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“Cute Hamlet”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Cute Hamlet?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Using aesthetics alongside affect theory and queer philology, this essay interrogates the ability of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1604) and supplementarily, Robert Herrick’s Hesperides (1648), to endure and broaden the scope of what Sianne Ngai, Lori Merish, Daniel Harris, and others have theorized as the cute. Ngai, in Zany, Cute, and Interesting: Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), explains the cute as a contemporary and commodity-driven category, an aesthetic that discloses a “surprisingly wide spectrum of feelings, ranging from tenderness to aggression, that we harbor toward ostensively subordinate and unthreatening commodities” (Ngai 1). To consider the cute, then, is to consider our documented fascination with the private, the relations of subjects and objects, and the power dynamics between the appreciator and the appreciated, adorer and adored. Even so, I’d suggest we think otherwise. What if we think about the cute less as aesthetic response to commodity, per se, than a discursivity? Cuteness is an aesthetic category reliant on a spectrum of appreciation, from disinterested non-reaction (think, for example, of the inundation of “cute” things to respond to on websites like Buzzfeed or reddit), to a heightened affective experience of an object or artwork, one more closely related to classic Kantian or Burkean experiences of beauty. But aesthetic experience demands a commodital, consumptive closeness that Theodor Adorno finds goes beyond object relations to fuel our relationships to texts. In “Lyric Poetry and Society,” Adorno purposefully points to poems that depart from the genre’s more common “delight in things close at hand” in order to resist the bourgeois subject’s desire to “reduce [these texts] to objects of fondling” 1 It becomes, then, not only a sensuous or haptic relationship to objects, but to texts, discourse, or language. We may then say that the cute is a puzzling aesthetic state, based in “an eroticization of powerlessness, evoking tenderness for ‘small things’” (Ngai 3). Cute’s willingness to be provoked, fondled, entertained – its “tenderness” – suggests to me its openness to theory. Cute can open an intricate dialogue destabilizing the basic dichotomies of power and disempowerment, subject and object, and simplicity and complexity. To examine early modern texts’ rhetorics of cuteness, then, will provocatively encourage reflection upon our current obsessions with the cute and other contemporary aesthetic categories.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 When we reorient the cute from its commodity drives and instead toward discourse itself, we may find key texts from the English Renaissance and early Restoration to be rich theoretical exercises in what we think we recognize as “cuteness.” I’d argue that in the English Renaissance, a tone or mode of preciousness appears in texts that historically predate our twentieth- and twenty-first century “thinged” notion of the “cute.” Shakespeare’s title figure, Hamlet, voices a “manic cuteness,” and Robert Herrick’s manipulative authorial persona in his Hesperides indicate the cutely cunning ways in which the reader can have an aesthetic experience with the book at hand. Drawing upon the possibilities opened by minor or alternative affective and aesthetic categories, and renewed interest in subjects and objects in Renaissance culture, I’d like to examine how the cute is productively deployed in Hamlet and Hesperides through these texts’ discourses of the little and the cherished, exposing early modern obsessions with disempowerment, language as object, and audiences’ relationships to text itself 2 To begin here, then, is to begin on a wide-ranging scale beyond commodity relations: What does it mean to rely on language’s preciousness, to depend on an evacuation of profundity or power? Can we consider cuteness a particular discursive disorder, when it is released from historicist etymology and into a broader philological genealogy of aesthetic engagement?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 With these questions in mind, I first examine the cute’s appearance within the pinnacle of revenge tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, through a reading of Hamlet’s “antic” discursive practice of “self belittling,” exchanges that are undercut with eroticism and violence, and the play invests its interest in childishness, femininity, and ultimately power as discourse objects. Hamlet’s feigned madness, or “antic disposition,” is most apparent spectacle of cuteness. As Hamlet assigns himself the role of dominated object, he places himself physically and semantically into powerless positions. Take, for instance, his first noted appearance in the play after putting “an antic disposition on” (1.5.192). Ophelia tells her father of an odd encounter, when Hamlet appears to her:
…with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport… (2.1.87-92)
