Shakespeare and Slime: Notes on the Anthropocene
At least since Aristotle slime has occupied the conceptual space between matter and life, that unfathomable substance figured variously as chaos, noumenon, and primal soup which precedes and interrogates our notions of that which is empirically real-and alive. Slime occupies the conceptual space where the human imagination begins to grasp, tentatively and tenuously, the materiality of life itself. In what follows I examine the conceptual linkage between slime and life, bridging the gap between early modern and twenty-first-century attempts to imagine the Anthropocene by tracing a literary-intellectual genealogy of slime. Slime in Shakespeare is a substance that emblematizes human efforts to understand and manipulate the biophysical environment.1 By situating Shakespeare in this peculiar genealogy of a material condition that is neither chemical nor biological in nature, but fundamentally liminal and marginal-between solid and liquid, inert and alive-I have no wish to claim Shakespeare as a prophet of ecological thought, ecocriticism, or the present global environmental crisis; rather, Shakespeare’s evocations of it form a particularly fascinating instance in the intellectual history of inquiry into life’s origins. As I shall argue, Shakespearean representations of slime and its cousin ooze can be seen to represent “an index and obscure prologue” to modern ecological thought, in general, and ecocriticism in particular (Othello 2.1.205-6).2 In certain instances this murky substance forms a matrix for the historical emergence of (early) modern ecological thought; the parenthesis is meant to suggest that Shakespeare posed in the realm of imaginative literature similar questions about life, matter, region, and place that ecologists would pose as a matter of empirical study in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.