Ohio State University
“Do You Smell a Fault?”:
Detecting and Deodorizing King Lear’s Distinctly Feminine Odor
1> In the very opening scene of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Dukes Gloucester and Kent discuss the conception and birth of Gloucester’s younger and illegitimate son, Edmund.
“Kent: Is this not your son, my lord?
Gloucester: His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to it.
Kent: I cannot conceive.
Gloucester: Sir, this young fellow’s mother could, whereupon she grew round-wombed and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
Kent: I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper.” (1.1.7-17)
In this opening passage, the sexualized and olfactory connotations of the term “fault” become obvious; beyond the more obvious meanings of ‘defect’ or ‘failing,’ “fault” is early modern slang for the female genitals and is a hunting term for a “break in the line of scent in hunting” (Astington 1985: 330-331). Edmund’s mother is reduced to whore, or as John Astington bluntly claims, “entirely impersonal cunt, attracting Gloucester as she might any man… through the scent of sex, like a bitch in heat” (1985: 333). Even as Gloucester displaces his own “fault” in his son’s conception, he implicates his son as shameful and asks Kent if he can still smell Edmund’s mother’s body (her “fault”), the sexual taint on his own flesh, on his son’s flesh, or even in the air. Gloucester is led by his nose; like a hunting dog, he becomes a smell-smock, an early modern term for womanizer, which creates the very literal image of a man sniffing at a woman’s skirts, and he asks Kent to participate in the same act of sniffing around for the scent of sex or the smell of the maternal body.
2> The effluvia are gendered in this play as distinctly feminine, especially the noisome and noxious odors of the polluted or polluting female body, which calls for a recreation of the early modern Englishwoman’s aroma, and a study of the miasmic associations of this source of scent. All of the men in the play are affected by female bodies and smells, but this negative sniffing out of the feminine body is most apparent in the character of King Lear. Lear becomes emasculated, infantilized, and feminized throughout the play and this feminized version of his body is most obviously manifested in his admittance of his “mother.” It is also perceptible, however, in Lear’s auto-parosmia, his illusion of smell, namely that the female body is fetid and that his own body is emitting the same offensive odor, a conflation of the odor di femmina and the odor mortis. Lear confuses and conflates his “essence,” his “being” or “existence,” with his “fragrant essence,” or “scent.” Finally, once Lear detects his feminine odor, he goes about, with the help of Cordelia and the doctor, deodorizing this unpleasant scent, restoring himself back to his masculine and kingly state. Damning the feminine body and only sniffing out the negative miasmas, Lear finds the redemptive aromas of the feminine in Cordelia, but too late, contributing to both of their deaths.
3> Danielle Nagler in her very strong overview of the philosophies and controversies concerning smell in early modern England notes “King Lear contains more references to smell, its synonyms and cognates than any other of Shakespeare’s plays,” but “whilst there has been much debate over the relative importance of sight versus hearing in Shakespeare’s work, discussion of olfaction has been almost nonexistent” (Nagler 55, 43). The dismissal of the importance of smell should be obvious. The smell of the early modern body, especially the female body, is hard to denote in modern terms for many reasons: smell is ephemeral and difficult to identify and describe, and although the sense of smell is, of course, ubiquitous, it is dismissed at the same time, due to the problematic theories, philosophies, and controversies concerning smell from antiquity into the early Jacobean period (Palmer 62-63).
The Odor di Femmina
4> The female body, especially the maternal, in King Lear is “rank”; the fecund and fecal are conflated, so that the smells—pleasant and fetid—of fertility and the stench of death cannot be differentiated. As St. Augustine stated: “Inter urinas et faeces nascimur,” [“We are born between piss and shit].” Gail Kern Paster writes of the ambiguity surrounding the reproductive early modern female body: “Birth, like all events of the lower bodily stratum, has a larger part to play in the history of shame than in the history of representation” (163). For Paster, the bodies of reproductive women, whether the married wife or the wet-nurse, are both repellent and desirable, often at the same time. Much of this repulsion must do with the stenches associated with the process of birth. Paster describes some of the prevailing medical thoughts concerning the birthing byproducts: the afterbirth blood was useless, impure, foul, and stinking, and the smell of the nursing mother’s milk was considered repulsive to the husband (192-193, 204). In general, though blood was considered “laudable,” Paster asserts that this does not include womanly blood which was “demonized” (66). The female body, especially the reproductive body, was associated with flagrant stinks. Maybe Edgar, disguised as Tom Bedlam, should have claimed: “Fie, fo, and fum; I smell the blood of a British woman.”
5> At the same time, the smells of the reproductive female body must be desirable, or there would be no smell-smocks like Gloucester sniffing around. Sex is bestial and dehumanizing in King Lear, and it is not associated with the more masculine sense of sight, but a base and feminine olfaction. This is why Edgar, disguised as Tom, claims that he “did the act of darkness” with his mistress; in the darkened bed, sight is naught, but all of the other senses, especially scent which lingers even after the act, are employed. This focus on sex and scent is apparent in Alain Corbin’s study of the fetishizing of early modern French women’s redolence: armpit sweat, worn undergarments, leather shoes, and bosom bouquets (45), but he notes “one strange silence, probably reflecting a taboo: these erotic writings make no allusion to the seductive power of vaginal odors except for a few references to menstruation” (45-46).