Hamlet has clearly put work into his disordered appearance – his clothes are askew or missing, much like a child attempting to clothe himself. Ophelia seems therefore to be observing Hamlet as “cutely” childish in his disarray. Grounding the pathetic helplessness in this description are Hamlet’s “fouled” stockings, a possibly scatological detail about which Will Stockton wonders, “Has Hamlet dragged his stockings on the ground, or just perhaps, has Hamlet soiled himself?”(x) 3 With such echoes of infantilism, Hamlet seems to be a diminutive, and powerless object. But the cute, as we know, cannot sustain such stable relations. Ophelia – whose innocent girlishness should, we assume, render her the “cute” party in this exchange – calls Hamlet “piteous,” and later, repeats the sentiment as she recounts that Hamlet “raised a sigh so piteous and profound” (2.1.106). If we “know not ‘seems’” (1.2.77), but more critically entertain the actualities of Ophelia’s observations, Hamlet’s pathetic display of disorder reads as a disruptive display of power. Ophelia explains that as the unkempt Hamlet departed, he kept his eyes set on her, going “out o’ doors he went without their helps,” while his gaze “to the last bended their light on me” (2.1.111-12). This final gesture overturns the expectation that Hamlet is indeed piteous – while he appears pathetically disheveled, his intense final gaze places him as the active member of the exchange, asking to be looked upon. Ophelia quickly turns from the observer/adorer to the observed/adored – both a reminder that Hamlet’s disorder (and Ophelia as love object) remains under his control, and that cuteness tends to upend and dishevel expected subject/object relationships.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The cute in Hamlet gains further complexity as Hamlet’s childlike antics, particularly with Ophelia, are clearly not all as innocent as childishly soiled stockings and gazes. Cuteness closely abuts the erotic. During the staging of “The Murder of Gonzago,” Hamlet slings sexual taunts at Ophelia, including asking, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” (3.2.119). Hamlet’s cute childishness makes visible the erotic charge of the lap, one that lies between maternal and sexual affections. Lori Merish explores a similar collusion in child star Shirley Temple’s films, as her construction as “innocent” required “not so much the absence of sexuality as its active disavowal” (195) 4 The sexuality of the cute meets the innocence of the cute in a highly charged scene. Merish argues, “staging cuteness as a mini-seduction met not by sexual violence or assault, but by protective care […] reinforce[s] a primary mythology of patriarchal ‘civilization’” (195). Moreover, Hamlet chooses to sit with Ophelia after direct invitation to sit with his mother: “Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me” (3.2.115), Gertrude implores. Hamlet refuses as he takes up a place near Ophelia. Replacing a childlike cuddling in his mother’s lap with the sexual request to “lie in [Ophelia’s] lap” (3.2.119) disavows both incestuous desire for the mother figure, while also places Ophelia into a maternal role for Hamlet’s “inert” cute childishness. Again, his madness becomes childlike, as he refers to “merry-making,” “hobby horses,” and puppetry, all with erotic overtones. Hamlet’s cunning cuteness often relies on imagery of cutting or keenness – literalizing cute’s etymological base in “acute,” a wit or intelligence. Consider this exchange from the same scene:
HAMLET: I could interpret between you and your love, if I could see the puppets dallying.
OPHELIA: You are keen, my lord, you are keen.
HAMLET: It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge.
OPHELIA: Still better and worse (3.2.270-75).
Hamlet’s reliance on the figures of “keenness” and “edge,” and Ophelia’s equivocal response “better and worse,” indicates a gradient of sharpness. In obvious sexual innuendo, Hamlet invites Ophelia to take his discursive “edge.” This echoes the language of sharpness begun by Hamlet’s first lines in the play, spoken in response to Claudius’s reference to Hamlet as his son. Hamlet responds with a volumetric and punning “little more” and “little less”: “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (1.2.67).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Hamlet, I argue, can therefore be established as a cutely antic figure as he puts on cuteness for purposes of power. Yet, to what extent does cuteness put him on? I’d like to press this further, to examine what a cute Hamlet changes about our theoretical understanding of cute as distinct aesthetic. In a realm reliant on the machination of subject and object, activity and passivity, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cuteness begins to erode binary categories in a mode that echoes Lee Edelman’s urgings to review binarisms that place in opposition “a valued activity and a derogated passivity, in a way that is ultimately tied to the formation and articulation of the subject in culture” 5 Jeffrey Masten, in “Is the Fundament a Grave?”, explains the “modern regime” as one in which the “civic authority of subject status” is “purchased through the projective refusal of the luxurious ‘passivity,’… that signifies the erotic indulgence of the self that always threatens to undo the ‘self’” (135). If we accept Hamlet “being cute,” we may entertain the modern gloss on “being cute” as being a smart-ass. “Smart-ass,” likely a term unknown to the Renaissance, nonetheless opens the discourse of the cute in Hamlet by returning us to Hamlet’s soiled stockings in Act II 6 Rather than connecting them to a Freudian or Lacanian anal stage, Masten returns to the anal in Renaissance culture to the foundation or fundament, a rhetoric that “may participate in the rhetoric of the low,” yet is a “lowliness with a positive valence—the foundational is hardly a negative rhetoric in this culture” but is rather connected to a depth, grounding, or profundity (134). John Florio’s translation of the Italian “fondatamente,” Masten notes, takes its meaning from this constellation of terms, thereby aiding a rethinking of what we call the anus and its connections to seats of power and seats of “privately owned subjectivity” (135). Resisting binarism of high and low then lies in “a strangely active-passive position: it is the ground but also the groundwork; the seat but also the offspring; the founding and the foundation” (135). This becomes an ascribed “queer cuteness,” of sorts, which continually jeopardizes active/passive binaries.