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This book attempts to interrogate the literary, artistic and cultural output of early modern England. Following Constance Classen's view that understandings of the senses, and sensory experience itself, are culturally and historically contingent; it explores the culturally specific role of the senses in textual and aesthetic encounters in England. The book follows Joachim-Ernst Berendt's call for 'a democracy of the senses' in preference to the various sensory hierarchies that have often shaped theory and criticism. It argues that the playhouse itself challenged its audiences' reliance on the evidence of their own eyes, teaching early modern playgoers how to see and how to interpret the validity of the visual. The book offers an essay on each of the five senses, beginning and ending with two senses, taste and smell, that are often overlooked in studies of early modern culture. It investigates Robert Herrick's accounts in Hesperides of how the senses function during sexual pleasure and contact. The book also explores sensory experiences, interrogating textual accounts of the senses at night in writings from the English Renaissance. It offers a picture of early modern thought in which sensory encounters are unstable, suggesting ways in which the senses are influenced by the contexts in which they are experienced: at night, in states of sexual excitement, or even when melancholic. The book looks at the works of art themselves and considers the significance of the senses for early modern subjects attending a play, regarding a painting, and reading a printed volume.

Open Access (free)
Simon Smith, Jackie Watson and Amy Kenny

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book explores both works of art and wider culture in early modern England. The book is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different question about the senses. The first section explores how individual senses appear in particular artworks, considering each of the five senses in turn. The second section explains how the senses were understood in particular early modern contexts explored in works of art, including contexts of night, of sexual pleasure, and of love melancholy. The final section also explores what sensory experiences might have been enacted when early modern subjects actually engaged with works of art, considering practical encounters with playhouse performance, painting and printed drama.

in The senses in early modern England, 1558–1660