6> In stark contrast, King Lear is a play with constant references to vaginal odors. We have already smelt the seductive power of Gloucester’s lover’s aroma; decades after impregnation, Gloucester still recalls her inviting smell. If the emanations of the early modern English woman’s body are problematic in that the potentially fertile body emits attractive scents and the recently sexualized body emits stench, the female body is dangerous because it functions like a poisonous flower: it draws the bee through its scent, the bee enters the flower, and then the bee leaves covered in the pollen on the way to the next flower, to further pollute and to become further polluted. The scent of the female body is intoxicating, but also polluting. Before we are born between piss and shit, we are also conceived there; so, before the stench of the mother’s body corrupts the child, the scent of the beloved’s body attracted her lover and attaches to him, altering his body as much as he has altered hers.
7> So, what did the early modern English woman smell like? I will attempt to offer a sniff into what real early modern Englishwomen smelled like. Firstly, we should consider early modern deodorization, the “removal of socially discreditable odors” (Largey and Watson 1027). Bathing was infrequent, as it was considered potentially harmful, but when one did partake in full-body immersion, the ritual was highly balsamic. The hands and face were probably cleansed with water daily, but the rest of the body infrequently. Queen Elizabeth I was considered extra-fastidious due to her monthly bathing ritual “whether she need it or no” (qtd. in Classen, Howes, and Synnott 71). Soap, made from fats and ashes, was not often used, but instead the body was given a dry rub with clean linen to remove dead skin, stale sweat, dirt, and other offensive particles (Cockayne 60).
8> In addition to the first step of deodorization, odorization, the “presentation of the self with accreditable odors through the ‘art’ of perfuming” would occur (Largey and Watson 1027). An augmentation of pleasing scents applied directly to the body enhanced the early modern Englishwoman’s desirability. The body was often perfumed with the then fashionable caprylic, or animal-based, odors: musk, civet, or ambergris, often compounded with other vegetable (flowers, spices, or herbs) accords. Ambergris, an excretory product of whales, has an “earthy” aroma “with seaweed qualities”; musk, secreted by deer, is described as “slightly ammoniacal”; and civet, from the anal glands of the civet cat, has a “disgusting odor, but when diluted it is very attractive” (Douek 223-224). Not only was the skin perfumed, but hair and cosmetics were also scented. Classen, Howes, and Synnott remind us of the ubiquity of early modern scented personal items—clothes, gloves, and even jewelry: “Not only would the body be perfumed, however, but virtually everything worn on the body as well” (72). The end result, due to natural bodily effluvia, strong animal-scented perfumes, and the plethora of aromatic materials would be overwhelming, and most likely offensive, to the modern nose. To the early modern male’s nose, however, feminine redolence is ambiguously regarded as it is both repulsive and attractive at once, and the threat of moral pollution and physical disease is always possible when one inhales.
9> Finally, there is one last, more imperceptible and even more intangible component of the smell of the early modern woman, the odor di femmina. Although the smell of the early modern woman changed after puberty and the associative discharge of menstrual blood, copulation truly enhanced or vitiated her scent. Femininity and female effluvia were most complete after sex; the male’s sperm, his aura seminalis, perfected the female’s aroma (Corbin 44-46). Too much sex and sperm, however, could taint a woman’s natural humors and sexualized scent creating a smell of putrefaction (Corbin 46), the odor mortis.
10> But what should the early modern Englishwoman smell like? There are the idealizations of the female body as scented hortus conclusus—a fragrant, aromatic bower of bliss—the idyllic female body of Petrarchan poetry. For example, see Sir Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 64” (1595) in his Amoretti, for his comparison of the beloved’s body to a fragrant garden, where even normally inodorous body parts (eyes, brows, nipples) smell like bellamores, pinks, and jasmines. Yet the ideal hortus conclusus is entirely self-contained and impermeable; in this sense, the body should not let any emanation escape and the ideal female body would be inodorous. Michelle de Montaigne asserts this latter position in his essay “On Smells” when he writes on how women should smell: “Mulier tum bene olet, ubi nihil olet,” [“A woman has a good smell when she has no smell].” In a variant of “women should be seen and not heard,” Montaigne maintains that women should be inodorous: “A woman smells most perfectly when she does not smell at all, just as her deeds are said to smell sweeter when they are unnoticed and unheard” (134).
11> In the early modern period with its hygienic attitudes somewhere between lax and non-existent, the suppression of bodily odor was difficult, yet the obfuscation of malodor and the enhancement of pleasurable scents are denounced in many works. The use of perfume is considered deceitful, because it does not enhance natural scents, but deceptively attempts to obscure stench. This is the reason, Olfactus, the Sense of Smell, does not win the contest for supremacy of the Five Senses in Thomas Tomkis’s allegorical comedy Lingua (1607): “None can wear civet, but they are suspected of a proper bad scent” (4.3.49). It is this very deceptive and alluring combination of natural odors, perfumed clothing, and the aura seminalis that emanates from Goneril and Regan, but not from the inodorous Cordelia. Cordelia, unwilling to leave her father in her sisters’ care, states very early in the play that she can smell out both their treachery and their “faults” despite their elaborate, and most likely highly perfumed, gowns: “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides, who cover faults, at last with shame derides” (1.1.286-88). Cordelia differentiates herself from her sisters in her simplicity in speech, dress, and presumably smell. Much has made been made of the elaborate costuming of Goneril and Regan, but few have considered the olfactory dimensions of such dress—sewn-in sachets, pomanders, and the perfumes of the nobility—which would obscure the smell of disease and the aura seminalis associated with the evil sisters later in the play. Goneril and Regan’s “plighted cunning” seems to refer both to their promised lies to their father and their pleated dresses; the external deception of proper, aristocratic costuming, including cosmetics and perfumes, belies their internal deception of themselves as good daughters and faithful wives. The “plighted cunning” also has another implication of their pleated cunts, so that the ornate gowns both conceal and accentuate their “faults” simultaneously. Goneril and Regan emit a sexualized stench beneath their perfumed exteriors emanating from their “faults” that Lear will not “unfold” until much later in the play, but Cordelia, who remains inodorous throughout most of the play, can detect early on.