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This kind of cuteness opens us to queer philology. Masten explains this philology as an etymological mode that releases us from backward-looking history, as it “forces us to develop ever-expanding lexicons of erotic and affective terms and their relations” 7 Queer philology “considers vocabularies of sexuality, desire, affect, and kinship as points of contact that draw surprising connections between past and present and defamiliarize seemingly transhistorical affective lexicons” 8 Instead of focusing temporally on when certain terms appear or develop, queer philology asks about relationships of terms and their networks. Utilizing this philological kinship system further in theorizing the cute, I return to Masten’s reference to Florio. Florio’s work is especially useful in inquiring about the queer philology of the “cute,” since the multiple ways in which Florio translates the Italian acuto marks a revealing range of the term’s meanings. Synonyms that echo contemporary senses of the term appear: “sharpe pointed, keene, subtill, wittie, politike, wilie, warie, ingenious,” but then Florio adds, “Also a pin or peg of wood” 9 Not only does this the corroborate the keenness, wiliness, and political edge of acute that surfaces in my reading of cuteness and Hamlet’s wit, but also the secondary, physical meaning of acuto – a pin or peg.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 A much-discussed passage of Hamlet of course revolves around a particular peg, the “bunghole” that gathers up the play’s dynamic attentions to bodily waste, dirt, and erotics which has clear resonance with penetrative erotic acts 10 In the grave-digging scene, Hamlet contemplates the mortality of Yorick, his childhood jester, and then remarks to Horatio:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander til he find it stopping a bunghole?… and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer barrel? (5.1.209-19)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The bunghole is, in fact, literally dirty, being made of “dust” or “loam.” Yet more figuratively, the act of plugging or “stopping” holes makes the act of vaginal or anal intercourse both “dirty” acts, conflating the licit and illicit as the era’s definitions of permissible erotic acts were in continual flux. Confusions continue in the very etymology of “bunghole.” The OED explains its etymology from Dutch (bonghe) and German (punt, punte), with similar adoption in French as bonde. All of these terms, however, have been theorized to stem from the Latin puncta, or hole, a word that shifts its referent between both the hole of the barrel and its stopper. As early as the sixteenth century, its meaning transfers to the slang usage of bunghole as anus. As discourses of the vaginal and anal begin to conflate in the active/passive binaries of the cute or acute, shifting both literal and figural positions of parties involved in the erotic act, so too do the referents begin to lose their precision in the etymology of the word bunghole, itself.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Richard Halpern’s explanation of sodomy as something that cannot be represented, constituting “a kind of empty hole in discourse, about which nothing directly can be said,” 11 dredges up an image of holes and emptiness that echoes the physical imagery of Hamlet’s “peg” and “bunghole” in this erotic yet also discursive sense. A hole in discourse, empty and unspeakable, is precisely what the cute relies upon, as cuteness evacuates language’s profundity and reduces it to coos. This then also resembles Hamlet’s antic muteness as he sharply refuses to speak or shifts control of conversation in the play, a characteristic of the cute’s general anti-discursivity. After this musing, Hamlet shifts back to verse to muse on “imperious Caesar,” who, like Alexander, once “dead and turned to clay / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away” (5.1.220-21). Hamlet here seems to worry less about the processes of degeneration and decomposition of the body than he does about the uses of the body’s remnants after this process as a stopping of discourse, or “wind,” as it reads here. A connection of spirit, breath, and speech, Carla Mazzio explains in “The History of Air: Hamlet and the Trouble with Instruments,” wind is connected to a sense of rhetorical self in its roots in the Greek pneuma. What becomes of this self when it is connected to the “seat of subjectivity”? Is Hamlet saying more than he thinks in declaring, “what an ass am I!” (2.2.611)? If we believe what Masten argues – that the rhetoric of baseness and anality in the Renaissance was actually a rhetoric of productive subjectivity – then Hamlet’s concern over the malleable softness of the body, which he dramatizes in his antic cuteness, is actually a rehearsal for the subjectivity that seems to only be evident after death, when one does stop the barrel. Stephen Greenblatt’s reading of Hamlet’s first soliloquy on “too solid flesh” arrives here, too, at an encounter with the grave (and, at Masten’s “other grave”) that voices Hamlet’s anxiety over the materiality of human remains. Once kings, Julius Caesar, Alexander, and in some senses, King Hamlet, are all now reduced to basal bunghole stoppers, something both common and royal, active and passive, powerful and powerless, all alchemized through the “matter” of being.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Hamlet’s “being cute,” in conjunction with what is already transpiring in the play (and within recent Shakespeare scholarship) on Hamlet’s assery and excrement, solidifies the cute’s curious work through Renaissance rhetoric. This work extends to other Shakespearean texts – take Nick Bottom’s literal transformation into an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after which he tells the story of his dream that “hath no bottom” (4.1.209). While it is unclear whether “bottom” and “ass” were understood as synonymous in the Renaissance, it is worth noting that Bottom’s depths of imagination have no foundations, or is “’antifundamentalist’ in the sense that the locus of textual, interpretive authority is persistently elusive” 12 And certainly, this elusivity is of equal import in Hamlet.