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ASU professor authors book on Shakespeare and disgust

Bradley Irish says disgust protects ourselves from harm

Shakespeare used the emotion of disgust often in his plays
October 28, 2022

Webster’s Dictionary defines disgust as a “marked aversion aroused by something highly distasteful.”

It might be a ghost pepper that hits your tongue. A blood-spurting dead man in a Halloween haunted house. Or a response to societal injustices.

In his forthcoming book, “Shakespeare and Disgust: The History and Science of Early Modern Revulsion,” Arizona State University Associate Professor of English Bradley Irish examines the way Shakespeare used disgust in his plays and how disgust is not just a visceral reaction but a protective response as well.

ASU News talked to Irish about his book, which will be released in March.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: How does someone get the idea to write a book about Shakespeare and disgust?

Answer: I’ve been working on emotions since my dissertation … which was on the various types of emotions in the early modern court. That became my first book ("Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History and Early Modern Feeling"). It takes a different kind of emotion in every chapter and looks at how it works in the court and legal literature of the day. I started to think about how that initial work could be expanded to think about Shakespeare, which is the primary thing I teach. The more I would read of Shakespeare, the more my mind would go back to that initial work in my dissertation. That became kind of the foundation for the book.

Q: So, what did Shakespeare generally say about disgust in his writings?

A: Shakespeare found disgust to be a remarkably flexible tool that allowed him to consider ways that boundaries are both maintained and violated in a way that humans interact with one another. One of the ways disgust is theorized today is that it’s an emotion that is fundamentally concerned with regulation. It regulates the things that enter our body or come in contact with our body, and it allows us to distance ourselves from things that might cause us harm.

What’s really interesting is that scientists believe that this started as primarily a food-regulated mechanism. That’s why we associate disgust with the stomach and mouth. … In the process of cultural evolution, scientists believe disgust not only guards us against things that might cause us physical harm or physical damage, it also guards us against symbolically harmful things that might be harmful to our social body, not just our physical body.

That’s why we are able to feel disgust at ideas or disgust at violations of norms or disgust at immorality. So, when someone says I’m disgusted by an act of racism they really mean it. In fact, there’s evidence that suggests that when people see something in any domain of disgust that occurs, their stomach starts to tighten, their throat starts to tighten, even if it has nothing to do with food, as if they were going to throw up.

Q: That’s interesting. I never thought of disgust as a protective measure.

A: That’s because it tells us not to go any further. Scientists believe, and experimental evidence shows, we actually have an intentional bias toward disgusting things, which is a bit counterintuitive because we think that when we see a disgusting object, we want to turn away from it. But at the same time, what scientific experiments show is that we actually pay more attention to it. Basically, we are told by our body, “Wow, I’m having this response which says something out there might be bad for me and I need to get away from it. But even as I move away from it, I’m going to keep my attention fixed on it.” That’s why scientists theorize we like to watch reality shows where people eat gross things. Or some people like to watch horror movies.

Q: What’s an example from one of Shakespeare’s plays where he writes about disgust?

A: Shakespeare’s play "Coriolanus" is a play in which disgust is used as a marker of social class. It’s the symbolic boundaries between a noble character, a soldier, and he really has a disgust toward the common people. (Shakespeare) uses images of food, of animals, of disease, of corpses and hygiene … all these things form the disgust that allows him to basically metaphorize his indignation at these common people. He thinks that they are ungrateful, that they’re cowards, etc., etc. On the other hand, the people are themselves morally disgusted that Coriolanus has this attitude of looking down on them. Shakespeare got so much mileage out of using visual poetic images they are always sort of activating our vision of disgust.

Q: Writing about disgust had to be compelling for Shakespeare.

A: It’s quietly part of a real centerpiece of Shakespeare’s emotional universe because so many things touch upon it.

Q: Halloween is approaching. Given what you have told me, when people see something disgusting in a haunted house or a horror movie, should they be reviled by what they see or welcome the emotion?

A: They should be aware that their brain is encouraging them to take pleasure in it even as they are being told by part of their body that this is bad, this is something I need to be scared of. Scientists have suggested that this kind of aesthetic appreciation of disgust actually belongs to a different category, a larger category called benign masochism. The idea is, we can like ostensibly harmful things if we know we’re not really doing harm to ourselves. If I eat that hot pepper, I’m not going to die. So, I can enjoy the fact that my mouth feels like it’s on fire. And when you go to the haunted house, you can enjoy the fact you’re not really going to be killed.

MORE: Why are so many people delighted by disgusting things?

Top photo by iStock

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