Sexual Stenches & the Reek of Disease
12> The very names of the two sisters marries together the imagery of the noble and the sexually diseased; Regan is a cognate of “queen,” while Goneril’s name recalls “gonorrhea,” the sexually transmitted disease, often conflated with syphilis, noted for its malodorous discharge (Adelman 298, n. 18). Goneril and Regan emit such sexualized and diseased stench throughout King Lear, but stench, no matter its source, in early modern beliefs is both physically and morally corruptible, and therefore, potentially deadly. Margaret Healey, writing on the spread of venereal disease and the plague in the early modern period notes, “You could be ‘touched’ in this period without being touched—without the mediation of the senses” (23). Healey ignores the olfactory implications of disease although many early modern writers realize that epidemic diseases come from one of two sources: contact or “contagion in the air” (Montaigne 135). Robert Burton notes that the nose is an “organ of health” and that “by avoiding bad smells, as by choosing good, which do as much alter and affect the body many times as diet itself” (I. 158). The close connection between the nose and the brain makes this sense more directly able to affect mood and overall well-being than the other senses (Palmer 63). Stench, in its deadly incarnations found in King Lear, whether the morbidific smell of decaying carcasses, the rank smell of the human body, or even the miasmic odor of wetlands and graveyards, is the smell of the sexual female body.
13> King Lear is strongly affected by his olfactory prowess, and his acute sense of smell affects his interactions with his daughters. Lear will wrongly associate morbidific and deceitful smells with his good daughter Cordelia, although her inodorous state differentiates her from her smelly sisters. When he renounces Cordelia after she fails his love-trial, he equates her to “the barbarous Scythian” (1.1.117). The Scythian is a loaded image in early modern works. The Scythian represents the foreign, the cruel, the unnatural, and was associated with both the ancient Amazon who defied social and sexual expectations and the more modern, unruly Irish (Roberts 101). The Scythian women, frightening in their matriarchal lifestyle and their ability to defeat men in battle, are according to Montaigne, also terrifyingly seductive with their perfumed and painted bodies (134-135). They are viragos in temperament, but they attempt to veil their masculine attributes beneath a feminine aura and aroma. At this point, this is how Lear feels about Cordelia. He feels betrayed; he believes his daughter is a cruel, unnatural “sometime daughter,” a “wretch whom Nature is ashamed almost to acknowledge hers” (1.1.120, 1.1.217-218). He can almost smell her treachery. There is a sort of vaguely sexualized stench Lear associates with Cordelia, possibly stemming from her assertion to share her love between her father and future husband. Lear, of course, is wrong about Cordelia; France, who will marry the disowned and dowerless daughter, realizes from the first that Cordelia is really the “balm of Lear’s age” (1.1.220). Cordelia is not associated with the corrupt and corruptible stink of the sexualized and fertile female body, but rather, the restorative “balm” of medicinal aromatics and the redemptive aroma of sanctity. Lear eventually smells this out, but to late to save either of their lives.
14> Lear’s body slowly devolves throughout the play into an odoriferous feminine body, not the redemptive balm of Cordelia, but the putrescent, pathogenic bodies of Goneril and Regan. Lear’s body and his odor devolve because his body is in a liminal state; his is the body of the geriatric and the infant. The geriatric body and the infantile body are fungible in this tragedy, and Lear’s body vacillates between the two. The infant is marked by his insistence on the supremacy of smell and touch over the other, less developed senses, and the geriatric usually suffers from presbyosmia, the loss of the olfactory senses with age, but Lear’s sense of smell is acute and guides him throughout the play. Lear tells Gloucester, “Thou knowest the first time that we smell air, we wail and cry” (4.6.178-180), but at eighty, Lear still finds himself smelling, wailing, and crying.
15> The two age extremes are also hard to differentiate from the feminine body in several respects. Firstly, the feminine body is a “grotesque” body, described by Gail Kern Paster as “open, permeable, effluent, leaky” as opposed to the masculine body—“whole, closed, opaque, self-contained,”—but “to be otherwise is both shameful and feminizing” (92). The geriatric and infantile bodies, like the feminine leaky vessel, are incontinent. No longer just born between piss and shit, these bodies are “at fault” with their own “faults,” defecating, urinating, drooling, and otherwise leaking inappropriately. For Lear, this incontinence most often manifests itself in his tears, “women’s weapons,” but also his inability to control the movements of his “mother” and his heart (2.4.119). Secondly, both bodies seem dependent on the female body, however grudgingly, as nurse or mother. Lear is initially upset with Cordelia for ruining his plans of setting his “rest on her kind nursery” as he “unburdened” of the crown and “all cares” could “crawl toward death” (1.1.124-125, 1.1.36-41). Goneril notes Lear’s dependence and his temper tantrums to her servant, Oswald: “Old fools are babes again, and must be used with checks as flatteries, when they are seen abused” (1.3.19-20). Finally, the bodies of old men, children, and especially women, are considered to be composed of cold and wet elements, as opposed to the hotter, drier constitutions of men, and are therefore linked to the foul odors and corruption associated with cold, damp, diseased places such as swamps and graveyards (Filipczak 22-23, Classen et al. 38, 49).