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 That Hamlet chooses a “cute,” lingually-driven insanity allows him to brush against his own threatening nature – he speaks openly of the erotic with Ophelia, speaking the danger that Polonius feared for his daughter’s innocence, and speaks so openly to Claudius that he gives away his sadistic hand, gaining effusive pleasure at the potential discomfort he causes Claudius during what he childishly names “The Mousetrap” (a term that itself discloses the pleasure at catching and torturing “cute,” soft things). The cute easily occludes the threat it contains, or becomes threatening – from Hamlet’s language of childishness, disempowerment, and play, we arrive at the question of looking, of observers and the observed. When the players voice concern over the “little eyases” that are, indeed, the literal threat of child’s play – children’s theatre groups that encroached upon Shakespeare’s and other acting companies in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – we are reminded that the cute also occludes what we may think is certain about foundations of authority, meaning, and where the “seat” of discursivity lies.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 To further entertain the ways in which the cute can inform our contemporary understandings of the aesthetics and discourse, subject and object, I turn to Herrick’s supposedly simple poetry in his Hesperides, a work that has taken long to recover from frequent critical admonishments of its “cuteness.” His attention to objects with minute concentration, his considerations moving “piece by piece,” makes not only his poetic subjects small, but also his poetry itself slight. “Upon his Departure Hence,” for instance, consists of twenty-nine words over fifteen lines, a frustratingly “thin” poem that depends on single, singsong iambs:
Thus I
Pass by,
And die:
As one
Unknown
And gone:
I’m made
A shade,
And laid
I’ th’ grave:
There have
My cave,
Where tell
I dwell.
Farewell. (H-475).
It is perhaps because of this smallness of focus that “for many of the poet’s early-twentieth-century critics, Herrick’s seductive poetic surfaces bespoke a lack of depth, a shallowness of thought that excluded him from being categorized among the great ‘metaphysical’ poets of his age” 13 But, I ask, what exactly in Herrick’s works has been misread so as to cutely hobble his already adorable poetics?

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 As the collection’s introductory poem, “The Argument of his Book,” indicates, the poems within evaluate the world in parts as the poems “sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,” taking their subjects “piece by piece,” as small as the “court of Mab, and of the fairy king” (H-1). The work’s delight in its own small verses belies the length of the volume itself – comprised of 1,402 brief poems, it necessarily “exhausts the attention, both of reader and of writer… one is always starting over again, only to go not very far” 14 In modern criticism, Herrick’s trivial subjects receive an eviscerating condemnation – apparently, something “major and male is absent” 15 For all of Herrick’s delight in details of his beloved’s body or small objects, or in the pastoral fantasies of May Day, Gordon Braden brazenly declares:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The emphasis on foreplay and nongenital, especially oral, gratifications, the fixation on affects (smells, textures) and details (Julia’s leg), and general voyeuristic preference of perception to action… are all intelligible as a wide diffusion of erotic energy denied specifically orgiastic focus and release. What is missing in Hesperides is an aggressive, genital, in other words, ‘adult’ sexuality.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 16
While this necessarily must be understood as a dated criticism, I find Braden’s assumption of knowing Herrick’s aesthetics results in a troubling misreading, particularly in light of the cute. While Leah Marcus and others have noted Herrick’s “trusting, childlike faith,” this makes his works no less erotic, and reveals Braden as highly susceptible to the lure of the cute’s supposedly innocent tease 17 Moreover, this opens a new line of much-needed inquiry into Herrick’s alternative modes of talking about “political seriousness, allow[ing] [his poems] to be what they seem to be… and also to be major achievements” 18 I argue that Braden’s “something missing” is a productive emptiness or absence, which I’d connect to the bunghole discussion in Hamlet, in “queering” what we consider significant sexualities or political motivations. William Kerrigan finds that Herrick “does not, like Sidney, Shakespeare, and Donne, negotiate with female honor… [H]is relative disinterest in intercourse [at least, that which is explicitly named and unshied away from] is part and parcel of an aura of innocence… [and] his regressive and sexual imaginings, though full of retreats and expurgations, also make contact with a primal intercourse” 19 I’d agree that Herrick refuses to engage in debates over the conduct of women, and the cycles of self-hatred or loathing undergone in Astrophil and Stella, for example, is not present in Herrick’s work. Yet, what Braden and others miss is Herrick’s readiness to engage in erotic relationships that are not “sexual” in our modern sense of the discourse, his troubling of that which seems “political” and “serious” inquiry within seventeenth-century poetics, and his ventures into other erotic desires, including the pressing and increasingly erotic need for textual consumption, or consummation of the reader and text.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The cute reveals the body in Herrick’s poetry as bawdy, and as inseparable from the text itself. The Julia poem, “Upon her Feet”, dotes on Julia’s detailed body parts:
Her pretty feet
Like snailes did creep
A little out, and then,
As if they played at Bo-peep,
Did soon draw in agen (H-525).
