Vol. 16 No. 1 · 6 January 1994
From Brian Vickers
I was amused by Michael Dobson’s description of my book Appropriating Shakespeare (LRB, 18 November 1993) as written by someone ‘approaching retirement after reigning for nearly thirty years in the upper reaches of Shakespeare studies’. I haven’t reigned anywhere, merely tried to contribute to a critical and scholarly enterprise when I could, and I’m actually in my mid-fifties, with a three-year-old daughter and no thought of retiring. Dobson couldn’t know these biographical details, but it’s sadly typical of recent fashions in criticism that anyone who challenges them is dismissed as belonging to ‘an older generation’, however cogent his or her arguments may be.
In fact Dobson didn’t review my book – if to review means to give a faithful account of its contents and a reasoned evaluation of them. He merely produced a series of jibes: that I read through the annual bibliographies ‘solely for the pleasure of being righteously infuriated’; that my book is written for ‘resentful and unsuccessful critics determined to cultivate their grudges’; that I have produced a ‘jeremiad’ in ‘five hundred supercilious pages’; ‘a monumental exercise in fault-finding’; that my own critical position is ‘merely a position’, and other dismissive smears.
What Dobson doesn’t tell your readers is that I begin with a long account of the course of critical theory since the late Sixties, tracing the process by which some Parisian iconoclasts tried to destroy virtually all the concepts and categories used in literary criticism. This account, showing the intellectual bankruptcy of so-called post-structuralism, is not some arterio-sclerotic whimsy of mine, but draws on a vigorous contemporary critique by a highly respected group of thinkers well known to LRB readers, from Perry Anderson and the late E.P. Thompson to A.D. Nuttall, John Ellis, Peter Dews and Simon Clarke. Since the self-proclaimed avant-garde of Shakespeare criticism continues to cite the iconoclasts as if they had never been refuted, I wanted to expose its parochialism.
The rest of the book is directed at the various groups struggling for power, all of whom, I argue, distort Shakespeare according to their political agenda. I am not at all concerned with the ‘good old days’, as Dobson suggests, but write out of a total engagement with the contemporary, distressed by the gap between really intelligent and helpful work going on in some areas, and the sad quantity of uncritical and derivative criticism produced for Shakespeare. Dobson is part of the problem.
Vol. 16 No. 2 · 27 January 1994
From Michael Dobson
I gather from Brian Vickers’s letter (Letters, 6 January) that I owe him an apology for overestimating his proximity to retirement, and congratulate him on the continuing vigour of which he boasts – although, speaking as someone who was still at infant school when Vickers published his first book on Shakespeare, the observation in my review of Appropriating Shakespeare (LRB, 18 November 1993) that its author ‘belongs to an older generation of Shakespearians’ still doesn’t seem to me all that wide of the mark.
Otherwise, I am afraid, Professor Vickers’s letter has done little to make me wish to revise my description of his book; it seems only characteristic, for example, that on the strength of a review largely devoted to the praise of R.A. Foakes (a review, moreover, which acknowledges my ‘emphatic’ agreement with Appropriating Shakespeare at many points) I stand convicted as the slavish, deluded disciple of discredited Parisian ideologues, cynically distorting Shakespeare in my relentless struggle for power. Vickers may be right in his general allegation that the less talented Shakespeare critics of today include many intolerant wielders of stereotypes, but this kind of rhetoric, developed at such length in the book, hardly looks like the antidote. It seems especially striking that Vickers regards my remark that his critical position is merely one possible critical position among many as a ‘dismissive smear’. If the only way of proving one’s independence of mind and freedom from the taint of Jacobinism is to pronounce Appropriating Shakespeare to represent not one more invested polemic about the politics of the Shakespeare industry but the only possible perspective on the subject available to any sane observer, then I am happy to remain, in the terms with which his letter concludes, part of Vickers’s problem.
Vol. 16 No. 4 · 24 February 1994
From Brian Vickers
Michael Dobson (Letters, 27 January) continues to misinform your readers about the contents of my book Appropriating Shakespeare. He now describes it as ‘a general allegation that the less talented Shakespeare critics of today include many intolerant wielders of stereotypes.’ In fact, I follow the whole sequence of cause and effect, from the major idea-bearers who have had such a paralysing effect on contemporary theory (Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Althusser), through their popularisers (Hillis Miller, de Man, Fredric Jameson), and on to a gallery of Shakespeare critics which includes some of the most celebrated names now practising the art. That Professor Dobson should claim to have read my book but still think that I only deal with minor figures must destroy his credibility as a reviewer.
The real issues at stake were touched on by Catherine Gallagher in her excellent review, in the same issue, of Barbara Lewalski’s recent book, Writing Women in Jacobean England – namely, that Lewalski reduced all the diverse social and personal situations that her material offered to the same New Historicist formula of writing by marginalised figures as ‘subverting the dominant ideology’. My book – which never claimed to be anything other than one person’s interpretation – shows how the politicising of Shakespeare has encouraged conformity and weakened independent thinking. If Dobson were to think about such issues, and not reduce them to the young versus the old (‘They hate us youth,’ as Falstaff says), he might acknowledge that the present situation is rather worrying.
Centre for Renaissance Studies,
From Lalage Saunders
‘I’m actually in my mid-fifties, with a three-year-old daughter, and no thought of retirement.’ Thus Brian Vickers (Letters, 6 January). I do hope his wife isn’t one of those unacceptable older women who has had an embryo implant – but in any case, congratulations on your oomph, Professor Vickers.
Des Moines, Iowa
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
From Michael Dobson
Just for Brian Vickers’s own benefit (Letters, 24 February) let me hereby go on record as stating that Appropriating Shakespeare, so far from confining its attentions to books less notable than itself, is as epic in its punitive ambitions as The Dunciad – a work, indeed, with which its whole mind-set (if not its entertainment value) constantly invites comparison.
As I understand it, Vickers thinks that a substantial majority of the Shakespearean criticism published over the last twenty years – shall we say, 80 per cent? – is derivative and conformist, plodding away (with greater or lesser degrees of zeal, dogmatism and competence) along intellectual routes established by more original critics. Here we are in perfect agreement. We differ, however, in that Vickers thinks that this is an unprecedented state of affairs, and that it can be wholly blamed on the influence of certain wicked and novel heresies, such as deconstruction, feminism and cultural materialism. I myself am inclined to think that about 80 per cent of the Shakespearean criticism produced in any given period tends to be no less derivative or doctrinaire – whether the buzzword of the moment is ‘subversive’, ‘elegant’, ‘sublime’ or ‘ambiguous’ – and am moreover of the opinion that some of the freshest, most scholarly and most eloquent writing on Shakespeare of the last two decades has been inflected by the intellectual movements which Vickers identifies as the root of all evil. So, of course, has some of the bottom 80 per cent of recent Shakespearean criticism, but then there’s all sorts of stuff down there.
I am flattered that Vickers should conclude by suggesting that if I would only think further about what he regards as the real issues, I might yet attain the impressive level of anxiety on the Bard’s behalf to which Appropriating Shakespeare is a monument. But I do hope that he is wrong. It would surely be hard to think of any writer less in need of rescue, from whatever quarter, than William Shakespeare.
University of Chicago