'What's the matter?', Polonius asks Hamlet. But what exactly does he mean? This paper gets to grips with early modern understandings of matter as, variously, the stuff of the world, the subject of thought and language, the central principle of a legal case, the excremental substances of the body. Ranging across Shakespeare's dramatic works, this paper asks how Shakespeare got to grips with substance of various kinds, dismantling and reconstructing the boundaries between human bodies and the physical world, the shifting incarnations of matter, and the stuff of thought.
Helen Smith is Professor of Renaissance Literature and Head of the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. She has published widely on material texts, women's writing and work, and the publishing trade in Shakespeare's time. Her current book project explores early modern understandings of matter, and their material incarnations. Helen is also founding co-director of Thin Ice Press, the Department of English and Related Literature's new on-site letterpress studio.