The erotic feet, peeking out presumably from a woman’s skirt, play childishly at peek-a-boo, and the speaker himself mentions Bo-peep, a child’s nursery rhyme. A blazon, Herrick’s eroticization of parts (and notably, childlike parts) was not unusual in his era. Cutting to pieces or “cuteifying” the body – whether socially or symbolically – proliferated in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and Europe 20 All of these phenomena have given rise to recent criticism on the logic of fragmentation in early modern scholarship (Hillman and Mazzio xi). This piecing or parting of the body, however, was not always in fragment but a body that “is ‘in’ parts, that is constituted by a multiplicity of individuated organs” (xi). A critical “part” of this interest in parts were the fashion of blazons, poems devoted often to anatomical parts of a love interest which were then collected and itemized into a woman’s body (only one poet managed to write a full body). These poems were therefore an extension or exaggeration of the descriptive mode itself 21 As Nancy Vickers explains, “blazons not only describe the body parts they praise, they serenade them; they plead with them; they urge them to respond” (4). The details of the body become a catalogue of discourse, qualities in which “evocative units, like aphorisms, generally could stand alone, could assume another position without sacrificing meaning,” making them continually rearrangeable as the poems focus the reader’s eye on a single detail (Vickers 4).

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Mirroring the ways the blazonic textual body is in pieces, that which we may consider the aesthetic category of cutely or beautifully attractive appears already an affective response to unwholeness or incompleteness. For example, for Edmund Burke, beauty is already a response to powerlessness. He observes that beauty need not be contingent upon perfection, since in the female sex, beauty “almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection. Women are very sensible of this; for which reason; they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness, and even sickness… Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty” 22 Beauty’s connection to the sleepy, infirm, or disabled makes Burkean beauty a gloss on the cute 23 The mutilated or pieced body, then, is also already a disturbingly cute body.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Herrick’s “argument of his book” is ultimately more than taking on small structures or small pastoral subjects, but takes a wider focus on the book’s cuteness. Herrick ostensibly employs the cute to create a portrait of a vanishing, innocent England. The poems – innocent as they may appear – are, of course, a careful intervention in both literary and political conflict. A royalist eager to defend both the monarchy and the church against its opposition, his poetry celebrates the kinds of rural pastimes found in The Book of Sports, issued by James I in 1617 and then republished by Charles I in 1633. The book was designed to encourage rural activities such as dancing and Maypoles, and was “an attempt, often repeated, to link upper and lower classes against the austere, cerebral culture of the middle class through the medium of a shared popular culture” 24 Parliament would later demand the book be burned in 1643. Herrick’s arguably most famous poem, “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time,” explicitly encourages a delight in the material gifts of the world: “Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may, / Old Time is still a flying: / And this same flower that smiles to day, / To morrow will be dying” (H-208). This carpe diem advice echoes what his Hesperides, in their bevy of adored objects, argue for implicitly. Here, Herrick’s navigation of the cute is particularly of interest in its relation to how one is to physically treat, digest, and understand a book as object. Cuteness, as it often does, seems to render things inert – a particular critique of poetry’s “uselessness.” Rather than acting as cutting commentary on England’s political surround, poetry’s cuteness insulates it from making impact, a phenomenon the Hesperides interrogates.