think we can quickly dismiss the very distinct possibility that the objects within the mind, even through the late sixteenth century, retained their own paramateriality. I will return to this when I discuss representations of the Phantasy’s role in the sensory apparatus where it retained mimetic copies of external objects. I will return to this in a later post on Sidney’s “Defence of Poesie” where Sidney, too, deploys a similar model of mental architecture to explain the power of the poet upon a reader, but the paramaterial nature of the faculty and its objects works similarly when one considers the affective power of fiction.

Some of the inherent tensions of the paramaterial Phantasy emerge in Theseus’ claim that both the imagination “bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown” and that its objects are “airy nothing[s].” The paramaterial faculty “bodies forth” an object that is simultaneously body and “airy nothing,” being both a material and immaterial object. This paradox resembles the paradox of the “spirits” filling the ventricles of the brain that both mediate the relationship between body and soul and take part in the natures of both entities. The “spirits” are the medium through which mental objects move about the faculties of the mind, and they, like the “airy nothing[s]” bodied forth by the imagination, are also supposed to be composed of such a refined nature that they lose most of their materiality and can communicate with the immaterial components of a perceiver.

Hippolyta responds to Theseus’ account of the powers of the Phantasy with skepticism, noting the collective effects of the lovers’ alterations, saying,

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable. (V.i. 23-27).

Whereas Theseus reveals the perversions and delusions of the private Phantasy, Hippolyta notes the collective transformation that has more lasting power than the fleeting images of the faculty. The fact that their minds became “transfigured so together” removes the possibility that the alterations resulted from private Phantasies of the type Theseus mentions. While, within the world of the play, invisible spirits are at work to shape the affections of the lovers, pointing to the collective nature of the lovers’ alterations also underscore the affective power of fiction making itself. Because the poet shapes mental contents and objects, he, too, is responsible for a type of collective sense shaping. The lovers within the play undergo, we are led to believe, a permanent collective change, but, as Theseus notes, the poet too contributes to a collective shaping that transforms “vain fantasies” into something more permanent and communicable.

While Theseus dismisses paranormal and supernatural shaping of the Phantasy as “antique fables” or as “fairy toys,” the counter-narrative he provides underscores a materialist explanation of aberrant perception and its role in the production and reproduction of strange sights, experiences, and affections. Unlike Shakespeare’s Othello, where the supernatural realm remains outside the play, his A Midsummer Night’s Dream shapes its own characters with the ability to manipulate and shape affections and sense. The fairy realm stand in for the possibly invisible forces at work in the Phantasy’s power to shape and be shaped by sense, leaving open the possibility of a paramaterial connection to the extra-sensible.

Both Theseus and Hippolyta insist upon the distinction between ordinary objects of perception and those shaped by a potentially corrupt private Phantasy. The supposed difference between the objects retained by the Phantasy and those manufactured by the faculty served as a bulwark of epistemology against philosophical skepticism. Those objects received from the external world were sometimes considered separable from the “vain fantasies” or phantasms produced either by a sick and disordered body or by an overactive Phantasy. As I will argue later, philosophical skeptics challenged the basis of all such distinctions, rendering all of the images in the faculty as “vain fantasies,” but, as I will argue, the philosophical skeptics also depended upon a paramaterial mind to make its case and, at least before Descartes, depend upon a paramaterial quality of the mind’s objects.

While Shakespeare, in his Epilogue, likens his play to “visions” that remain “no more yielding but a dream,” the question remains as to what type of “visions” dreams—the special province of the Phantasy—offer, and, more importantly, whether the images constructed through them or through fictions can produce changes and alter the minds of those who view and listen to the performance. Fiction making itself had the power to shape the objects of perception and cognition. These seemingly “airy nothings” are made into “shapes” that can “bod[y] forth the forms of things unknown.” While the characters of the fairy realm that shape the affections and perceptions of the lovers within the play, Shakespeare, through those fairy forces, “bodies forth” for his audience the otherwise invisible forces that shape perception and cognition by providing them with “a local habitation and a name,” working, in turn, to shape their sense of the Phantasy’s powers.


Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Norton, 1997. Print.
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