16> Lear, caught in this liminal state, is now at the mercy of his two flattering daughters/mothers/nurses, Goneril and Regan, but he quickly realizes their deceitfulness. Lear anathematizes against both daughters, and he summons strong imagery with secondary olfactory implications that will later affect Lear’s perception of his own effluvium. Calling upon the goddess Nature, Lear invokes a curse of infertility and disease upon Goneril:
“Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organ of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her.” (1.4.274-77)
Lear, deeming Goneril a cruel daughter, realizes that she would make a worse mother, so he appeals for his daughter’s defeminization, the curse of amenorrhea. By stopping up her menstrual blood, he is making her transformation into an unnatural monster complete. There were two competing theories of the need for menstruation in the early modern period that come from earlier physicians: purification, the purgation of improper humors (Hippocrates) and plethora, the “expelling of excess blood” (Galen) (Katz 442). Either way, a woman needed to expel the menstrual blood to avoid polluting her body. Helkiah Crooke, in his Microcosmographia, notes that although there is sufficient evidence to prove that menstrual blood is only “noisome excrement” and a “poyson” to the woman’s and others’ bodies, he believes that menstrual blood is, regardless of its noxious stench, natural and beneficial for the infant (289). This is because all the bodily fluids, including the breast milk for the infant, were reducible to blood. Lear, stopping up Goneril’s blood, also stops up the release of menstrual odor. He denies her the natural smells of her own body, obscuring her “essence” as woman.
17> Lear asks the feminized and maternal Nature to do the unnatural and unmaternal by stopping Goneril’s menses. Lear’s malediction is almost verbatim the self-inflicted hex that Lady Macbeth insists upon in order to have the masculine qualities needed to murder Duncan. Jenijoy La Belle notes that the cancellation of her natural menstrual cycle, after she “unsexes” herself, is one of the factors that causes Lady Macbeth to go mad: “The smell of blood and the stains on her hands obsessively remind Lady Macbeth not only of Duncan’s spilled blood but also of that natural spillage of menstrual blood she has tried to prevent as a necessary prelude to the killing of a king” (385, my italics). Lady Macbeth is haunted by olfactory and visual hallucinations, but it is Lear, and not Goneril, who will suffer similar olfactory phantasms that are concentrated on the odor of the diseased, corrupting, and feminine body.
18> Lear continues his mephitic tirade against Goneril when he hopes that infectious vapors cause her to become lame and disfigured: “Strike her young bones, / You taking airs, with lameness./ … Infect her beauty, You fen-sucked fogs drawn by the pow’rful sun/ To fall and blast her pride” (2.4.160-162, 2.4.163-166). Here we can witness the pathogenic qualities of the air and how Lear links contagious disease, the beautifully seductive female body, and noxious stench. Lear, believing that Tom Bedlam must have been reduced to poverty by similarly horrible daughters, curses those nonexistent children: “Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air/ Hang fated o’er men’s faults fall on their daughters!” (3.4.68-69). In this line, the near homophones of “fault” and “fall” seem to recall the earlier pun on “faults” in Gloucester and Kent’s opening speech, implying that corruption is cyclical, but begins and ends with the stench of the female body. The absent mother’s body attracted the father through the smell of her “fault” and she was the site of original contagion. The father’s “fault” is both his mistake in conceiving the daughters and his own subsequently feminized, flawed body. The daughters’ “faults,” via their miasmas, further infect the father’s body. Finally, as punishment for this cyclic pollution, the air becomes infected with sexualized plague which will “fall” upon the daughters’ pathogenic bodies.
19> Lear does not just curse Goneril with disease, but Goneril also contaminates Lear. The diseased female body has infected his, but as Healey had stated about the spread of disease in this period, “You could be ‘touched’…without being touched” (23). Without sexual contact, Goneril has infected Lear, but the symptoms of the disease seem to evoke both syphilis/gonorrhea and the plague, diseases also contracted through smelling infected air:
“We’ll no more meet, no more see one another.
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,
Or rather a disease that lies in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle
In my corrupted blood.” (2.4. 219-223)
Lear begins this diatribe by denying the supremacy of sight, and maybe also indicating the blindness associated with syphilis. This disease that is in his blood and flesh is not only in his body, it is his body; it is a grotesque, open, oozing, swollen body whose noxious and contagious stench reek of the odor mortis. His blood has been “corrupted” in an unspecified, though sexualized, way. These fetid symptoms conflate the plague and venereal disease, both considered to be transmitted through sexual touch and inhaled as noxious miasmas. Again, the site of contagion is unknown: Was it the deceased queen’s “fault” or the smell of Goneril’s pungent “fault” that has corrupted or reinfected Lear’s blood and body?
20> Boils, plague-sores, and carbuncles are automatically recognized by sight and touch, but even hidden beneath perfumed clothing (“plighted cunning”) these putrescent signifiers—the horrid stench of released pus and dead skin cells from an ulcerated boil, or the pong of malodorous sexual discharge—can also be smelt out as symptoms of plague and the pox. When Lear claims that Goneril is the cause of fetid malodor in his body, he has finally smelt out his daughters’ deception. Lear will state this directly when he encounters the blinded Gloucester: “I found them [out], there I smelt them [Goneril and Regan] out” (4.5. 100-102). Lear can detect his own horrid stench that began with his daughters’ miasmas polluting his body.