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Herrick’s awareness of the materiality of his texts makes his Hesperides particularly concerned with the reader’s treatment of the book itself. Worried about his book’s treatment by printers, and in turn his readers’ evaluation of the text because of this, Herrick asks in “To Sir George Parrie, Doctor of the Civill Law,” that the reader engage in a particular relationship to the book. With Parrie as surrogate for the reader, Herrick asks Parrie to read at his works “first as Doctor,” to diagnose and assess, “and the last as Knight” to defend the verses (H-1062). He asks that perhaps “But one” poem is “hug’d and cherished” (H-1062). This language of hugging, cherishing, and valuing a piece or part to a whole invites a reader response as one does to the cute. As the reader is asked to squish, to savor, to engage in haptic relationship with the text, so does the cute invite (and, occasionally, demand) touch – the romantic fantasy to grasp or cuddle the object. As Sianne Ngai notes, the distinction between the cute’s relation to objects and that of other more accepted aesthetic categories is precisely in this relationship to touch and sensuous feeling. While the beautiful feels coldly distant, cute “homey objects [are] imagined as unusually responsive to the subject’s desire for an ever more intimate, sensuous relation to them” (Ngai 54), she observes. Moreover, “cuteness contains none of beauty’s oft-noted references to novelty, singularity, or what [Theodor] Adorno calls ‘a sphere of untouchability’” (54). Beauty’s removal from the realm of haptics further distinguish the cute as an intimate, physical closeness, making Herrick’s Hesperides encourage a closeness to physical text as aesthetic object, not merely a poetic beauty.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Herrick’s ideal reader, then, may choose to engage in this cute relationship through the recording of his verses in the reader’s sententiae or a commonplace book, a common practice among educated classes in the seventeenth century. As print culture rose, readers increasingly began placing together small, “irrelevant” pieces of text into their “tables.” The practice of “chopping” and “piecing” aphorisms, adages, and proverbs “made cute” and collectible the lengthier rhetoric of the day’s literature – “cuteifying” the work. The subject’s relation to language and text then became more easily able or invited to be copied, consumed, and digested. These “cute” lines evidence an “almost universal taste for such things as proverbs, maxims, aphorisms, apothegms, aphorisms and sententiae—literary forms which were felt to encapsulate, briefly and pithily, universal perceptions and wisdom about human experience, both public and private” 25 Yet, Herrick worries that readers will tear or cut up his book’s pages for less lofty purposes than such cherishing. One such poem frets, “I see thee lie / Torn for the use of pasterie: / Or see thy injur’d leaves serve well, / To make loose gownes for mackarell” (H-844). His concern over the collection’s physicality (and potential for mistreatment) points to the risk of printing his “starry verse” into mere vessel for gustatory consumptions. For all of his lofty poems’ interest in the simple pastoral life, or in a lover, or the nature of heaven and immortality, Herrick is equally vengeful upon the reader’s interpretive or physical violence to the book. If readers physically do damage to his book, Herrick hopes that “every ill, that bites, or smarts, / Perplexe him in his hinder parts” (H-5). If readers fail to find any enjoyment in his poetry, finding them “All disgustfull be,” Herrick wishes literal ill upon them: “The extreame scabbe take thee, and thine, for me” (H-6), or that the reader’s hand will develop painful swelling, “for to unslate, or to untile that thumb!” (H-173). The charm of his poems becomes a weapon to strike the readers’ cut up, fragmented body parts, from “hinder parts,” to skin, to thumbs – all necessary parts to physically peruse the book and figuratively digest it. This turn echoes ironically the blazoning that the poetry performs on Julia and others. While Herrick may cut his love object to pieces, the reader dares not do the same to Herrick’s poetry itself.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Herrick’s cute verses then become as erotic, threatening, and powerful in their demands on the subject, much as Hamlet’s cute antics – meant to soften and diffuse his ostensible political power – end up being the most acute threat throughout the play, and arguably, the most acute threat to the play. Herrick’s poems engage the cute in edged modes similar to Hamlet – ones that alter our ideas of power, bodies, discourse objects, and of texts themselves. In destabilizing and threatening the typical structures of normativity and subjectivity, cuteness therefore disassembles the very ideas it presumably enacts.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Works Cited
Dobranski, Stephen B. Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Hammons, Pamela S. “Robert Herrick’s Gift Trouble: Male Subjects ‘Trans-shifting’ into Objects.” Criticism (47.1), Winter 2005. 31-64.
Herrick, Robert. Hesperides. The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick. Ed. L. C. Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.
Hillman, David A. and Carla Mazzio. “Introduction: Individual Parts.” The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. Ed. David A. Hillman and Carla Mazzio. New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1997. xi-xxix.
