Michael Dobson

  • ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare’s Art by R.A. Foakes
    Cambridge, 262 pp, £30.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 521 34292 9
  • Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels by Brian Vickers
    Yale, 508 pp, £35.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 300 05415 7
  • Shakespeare, Poet and Citizen by Victor Kieran
    Verso, 261 pp, £18.95, March 1993, ISBN 0 86091 392 9

‘It were a delicate stratagem,’ muses King Lear at one point during his great mad scene:

                            to shoe
A troop of horse with felt: I’ll put’t in proof;
And when I have stol’n upon these sons-in-law.
Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

R.A. Foakes and Brian Vickers, both approaching retirement after reigning for nearly thirty years in the upper reaches of Shakespeare studies, aren’t feeling entirely charitable towards their heirs either, although on the evidence of their new reflections on the state of that divided kingdom, Foakes is rather less malicious than his Shakespearean avatar, and Vickers rather less stealthy. Temperamental differences apart, the two share a remarkable amount of common ground (not least in their simultaneous decision to lament their colleagues’ preoccupation with theory rather than with Shakespeare by publishing large books preoccupied with theory rather than with – Shakespeare), and between them ‘HamletversusLear’ and Appropriating Shakespeare provide a vivid record of what an older generation of Shakespeareans has been making of the critical upsets of the Eighties and Nineties. Alongside them Victor Kiernan’s Shakespeare, Poet and Citizen – first drafted in the early Fifties, by a historian who has remained a non-combatant in the debates to which Foakes and Vickers appoint themselves as respondents – appears as a last stray blossom from the critical eden to which both ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’ and Appropriating Shakespeare show intermittent signs of wishing to return.

Of the two, however, Foakes’s book seems considerably less nostalgic, and considerably more engaged with the critical questions it canvasses, perhaps because Foakes has been working for the last decade in California, in productive exchange with, among others, some of the deconstructionists and determinists whom Vickers simply excoriates from afar. As a further result, ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’ can be seen to be participating in the general, uneasy process of taking stock – part rapprochement, part backlash – currently in progress throughout Renaissance studies in the United States, as younger scholars wonder anxiously where the intellectual frontier is now that the New Historicists are all tenured, and the most unlikely alliances of critics make tentative moves towards rehabilitating some of the concepts apparently discredited for ever during the Eighties. (At the Shakespeare Association of America conference last spring, for example, the word ‘ethics’ was making an audible comeback against the word ‘power’, someone definitely said ‘character’, and at least one of the main panels was largely devoted to showing that the Author was a lot less dead than Foucault.) Foakes’s purpose isn’t merely to refute and dismiss the critical vogues of the last decade, but to meet their challenges (or some of them) head-on, and see which items of his preferred interpretative equipment can be salvaged for further useful work on Shakespeare’s texts, exemplified here by Hamlet and King Lear.

The cherished basis of that equipment is Foakes’s faith in the unified integrity of Shakespeare’s plays and their special status as works of art. This faith has been severely tested over recent years by three principal developments in Shakespearean criticism. The first has been the rise of reception studies, which have sought to demonstrate that the meanings of Shakespeare’s works are dependent on the historical, cultural and social circumstances of their reproduction and interpretation (so that the plays have no immutable, directly-accessible sense, only endlessly varying readings). This trend has been compounded for Foakes by the emergence of a consensus among textual scholars to the effect that the disagreements among early editions of certain Shakespeare plays are the result not of single definitive versions being variously misrepresented but of authorial revision (so that, for example, there is no sole authoritative text of King Lear but distinct Quarto and Folio versions, which embody mutually contradictory authorial intentions). Both of these developments have proved congruent with a third, which Foakes finds more sinister: namely, the increased currency among Shakespeare critics of those attitudes generally labelled ‘post-structuralist’ – denial of the author’s primacy as the origin of a text’s meaning, resistance to the text’s claims to coherence and closure, and suspicion of the separation of ‘Literature’ with a capital ‘L’ from other uses of language.

Foakes’s strategy in ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’ for dealing with these threats might be described as one of inoculation. In his first two substantial chapters he administers a mild dose of reception theory to write his own history of Hamlet and Lear since 1945, accepting that changes in critical views not just of the plays’ relative merits but of what they are about have been conditioned by post-war cultural history; in his next he admits a diluted serum of the Oxford Shakespeare, granting that the variations between texts of Hamlet and Lear respectively result from Shakespeare changing his mind, but defending the unity and stability of each play nonetheless; and in the following chapter he acknowledges what justice he can find in the arguments of those who have treated the Shakespeare canon as one set of intersecting discourses among many, before turning to Coleridge for the beginnings of a defence of the irreducible artiness of dramatic art. Thus vaccinated with weakened forms of all three threatening viruses, Foakes can return to work proper: his final chapters offer readings of Hamlet and King Lear designed to take recent criticism fully into account while remaining sufficiently immune from its more troubling implications to assert the plays’ aesthetic cogency regardless.

Many readers, I suspect, will find these concluding chapters considerably less interesting than the intellectual soul-searching which prefaces them, and this is only partly because Foakes’s healthy distrust of all distorting specialisms seems to inhibit him from saying anything about either play which wouldn’t have been perfectly at home in the introduction to a student edition thirty years ago. It may be that the task he sets himself – that of taking proper cognisance of reception aesthetics, current bibliography and the more convincing variants of post-structuralism, while nonetheless producing cheerfully definitive thematic readings – is simply impossible. When it comes to the status of the play-text itself, for example, Foakes’s earlier reflections on the endlessly vexed relations between plays, performances and editions seem to have little impact on his critical practice, which is for the most part applicable to reading only, and the reading of either a variorum or a parallel text at that. But however unsuccessful its concluding experiments, ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’ is a considered attempt to recuperate a responsible version of aesthetic criticism for the Nineties, and however questionable many of Foakes’s asides may be, this isn’t a book to be lightly dismissed by anyone seriously interested in the present and future of Shakespeare studies.