21> When writing on the connection between all the olfactory images of rotting mortal flesh and the moral, political, familial, and sexual pollutions in Hamlet, Richard D. Altick notes that Shakespeare chooses the odor mortis because, “Every Elizabethan citizen knew from personal observation the reek of a gangrenous wound or a cancerous sore” (167). The smell of mortality is a signifier of physical and even spiritual corruption. Lear, unlike Gloucester who denounces his culpability, incriminates himself when he refers to his own diseased and reeking body. And what does Lear’s body reek of? The putrescence of rotting flesh? The stench of death? The fetor of the female body? For Lear, all of these malodors are one and the same.
Lear’s Feminine Foulness
22> After Lear curses his daughters and believes he has been polluted by their distinctly feminized, sexualized miasmas, Goneril and Regan shut their father out of doors to deal with the feminine Mother Nature and her tempest. Lear, stripped of his kingly vestments and penetrated by the “sulphurous and thought-executing fires” of the storm, the inundations of rain, and his own feminine tears, stinks of the fecund and fecal mother Nature. Adelman writes on the androgynous nature of the storm, which at first seems male (the thunderer god), but also feminine (a witch’s storm), but in her estimation, “the very wetness of the storm comes to seem a sexual wetness” (112). Although Adelman does not mention this connection, this “sexual wetness” again links together female bodily effluvia, the cold-wet humors, the smell of sex, and the corrupting miasmas of disease. The storm is also “foul” in almost every sense of the word: grossly offensive to the senses of sight and smell, diseased, dirty, detestable, and morally and spiritually polluted.
23> Lear’s body is now the feminine grotesque body, penetrated by water, leaking water, and stinking of every corruptible and feminine stench. Instead of protecting his waning masculinity, Lear embraces his new, feminine odor. Replacing the crown that Lear has given away, Lear wanders the heath wearing a crown of his own design:
“Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow weeds,
With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckooflowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.” (4.4.3-6)
His crown is “rank,” “luxurious and vigorous in growth,” but also “having an offensively strong smell,” “corrupt, foul,” and “lustful, licentious” (OED), again relating the smells of corruption and fertility. Philippa Berry notes that although all of the “‘weeds’ in Lear’s garland… seem to confirm a negative view of ‘waste,’ all those plants could be read as signs of fruitfulness, since they typically grow in moist and fertile ground; moreover, all were held to have some beneficial effects” (164). In addition to the confusion between fecundity and the fecal, most of these weeds can help with various female ailments and complaints. Lear, unable to escape the redolence of the feminine body, has embraced this corruptive odor as his own stench, just as he admitted that Goneril was his flesh. Lear’s body smells of this cold, wet, diseased femaleness, or at least he believes so, to the point that he must wipe his hand before extending it to Gloucester, so as not to pollute his friend.
24> Although Lear has embraced this feminine and fetid odor, he still rails against it. This odor is him and not him at the same time; he has inhaled female stench, his wife’s body, his daughters’ “faults,” the cold-wet storm of Nature, but he insists he is “every inch a king,” not a polluted female body. Lear’s “essence,” his very “existence,” his “being,” is compromised because his “essence” is also his “perfume” or “scent” (OED). Because who we are and how we smell are fungible in King Lear, Lear must differentiate himself from his newly feminized scent. All of this vitriol toward the female body and its effluvia becomes most apparent in Lear’s most elaborate and extended speech on the corrupted female body.
25> Pointing to a phantom woman, most likely referring to Goneril, Lear states:
“… Behold yon simpering dame
Whose face between her forks presageth snow,
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name:
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t
With a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist
They’re centaurs, though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend’s; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There’s the sulphury pit, burning, scalding,
Stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie; pah, pah!
Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
To sweeten my imagination. There’s money for thee.
Gloucester: O, let me kiss that hand.
Lear: Here, wipe it first; it smells of mortality.” (4.6.118-133)
Lear, after all of the curses and repulsion aimed at his daughters’ sexualized and therefore pungent bodies, is haunted by a stinking and feminine hybrid. This imagined female marries together aspects of the mythic (centaurs), the divine (above the waist), the infernal (at the genitals and below), the bestial (the fitchew and the horse), and the monstrous (a face between the legs), and it all stinks. Women play modest, but they are all really prostitutes. Twice Lear states this, in his reference to “fitchews”—polecats, a European skunk—and the “soiled horse.” “Fitchew” was a common early modern term for “prostitute,” linking together bodily, moral, and sexual corruption that can literally be smelt out. The prostitute’s attractive aura seminalis has been compromised by too much semen, creating a horrid stench instead. Both Diane Ackerman and Alain Corbin affirm that many Indo-European words for “prostitute” and any member of the skunk family are related, and both refer to the earlier root word for “rotting” (Ackerman 21). The “soiled horse” creates a homophonic pun between “horse” and “whores,” while “soiled,” according to the OED, can refer to a horse “fed with fresh-cut green fodder,” but the more common connotations of “defiled and dirtied” should also come to mind, creating the image of the lusty and irrational beast covered in its own feces and urine with flies flitting around the rump.
26> Writing on the pessimistic view of sex in King Lear, Robert H. West notes the distressed Lear’s belief that “sex is an insult to mankind and mercilessly alien—or that man is a beast” (56). As Alain Corbin explains, “Olfaction as the sense of lust, desire, and impulsiveness is associated with sensuality. Smelling and sniffing are associated with animal behavior” (6). The sense of smell and the smell of sex are not exclusive, but interconnected in early modern beliefs, and both are connected to a bestial nature. Danielle Nagler notes that in all of the inversions of authority and hierarchy in King Lear, that smell is the most important sense as “man must become animal to survive” (55). Gloucester is no longer the only smell-smock, but any man who engages in sex has been led by his nose and is no more than beast. Both men and women are implicated in the bestial degradation of sex. Whether we read “fitchew” and “soiled horse” as literal beasts or, respectively, “prostitute” and “dirty whores,” neither “go to’t”—Lear cannot even name the sexual act—“with a more riotous appetite” than the deceptively chaste woman. Here gustatory, olfactory, and tactile imagery is brought together in the image of a hedonistic orgy of sex and food.