Ingram, Randall. “Robert Herrick and the Makings of Hesperides.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (38), 1998. 127-47.
Marcus, Leah S. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Masten, Jeffrey. “Is the Fundament a Grave?” The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. Ed. David Hillman and Carla Mazzio. New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1997. 128-145.
Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 185-203.
Ngai, Sianne. Cute, Zany, Interesting: Our Aesthetic Categories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Shakespeare. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. NY: Washington Square Press, 1992.
—–. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. NY: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Vickers, Nancy J. “Members Only: Marot’s Anatomical Blazons.” The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. Ed. David A. Hillman and Carla Mazzio. New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1997. 3-22.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Notes:

  1. 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0
  2. Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” in Notes to Literature, vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (NY: Columbia University Press, 1991), 37-54, at 51.
  3. It is anachronistic to investigate the “cute” – a term not yet coined in its modern sense, much less in popular use until the early twentieth century – in a seventeenth-century context. While of course, we ought not to abandon historicization entirely, we ought to, rather, “historicize differently” when it comes to aesthetics and specifically, categories of aesthetic experience. As Sianne Ngai iterates, “To restrict the analysis of [aesthetic categories] to a single artifact, or even to a cluster of artifacts produced in a thin slice of time, would be to immediately cut off a proper analysis of their meaning as aesthetic categories, which is to say objects widely distributed across what most literary and cultural scholars would consider culturally heterogeneous areas of time and space” (17). To examine vernacular styles “not only permits but in a certain sense requires relating artifacts that prevailing, period-based methods of doing cultural history discourage us from considering together” (17). Moreover, doing so in this context permits a wider reading and theoretical focus than a strictly historical study would allow, an approach that picks up on recent interest in time’s anachronisms, as iterated by Jonathan Gil Harris. Harris explains that the “vice-like grip that a certain kind of historicism continues to have on scholarship in the field” is challenged by revised impulses to separate “now” from “then,” a new embrace of anachronism’s “temporal distance and difference” (Harris n.p.). Harris reads Frederic Jameson’s famous imperative to “always historicize” as also suggesting that “historicism needs to do more than simply read synchronically or diachronically; it also needs to consider how its objects are anachronistic assemblages that are temporally out of joint with themselves and their moment” (Harris n.p.), a timely “out-of-timeness” that resonates deeply with Hamlet’s own disjointure. Jonathan Gil Harris, “’Untimely Mediations’: A Response to Griffiths, Raman, Charnes, and Abbas,” Early Modern Culture, An Electronic Seminar, “Special Issue: Timely Meditations” (Issue 6: 2007), http://emc.eserver.org/1-6/issue6.html.
  4. Hamlet’s “regression” to the anal stage of development – a stage which, according to Freud, is associated with disciplines of organization, cleanliness, and self-control – seems feasible if the line is read within the discourse of psychoanalysis. This is the sort of reading Jacques Lacan performs, a reading that highlights Hamlet’s clown-like play with signifiers and their substitutes. While the soiled stockings will prove critical later in my analysis, my reading of the scene for now will move away from psychoanalysis to better examine its most immediate dynamics of “cute” power.
  5. Films such as Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Dimples (1936) skirt the ideas of incest and pedophilia, particularly with Shirley’s father. A scene in Poor Little Rich Girl finds Shirley singing of her desire to marry him as she cuddles in his lap, courting spectators’ desires by charming and disarming the adult men in her films. This scene, of course, is inverted in Hamlet – a cutely antic Hamlet ends up staging a potentially threatening sexual advance in front of Ophelia’s father, assaulting the purity that has been frequent subject within the play.
  6. Jeffrey Masten,“Is the Fundament a Grave?”, 135.
  7. While this exact phrase was not known to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is not unconscionable to suggest the idea of this was present. James Bromley, in a chapter in the collection Sex Before Sex, writes on anilingus in “Rimming the Renaissance.” As I argue here in ahistoricizing the term, Bromley explains that Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) suggests Subtle directing Face to the backside of his body, “with the command to lick,” making “the barb akin to the modern ‘kiss my ass.’” The chapter, he explains, asks what work these sexualized references do in “gesturing toward alternate organizations of bodies, pleasures, and subjectivities even in contexts that load them with negative affect.” His anachronism is “productive in linking early modern and modern interruptions in the abstraction of sexual identities from sexual practices.” James M. Bromley, “Rimming the Renaissance,” Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 171-194, all references in this footnote at 171.
  8. Jeffrey Masten, “Toward a Queer Address: The Taste of Letters and Early Modern Male Friendship,” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 10 (2004), 374.
