Shakespeare's Double Helix

March 6, 2008

No doubt many scientists would regard references to Shakespeare in a lab report with a mixture of amusement and scepticism," avers Henry S. Turner, precisely (if unfortunately) anticipating his own readers' reaction to his ingenious attempt to engraft a critical account of A Midsummer Night's Dream on to his discussion of contemporary genetic engineering.

This volume comprises two essays - one printed on verso pages and one on recto: "Readers may choose to read vertically, following one essay continuously on either the left or the right side and skipping from odd-numbered page to odd-numbered page or from even to even. Alternatively, readers may choose to read horizontally, as they would read any other book, in which case they will digest sections of each facing-page argument simultaneously."

Reading in "vertical" mode, what emerges are two mostly unrelated essays: the first a light-footed account of mimesis, natural philosophy, meta-drama, language and so on in Shakespeare's play, the second an articulate examination of biotechnology - methodological, ontological and, inevitably, ethical. Neither essay is particularly groundbreaking.

Citing the sociologist of science Karin Knorr-Cetina, Turner discusses her analogy between the lab and the theatre: "Like a stage on which plays are performed from time to time, the laboratory is a storage room for the stage props that are needed when social life is instantiated through experiments."

But that is precisely the point: the lab is "Like a stage" or, as Turner confesses, "a convenient metaphor" for it. This realisation utterly undermines his protestation that "we should regard genetic engineering and biotechnology not simply as a new application of scientific knowledge but rather as a new mode of poetics, and that Shakespeare's own work provides a model for just such an approach".

"How, in short, does the living organism reconcile the accidents of chance with the regularity and order necessary to sustained self-reproduction?" Turner wonders. Surely, in seeking to answer such questions, one wouldn't dream of entering the Eng. Lit. section of the library.

Perhaps the most generous way of regarding Turner's study is as an interesting but doomed experiment.

Shakespeare's Double Helix

By Henry S. Turner
Continuum Books
£45.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9780826491190 and 91206
Published 20 December 2007

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