27> The female body and its odors are dichotomized, insisting upon the earlier good-bad alignment of Cordelia versus her sisters. The female body is split in half—right at the “fault” line—at the “girdle,” the “waist,” the genitals. Lear has already admitted his own “fault” in disowning Cordelia: “O most small fault, how ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!” (1.4. 262-63). Cordelia’s “fault,” either her verbal blunder during the love-trial or her sexualized body, appears offensive at first, until Lear was able to compare her with his other daughters. The language of division and the bestial imagery continues with the mention of “centaurs,” traditionally half-man and half-horse known for their extreme lust. The very unnatural inversion of gender roles recalls Lear’s earlier connection between Cordelia and the Scythians/Amazons and recalls other Classical mythical female beasts—the mermaid, the siren, the harpy, etc, as well as early modern allegorical female villains, namely Spenser’s Error, while also anticipating Milton’s Sin. The rational and beautiful half, the upper torso, is “woman” possessed by the gods and may be associated with the divine and masculine sense of sight, but the lower half is bestial and demonic, belonging to the more sensual, feminine, and base senses of touch, taste, and especially smell.
28> Lear continues by moving away from pagan monsters to eternal spiritual and olfactory damnation: “There’s hell.” “Hell” is another loaded early modern term with religious, theatrical, sexual, and olfactory implications. Hell is traditionally associated with horrid stenches, again, connecting moral and physical corruption with punishment. Dan Mackenzie notes that “smell” is related to a German dialect word for “hell,” smela, derived from an earlier word for “pitch” (73). “Hell” is also common early modern slang for female genitals and is invoked in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 144” where the Dark Lady’s body is a polluting place that inflicts the youth’s and the poet’s bodies with venereal disease. The female body and sex, as stated earlier are not associated with sight, but with smell and touch; this is why this “hell” is a place of “darkness,” recalling Tom’s “act of darkness” with his imaginary mistress and anticipating Edgar’s final confrontation with his brother, referring to Edmund’s mother’s body as the “dark and vicious place” which “cost” Gloucester his eyes (5.3.174). The tactile and olfactory castigation in “hell,” whether the punishment of the Christian inferno or the regretful pain caused by contracting a sexually transmitted disease, is the same, as both involve “burning, scalding, stench, consumption.” The stenches associated with the female body’s natural effluvia, sex, the open sores of syphilis, death, and eternal damnation are conflated and confused in Lear’s distracted mind, so much so, that he chokes on the noxious, and more importantly imaginary, miasma: “Fie, fie, fie; pah, pah!”
29> Lear demands “civet,” perfume created from cat secretion, from an invented “apothecary” to disguise the smells of the sexualized female body. Lear can no longer stand to smell the female body. The perfume must “sweeten his imagination.” Before Lear extolled Tom Bedlam as “unaccommodated man,” the very “thing itself,” the very essence of man, because Tom “ow’st the worm no silk… the cat no perfume” (3.4.107, 104-106). Lear, also semi-nude and removed from all the fineries and deceptions of the court—flattering daughters, rich silk gowns, and especially misleading perfumes—is not as lucky as the simple beggar because he cannot escape the stench of the female body, and now asks for the “civet” which he claimed as so deceptive earlier. There are no women present, but Lear smells this feminine stench on his own flesh. Since noxious odors are the cause of madness and the origin of contagious disease, the civet may act as a smell-trap, capturing the corruptible stink of the female body, or as a restorative aromatic, creating a stronger, competitive scent that erases the polluting stink. What is paradoxical about Lear’s insistence on civet is that these caprylic perfumes do not disguise natural body odors, but heighten the sexual smell because they smell the most like human sexual secretions (Ellis 97). After this diatribe, Gloucester recognizes his king, and Lear recognizes his own smell: the “smell of mortality,” the odor mortis, which for Lear is also the odor di femmina.
Deodorizing Lear’s Odor Mortis
30> Odors affect not only physical health, but also the mind and emotion, for good or ill. Lear, in his mad state, is rescued by Cordelia’s men, and now that he has detected a female stench on his body, he must be deodorized and then reodorized to be restored to a masculine, kingly state. Cordelia recognizes Lear’s stench as coming from his debased lodgings, but not necessarily from a feminine site of contagion: “Wast thou fain, poor father, to hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn, in short and musty straw?” (4.7.39-41). Once in the care of Cordelia and her doctor, Lear is washed while sleeping.
31> Lear’s deodorization begins with the removal of his rank crown and wet rags, because as Robert Burton maintains, “Generally to fair nice pieces, old age and foul linen are two most odious things, a torment of torments” (I. 371). Lear’s bathing is most likely a dry cleansing involving clean linen, as “water not only corrupted the body, but physically corrupted it as well by rendering it moist and soft—feminine—and vulnerable to unhealthy air and disease” (Classen et al. 70). Lear’s body, already affected by the miasmas of the feminine Nature, the aspersion of the “sexualized wetness” of the storm and the petrichor of the heath, and the diseased, sexual stench of his daughters’ “faults,” cannot be made more wet or feminine without the potential to annihilate his masculinity. After bathing, the still slumbering Lear is put into “fresh garments,” maybe the fine attire of the king with all of its aromatic niceties (4.7.55-57). The doctor suggests “simple operatives” (4.4.14), herbal aromatics to restore Lear to his health and senses, and to remove the feminine reek of his rank crown. Lear’s deodorization is so effective that he no longer recognizes his own hands (4.7.55), as they have been cleansed of the stench of mortality and the reek of sex.