I disagree emphatically with ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’ at several points, but find it largely sympathetic nonetheless. I agree emphatically with Brian Vickers’s Appropriating Shakespeare at just as many points, but it isn’t a book I am planning to re-read in the immediate future, if ever. In most important respects Vickers is engaged in the same project as Foakes – the defence of the aesthetic and the author against the perceived excesses of post-structuralist criticism – but he adopts a procedure almost exactly the reverse of that followed by ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’. Whereas Foakes reads recent Shakespeare criticism in search of arguments and techniques he can use, repudiating and discarding what he finds objectionable only as an incidental stage in retooling the critical method he will bring to bear in his final chapters, Vickers gives the distinct impression that he flicks through the ‘Shakespeare’ section of the annual MLA bibliography solely for the pleasure of being righteously infuriated by what he finds there. If Foakes’s book is a response to the critical developments of the Eighties, Vickers’s is strictly a reaction to them. With the exception of the incidental vindications of intentionality and mimesis offered in the course of its first two chapters, Appropriating Shakespeare is almost wholly negative; over twice as long as ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’, it is a monumental exercise in fault-finding. Yet for all its tremendous erudition and critical sophistication, its central and reiterated claim about contemporary Shakespeare criticism is remarkably simple. It runs as follows: I understand Shakespeare; you interpret Shakespeare; they appropriate Shakespeare.

‘They’, for Vickers, are an impressively varied range of flourishing Shakespeareans – from Stephen Greenblatt to Stanley Cavell, Lynda Boose to Robert Weimann – who are catalogued and castigated, chapter by chapter, under the usual demonised labels: as deconstructionists, New Historicists, psychoanalytic critics, feminists and Marxists (who share their section, less predictably, with Christians). Given that one major purpose of the book is to resist the ‘division of the field of criticism into clearly-labelled competing groups’ while upholding the proposition ‘that no one has a monopoly on truth,’ there is perhaps something innately self-defeating about this structure, which effectively mounts its defence of stereotype-free pluralism by categorising and burning large numbers of heretics. But some such contradiction is probably inevitable given Vickers’s extraordinary level of confidence in his own critical position, which he seems scarcely to recognise as being merely a position.

Doubtless an unshakeable conviction that one has impartial access to the truth denied to one’s ideologically twisted foes is an absolute prerequisite for sustaining a jeremiad of this nature over the course of five hundred supercilious pages, but it doesn’t make Vickers a very attractive guide to the foibles of his academic juniors. Indeed, despite the devastating brilliance with which he nails certain critics whose work I dislike, I found myself unexpectedly warming to others. (Are some of these Lacanians less terminally misguided than I had thought? Surely any critical school able to inspire this level of headmasterly disapproval must be onto something ...) In fact it isn’t at all obvious who would wish to read such a book as this, apart from resentful and unsuccessful critics determined to cultivate their grudges still further. Even as an introduction to recent critical in-fighting among Shakespeareans, it would be less useful than Ivo Kamps’s anthology Shakespeare Left and Right (1991), in which one can not only see many of the same points being made (by Richard Levin), but also see numbers of them convincingly refuted.

Like ‘Hamlet’ versus ‘Lear’ which laments the unprecedented ‘processing’ of Shakespeare carried out nowadays by explicitly political critics, Appropriating Shakespeare is founded on a story of the Fall: ‘Once upon a time ... there were a few obviously political or ideological critics ... but otherwise criticism was essentially literary, concerned with the plays’ structure, language, moral value, theatrical history.’ Setting aside the question of whether this depressingly narrow list of legitimate interests either describes or exhausts the ‘essentially literary’ (and the related question of whether the ‘essentially literary’ isn’t in its own way just as ‘ideological’ as some of the current kinds of literary study Vickers deplores), one can’t help but wonder whether this intellectual eden ever really existed. Did the Leavises inhabit it? Or T.S. Eliot?

If anyone did, oddly enough, it may have been the distinguished left-wing historian Victor Kiernan, who, after forty years of intermittent work on him, has finally published Shakespeare, Poet and Citizen, the sort of book about Shakespeare which used to be written by retired Victorian civil servants. Wholly innocent of the academic civil wars which so exercise Foakes and Vickers, Kiernan will quote Greenblatt on one page and E.M. Tillyard on another without the faintest sense of incongruity (thereby unconsciously blowing the gaff on New Historicism a lot more effectively than either of his Shakespearean colleagues), and the heavily-biographised Bard on whom he unselfconsciously offers his opinions seems to belong as much to the world of Edward Dowden or A.C. Bradley as to that of Catherine Belsey or Stephen Orgel. For some unexplained reason the book only covers the plays Shakespeare wrote before Hamlet, but its naivety may be sufficient anyway to deter any readers sufficiently well-informed to know that Shakespeare wrote any plays after Hamlet from getting even as far as its discussion of ‘Comedy Themes’, where we learn that Shakespeare ‘shone in both wit and humour, an uncommon combination’ – didn’t Theobald say that, or was it Dr Johnson? If this is what Vickers’s good old days were like, then Gods, stand up for post-structuralist bastards!