  9. Sarah Nicolazzo, “Reading Clarissa’s ‘Conditional Liking’: A Queer Philology,” Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 1 (August 2014), 205-225 at 206.
  10. Florio, A Worlde of Wordes [1598], Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library Series Critical Edition, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division; 2013), 33.
  11. I use the term “erotic acts” here rather than “intercourse,” largely to accommodate the historical differences between our concept of intercourse and that of the Renaissance. A product of discourse, as Foucault has noted, sex could refer to any number of acts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from chin chucking to annilingus to sex with trees or plants. For a full examination of this subject, see Sex Before Sex, as mentioned in footnote 13.
  12. Richard Halpern, Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
  13. Will Stockton, “‘I am made an ass’: Falstaff and the Scatology of Windsor’s Polity,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.4 (2007), 340-60, at 354.
  14. Kimberly Johnson, Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), Project MUSE, 26 Sep. 2014. 149.
  15. Braden, The Classics and English Renaissance Poetry, 181. qtd. in Dobranski 153.
  16. William Kerrigan, “Kiss Fancies in Robert Herrick,” George Herbert Journal (14: 1990-91), 155-71 at 155.
  17. Gordon Braden, The Classics and English Renaissance Poetry: Three Case Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 223.
  18. Marcus specifically makes this point in her Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth Century Literature (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978), 138. Childhood, Marcus writes, was an enduring and powerful symbol of nationhood and the nation’s future, “a symbol so compelling that the most extreme among [conservative Anglicans], quixotically abandoning their church’s orthodoxy out of devotion to an image of her past, denied or diluted her teachings on original sin and even went a considerable distance toward undoing the English Reformation” (44). I have two central thoughts about this. First, it cannot go unnoticed that in the same year as Braden, Marcus manages in this text to take a far more encompassing and nuanced view to Herrick’s works. And secondly, Marcus additionally has managed to use the seventeenth century to preview Lee Edelman’s later (and very twentieth- and twenty-first century) work on the child as face of the future in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). Edelman outlines a vision of queer theory that overturns the pervasive figure of the child, which has become the face of heteronormative reproductive privilege. His “no future” is an anti-negativist view,one that serves as a polemical call to overturn conventional ideas of futurism and forward thinking in light of queer theory.
  19. William Kerrigan, ibid, 157.
  20. Ibid.
  21. This includes punitive dismemberment, pictorial isolation, poetic emblazoning, satirical biting, scientific categorizing, and medical anatomizing.
  22. While this seems an admirable exercise, frequently these poems fell victim to their own stylization as they “attempted a microdescription that ultimately failed to be descriptive” and failed to establish synecdoche “as a properly operant trope by rhetorically stressing a fiction of lyric address in which the addressee was not a whole woman, but, rather, a part of a woman—a nose, or a tooth, or a hand” (Vickers 4). This may be a reason why blazons are poorly anthologized. An anthology from the 1950s compiled by Albert-Marie Schmidt, for example, eliminated portions of the blazons he included. Modern editors have similarly and “unfailingly truncated and imposed an order on the collection,” reordering misplaced limbs and correcting deformities to re-member the female body in a mode less unconventional, though perhaps still disturbing (5).
  23. Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Vol. XXIV, Part 2, The Harvard Classics (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14), Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/24/2/.
  24. Even today’s commoditized cuteness retains this aesthetic theory. Cute dolls often are disabled, weakened, or missing limbs – in fact, the popular 1980s line of Cabbage Patch Kids was parodied by the Garbage Pail Kids. These “kids” resembled the plump-cheeked Cabbage Patch Kids, but sported missing eyes, cranial ruptures, and other impediments. A Google search for “injured teddy bear” turns up a range of buyable bears, plastered with tiny bandages and clinging to petite crutches. Cute language often babbles or lisps, including that often pasted into memes of talking cats. For example, the famed “I can has cheezeburger” lolcat meme, created by Hawaiian blogger Eric Nakagawa and his friend Kari Unebasami in 2007, has now led to lolcat generators and an internet archive of “lolcats”: www.icanhas.cheezburger.com ) The popularity of lolcat and other memes showcases the continued aesthetic appeal of an animal, a toddler, or a young woman “putting on” the cute display of weak vulnerability through misspeech and impediment.
  25. Matthew Dimmock and Andrew Hadfield, eds., “Introduction,” Literature and Popular Culture in Early Modern England, (Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), 1-14, at 8.
  26. Peter Beal, “Notions in Garrison: The Seventeenth-Century Commonplace Book,” in New Ways of Looking at Old Texts: Papers of the Renaissance English Text Society, 1985-1991, ed. W. Speed Hill (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1993), 135.
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Source: http://retrofuturismofcuteness.net/cute-hamlet/