32> After the process of detecting and deodorizing the feminine stench from Lear’s flesh, Cordelia calls for soothing music, and then when Lear wakes, the “balm” of his old age kisses her father. The breath emanating from her lips is medicinal, restoring Lear to his masculine, kingly state: “O my dear father, restoration hang thy medicine on my lips” (4.7.27-28). Although no odor of Cordelia is explicitly mentioned, the ancient “association of fragrance and kisses was part of a whole olfactory /amatory complex” (Classen et al. 27). In this belief, the soul, the breath, and the kiss were interchangeable, and Cordelia acknowledges this when she kisses her father. Cordelia is not associated with the sexualized, pathogenic miasmas of her sisters, but instead the restorative balms of medicine and the saintly aroma of sanctity. Cordelia, in her inodorous state, as opposed to the reeking stenches of her sisters, emits a subtle “aroma of sanctity,” the sweet scent associated with saints, martyrs, and Paradise, or the scent of funerary rites with the hope of “overcoming death, the promise of redemption, and the seemingly tangible connection with the spirit world” (Evans 196). This is exactly how Cordelia’s kiss functions in this scene. This is the moment that Lear is reborn, regains his sanity, redeems his relationship with his daughter, and reclaims his kinghood.
33> After her recuperative kiss, order is temporarily restored. Lear recognizes and greets his daughter: “For, as I am a man, I think this lady to be my child Cordelia” (4.7.71-72). Coppelia Kahn notes the importance of Lear’s proper use of the nouns “man,” lady,” and “child” as Lear realizing his role as father and king, or his acceptance of the intended familial, gendered, and intergenerational relationships he has subverted throughout (48). Threatened with imprisonment by Edmund, Lear remains in high spirits because of his reunion with Cordelia, but quickly reverts to his inversion of power dynamics: “Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the gods themselves throw incense” (5.3.20-21). Incense, used in both pagan and Christian, especially Catholic, rituals ascertains the hierarchical relationship between the worlds of the divine and the mortal (Evans 194). But here, the order has been subverted, as Lear believes the gods will attempt to contact and appease him, instead of Lear expressing gratitude for the return and forgiveness of his daughter. Forgetting that these are the same gods who “kill us for their sport” (4.2.38), Lear’s speech is unintentionally hubristic, and the “sacrifices” will be Lear and Cordelia. Suzanne Evans states that “the scent of a martyr is not the scent of death, but the sweet smell of life” (208). Although this may be true in hagiographies, the same cannot be said for this tragedy. At the end of the play, the bodies of the dead fill the stage with the odor mortis. The smell-smock Gloucester dies; Edmund, born from his mother’s “fault” dies; the adulterous Goneril and cruel Regan die at each other’s hands; and Lear, hoping that Cordelia still lives, dies. Even Cordelia, the closest we have to a martyr, dies, leaving the stage littered with bodies and reeking of death, not the “sweet smell of life.”
34> Lear’s realization of the complete and myriad powers of the feminine body and its olfactory effects on the permeable masculine state comes much too late. Damning the feminine body and only sniffing out the negative miasmas, Lear finds the redemptive aromas of the feminine in Cordelia, but too late. In the final scene, Lear carries the hanged Cordelia onto the stage in an inversion of the pieta. He watches her lips for breath, obviously for a sign of life, but he may also be searching for her scent, as “breath” comes from the Old English word for “odor” (OED). Instead of denouncing female effluvia, whether emanating from Goneril and Regan, Mother Nature, or his own body, Lear is now searching frantically for this recuperative and redemptive aroma which no longer emanates from his daughter’s lips. Danielle Nagler reads Lear’s “smell of mortality” as the smell of truth, which “incorporates complete the smell of man” (58). What Nagler neglects is that in King Lear the smell of man, ultimately, is also the smell of woman. If Lear, now realizing his own inextricable place in the continuum of feminine odors, can no longer find Cordelia’s “essence,” her “scent” and her “existence,” he must also die because his own “essence” is lost.
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1. “Smell-Smock.” OED. This term, used by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Middleton and Heywood, denies the supremacy of sight in determining a sexual mate.
2. Coppelia Kahn writes of King Lear’s madness, especially his “hysterica passio,” as the result of his sense of loss of a mother; Kahn believes that Lear tries to make his daughters his mother to fill this void (40). Janet Adelman also believes that Lear must confront not only the “terrifying dependence on female forces outside himself, but also an equally terrifying femaleness within himself--a femaleness that he will come to call his ‘mother’” (104). I tend to agree with Adelman’s assertion more that this “hysteria” or “mother” is a manifestation of a gendered confusion.
3. “Essence” 1a. “Being, existence,” 3a. “Specific being, manner of existing, ‘what a thing is’; nature, character,” 10. “spec. A fragrant essence; a perfume, scent. Somewhat arch.” OED.
4. Edgar quotes from the old nursery rhyme: “Child Roland to the dark tower came, / His word was still “Fie, fo, and fum; / I smell the blood of a British man.” (3.4.184-186)
5. Ellis Havelock writes of the distinctive odors of menstruation. Besides the smell of menstrual blood, women’s breath may smell of chloroform or violets, and the body, especially the armpits, may exude a leathery scent, the smell of “sheep in rut,” ambergris, or violets (64, 80).
