Cora Fox traces the ways the gendered governing emotion of merriness negotiates and solidifies communities in ‘Merriness, affect, and community in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor’. Her essay points to how recent work on positive emotions in contemporary affect theory, particularly informed by Sara Ahmed, can be placed in dialogue with literary accounts of emotion as framed and imagined in aesthetic forms. The central fantasy of merriness that the play constructs offers unique insights into everyday early modern sociality.
Bringing together research on textual representations of various forms of positive feeling in early modern Europe, this collection of essays highlights the diverse and nuanced cultural meanings of happiness and well-being in this period, which is often characterized as a melancholy age. Interdisciplinary methodological approaches—informed by emotion studies, affect theory, and the contemporary cognitive sciences—provide various frames for understanding how the period cultivated and theorized positive emotions, as well as how those emotions were deployed in political, social, and intellectual contexts. Pointing to the ways the binary between positive and negative might be inadequate to describe emotive structures and narratives, the essays promote analysis of new archives and offer surprising readings of some texts at the center of the Renaissance canon. In addition to an introduction that provides an overview of work in contemporary studies of positive emotions and historical accounts of good feeling in early modern Europe, the book includes three sections: 1) rewriting discourses of pleasure, 2) imagining happy communities, and 3) forms, attachment, and ambivalence. The essays focus on works by such writers as Burton, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Traherne, and Webster, as well as on other kinds of texts circulating in the period. While focused on English writings, essays on continental writers contribute to a wider context for understanding these emotions as European cultural constructions. Finally, the volume offers windows onto the complex histories of happiness, well-being, humor, and embodiment that inform the ways emotions are experienced and negotiated in the present day.
The volume editors provide a rationale for focusing on positive emotions during the European Renaissance, accounting for not only dominant historicist scholarship on Galenic humoral theory, Stoicism, and larger questions of early modern embodiment but also newer methodological directions in affect theory, psychology, and the affective sciences as they may be applied to early modern literature and culture. The editors argue that understanding the interrelationship between positive and negative emotions and how such distinctions are constructed and historically situated offers a new vantage point from which to interrogate conceptions of what constitutes pleasure and who is afforded well-being and happiness in the past as well as in the present day.