Cold Front in Arden

Michael Dobson

  • Reading Shakespeare Historically by Lisa Jardine
    Routledge, 207 pp, £40.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 415 13490 0
  • Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre by Louis Montrose
    Chicago, 228 pp, £39.95, May 1996, ISBN 0 226 53482 0
  • Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context by Patricia Parker
    Chicago, 392 pp, £41.50, April 1996, ISBN 0 226 64584 3
  • Impersonations: Gender and Performance in Shakespear’s England by Stephen Orgel
    Cambridge, 179 pp, £30.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 521 56842 0

Does anyone still think Shakespeare’s comedies provide happy endings for their heroines? Come to that, does anyone still think Shakespeare’s comedies have either ‘happy endings’ or ‘heroines’? There certainly wasn’t much in the way of feminocentric festive renewal going on in Stratford this summer: Steven Pimlott’s unusually bleak As You Like It – which appeared to be set at midwinter in the hold of a container ship – gave the impression that the RSC has forgotten why marriage to either Orlando or Rosalind ever looked interesting, let alone a cause for rejoicing. This production’s refusal of what used to seem the essential, reassuring pleasures of Shakespearean comedy is symptomatic of something broader, partly, no doubt, of a social climate in which marriage looks a less certain source of closure or consensus than ever, but also of a particular intellectual climate around Shakespeare, admirably represented by these four new books. There is every reason why the historical moment which produces these studies should also produce a Forest of Arden distinctly lacking in the cosy and the connubial: the version of Shakespeare’s England which these critics describe is one which leaves the Rosalind whom theatre audiences long knew and loved out in the cold.

There was a time not so long ago when the last act of As You Like It seemed to make comparatively unproblmatic sense, a time when discussions of Shakespearean comedy were heavily preoccupied with examining the sort of companionate marriage this play’s conclusion appeared to celebrate. In Juliet Dusinberre’s Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, published in 1975, Shakespeare was seen as an ally of those middle-class Puritans who advocated the spiritual equality of man and wife, and his comedies as concerned above all with exploring how best the likes of Rosalind and Portia might negotiate their own marital partnerships. But things have changed, as anyone who compares the new second edition of Dusinberre’s groundbreaking study to any of these four will recognise.[*] After fifteen years of work on the Renaissance by New Historicists, who tend to regard marriage simply as the embodiment in miniature of an authoritarian state, and with the application of an ever more sophisticated body of queer theory to the male-male relationships with which the comedies’ betrothals often compete, the question of how central marriage is to Shakespearean drama looks quite different. For a British feminist like Lisa Jardine, no less than for the three Californian colleagues represented here, the most important relationships in the Elizabethan theatre are now less likely to be between husbands and wives than between patrons and clients. When these homosocial bonds of gift and service come into conflict with the claims of marriage – as they do in the final movement of The Merchant of Venice, where Portia contrives to supplant Antonio as Bassanio’s principal benefactor – Shakespeare isn’t necessarily sympathetic to the conjugal.

This decentring of the marriage plot marks an important shift in perceptions of Shakespeare’s position within his culture, and indeed of that culture’s priorities. Rather than being first and foremost a Stratford bourgeois preoccupied with dowries and second-best beds, the Bard who emerges from these studies is an assiduously networking professional, and one, furthermore, whose courtly aspirations and connections aren’t to be taken lightly. Consequently, the Elizabethan England these books persuasively depict is far closer in spirit to the Rialto and its serious money than to Windsor and its merry wives. Its literary and political circles are peopled by upstarts and would-be cosmopolitans, marketing their humanist skills across patronage networks which, structurally hostile to the domestic, operate in a dangerously ambiguous space somewhere between the professional, the amicable and the erotic. In this culture favours are reciprocated in cash, in books or in kind; rival factions exchange information among themselves by letter and in closets; while sycophants and sexually available apprentices rub shoulders and scratch backs with confidential secretaries and common players. It is a culture preoccupied with status and with clothes, in which an internally inconsistent patriarchy is always under threat but always in place: a culture, nonetheless, in which certain outstanding women, partly or wholly crossdressed à la Portia, can achieve a sexily masculine success.

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[*] Macmillan, 329 pp., £14.99, 12 April, 0 333 64139 6.