6. Ellis Havelock states that the seminal odor is often compared to a he-goat smell, and that the sexualized stench of a lecherous woman is likewise described as “hircine,” or goatish (64).
7. “Balm” is medicinal, but the OED’s initial definitions stress the aromatic qualities of the plant.
8. The similarity between the extremely young and old is probably best expressed in Jaques’ “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy from As You Like It; when discussing the very aged, Jacques states, “[The] last scene… is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (2.7.162-165). In King Lear, there are several instances of this conflation of infant and senior; for example, when the Fool chides Lear for making his daughters his mother, giving them the rod, and pulling down his breeches (1.4.167-169).
9. Gail Kern Paster notes that the aged usually tend to be drier and contain less blood, which explains Lady Macbeth’s amazement at how much King Duncan bleeds (92). Leonard Lessius, a Jesuit physician, however, in his guide to prolonging life and health , believe that old men “grow dry and cold in excess” so “likewise they become full of moisture by reason of excremental humors” (150-151). For Lessius, coldness and moisture creates a cloudy, phlegmatic brain (82-83). Elderly men are able to be simultaneously wet and dry, but are almost always cold.
10. Paster notes that blood was the basis for semen, sweat, tears, milk, and all of other bodily fluids, and that all were relatively fungible (9).
11. See also Danielle Nagler on smelling out treachery and plots (43).
12. See also Coriolanus, where Martius curses the Romans with “boils and plagues” that can be smelt even before they are seen, and can infect purely through inhalations and without physical contact (1.4.30-34).
13. Richard Altick uses these variant definitions of “rank,” as both overly fertile and offensive to the nose, when writing on Hamlet’s description of Denmark as an “unweeded garden/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/ possess it merely” (173).
14. The feminine benefits of Lear’s garland include: reducing venereal disease (fumitory, nettles), either provoking menstruation or ceasing heavy periods (darnel, hardocks, nettles), aiding in conception (darnel), stopping the “whites” (hardocks), ending “green sickness” (cuckooflowers), and helping in an easier delivery (darnel).
The “whites” are any mucous discharge from the vagina, and “green sickness” or “chloris” is the anemia associated with younger women who have just started their menses (OED). The information about the medicinal properties of these plants comes from John Gerarde’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants (1597) and Rembert Dodoens’s A New Herball, or Historie of Plants (1595).
15. Peter Rudnytsky reads this face between the forks as the vagina dentata (304). For Rudnytsky, however, the nose is a vagina (299), Gloucester’s bleeding eye sockets are vaginas (293), and the mouth is vagina, so poor Gloucester ends up with four vaginas (two of which are menstruating)!
16. There is also the suggestion of the stage’s hell-mouth, which “probably emitted smoke and a hideous stench” during appropriate scenes (Harris 476). Harris, attempting to recapture “the smell of Macbeth,” describes the horrid odor of the fireworks used in the beginning to create the witches’ storm scene and its lingering effect on the stage, as well as the memory associations to the recent Gunpowder Plot. Possibly, the same effect may have occurred during the production of King Lear. Made mostly of dung and eggs, if used during the storm scene, the stench could still possibly be smelt in the theater at this point. Lear does use similar language for both the storm and the “hell,” as both stink of sulphur and both negatively affect his mind.
17. “Consumption,” the term used in 1623 Folio, connotes destruction, waste, and disease (OED). “Consummation,” the term used in the 1608 Quarto edition, (and my preference) implies the completion of marriage by the sexual act, or death (OED).
18. Aromatics were often used to treat hysterical fits in women, the “mother” Lear had complained of. In Galenic beliefs, the uterus could travel around the body, causing feelings of suffocation and hysteria if the womb moved too far up in the body. Although Helkiah Crooke denies that the uterus can really move or smell (the persistent Galenic belief), he does believe that it was much affected by the “subtile vapours” of any strong (pleasant or offensive) odor (252). Shakespeare’s son-in-law Dr. John Hall often used aromatic treatments for fits of the mother. He would burn fetid fumes--usually burnt horse hoofs, or castory (beaver musk) and galbanum (musky gum resin) dissolved in vinegar and sulphur—under the nose of a patient and anoint the “inner part of the matrix with musk, nutmeg, and lilies” (132). The combination of pleasant smells between the legs and fetid odors at the nose was supposed to lure the womb back to its proper place.
John Hall also used aromatics for men, such as a twenty-year old with “falling-sickness and hypochondriak melancholy” (23). Robert Boyle, in his Essays of the Strange Subtility, Great Efficacy, and Determinate Nature of Effluviums (1673), notes that although headaches and hysterical fits are often caused by “morbidifick odours” and victims are restored by “sal aromaniak” held beneath the nose, the aversion to strong odors does not affect the womb, but the “nervous system… because I have known Odours have notable effects even upon Men” (who also benefit from sal armoniak) (35-41).
19. “Essence” in the OED can mean one’s being or existence; one’s character or nature; or in an archaic definition: a “fragrant essence, perfume, or scent.”
Colleen E. Kennedy is a PhD student in the English Department at the Ohio State University. She has her MA (English) and BA (English/Classics) from the University at Buffalo. Her research interests include early modern embodiment and sensory history of early modern drama and poetry. She is currently working on a project on the use of perfumes and incense in the early modern theatre.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Three (2010): Digital Archives