Shakespeares

David Norbrook

  • Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield
    Manchester, 244 pp, £19.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1752 1
  • Alternative Shakespeares edited by John Drakakis
    Methuen, 252 pp, £10.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 416 36850 6
  • Shakespeare and Others by S. Schoenbaum
    Scolar, 285 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 85967 691 9
  • Illustrations of the English Stage 1580-1642 by R.A. Foakes
    Scolar, 180 pp, £35.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 85967 684 6
  • Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’ by E.A.J. Honigmann
    Manchester, 172 pp, £17.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1743 2

‘Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s constitution.’ Henry Crawford’s comment in Mansfield Park is a reminder that ‘Shakespeare’ is more than an individual writer: ‘it’ is an institution, a body of texts whose study, from O-level to the highest reaches of academia, is a means of legitimating social advancement and whose production on the stage and on television makes a powerful contribution to Britain’s invisible exports. This ‘Shakespeare’ has the characteristics Roland Barthes ascribes to myth: it turns history into nature, and thus impedes critical political analysis. Not only the Englishman’s constitution but also the English constitution are traditionally felt to be particularly ‘natural’: Shakespeare’s plays are seen as embodying a characteristically English balance of opposites, neither too radical nor too conservative, neither too popular nor too élitist. Shakespeare, like the Queen, is held to be above politics; his regal status has been confirmed by the formation of the Royal Shakespeare Company – a title of which it has been said that ‘it’s got everything in it except God.’ And indeed the many resemblances between Shakespeare and God have become commonplaces since the Romantic era. In practice, of course, the idea of his transcendence tends to reinforce conservative political positions. If we are to believe Mr Nigel Lawson, Ulysses’ speech on Degree in Troilus and Cressida exercises a powerful influence on Conservative economic policy. One of the most influential of modern Shakespeare critics, G. Wilson Knight, gave his blessing to Britain’s campaign against Argentina on the grounds that it embodied the essential spirit of Shakespeare’s plays. The myth of Shakespeare is also a powerful force for intellectual conservatism: its notion of essential Englishness implies a distaste for abstract thought, for explicit political debate, for anything that savours of foreign, Jacobin rationalism. Criticism of Shakespeare has been slow to take account of recent developments in literary theory. Markers of A-level and university scripts can testify that the influence of E.M.W. Tillyard is still pronounced, with candidates clearly being brought to believe that having an original thought about Shakespeare would amount to presumptuous rebellion against the Great Chain of Being.

But there have always been dissenting voices. Whitman, Tolstoy and Shaw all condemned the cult of Shakespeare as a bastion of political conservatism. Long before Tillyard was ‘discovering’ Ulysses’ Degree speech as the key to Shakespeare’s thought, Ernest Cassidy was citing it indignantly as an instance of bourgeois mystification in a pamphlet on ‘Shakespeare and the Working Classes’. After a long period of relative calm in Shakespeare studies, the onslaught on Bardolatry is being renewed by two complementary collections of essays, Alternative Shakespeares and Political Shakespeare. Alternative Shakespeares (AS), an addition to the Methuen New Accents series, presents a multiplicity of critical viewpoints: semiotic, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, Marxist, feminist. This pluralism aims, not simply to replace the conservative image of the Tillyardian Shakespeare with a radical, progressive version, but to undermine the very notion of the unified, coherent authorial subject. The basic assumption here is that criticism whose aim is to recover a single authorial intention is inherently authoritarian, and that liberation from the author’s tyranny is also a political liberation. While such a direct equation between literary hermeneutics and political repression may be dubious, it cannot be denied that it yields some interesting insights. Terence Hawkes, Christopher Norris and Jacqueline Rose show how the attempts of some influential Shakespeare critics to reduce the plays to coherent unified structures break down as the gaps and contradictions of the texts are carried over by an uncanny transfer to their own interpretations. In Norris’s analysis, Leavis turns out to be identifying himself with Iago by associating Othello with the forces of linguistic and emotional corruption that he set himself to combat in his criticism; Jacqueline Rose shows how writers on Hamlet and Measure for Measure have reproduced the plays’ own misogynistic elements. The quest for complete coherence in literary texts is in her view the product of ‘a particularly harsh type of literary super-ego’: much recent literary theory can be seen as an attempt to overthrow this tyranny, to liberate the text and the reader from interpretative repression. The most enthusiastic liberators are the ‘ludic’ deconstructors who celebrate texts not as embodiments of moral truths but as perpetual, festive comedies of errors. Malcolm Evans’s essay on ‘Deconstructing Shakespeare’s Comedies’, which is itself highly ludic, shows how the ideas of Derrida and Bakhtin can be applied to the polysemous discourses of these ‘carnivalesque’ plays. But he is uneasily aware that current deconstruction may end up by reinforcing the traditional Shakespeare myth. To celebrate these plays for their potential for producing an infinite play of meanings is effectively to agree that they are great because completely all-inclusive: from transcendental signified to transcendental signifier.

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