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.

It is a culture, in short, which bears striking resemblances to the one that developed in the Eighties around the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America, a congenial stamping-ground for all four of these high-profile scholars, and in Jardine’s book in particular these similarities are tacitly acknowledged. ‘The familiar voice of the Shakespearean text does not come to us evenly over the passage of time,’ as she points out in a slightly Portiaesque cadence, ‘it rises and falls in volume as it resonates (or fails to resonate) with our late 20th-century beliefs and preoccupations.’ Opening with an acknowledgment of the impact the SAA has had on her work – in part by providing the site for some highly stimulating feuds between feminism and New Historicism – it is no wonder that Reading Shakespeare Historically should resonate with the preoccupations of that particular arena. After all, this is essentially an anthology of conference papers delivered there (and at other such gatherings) over the last decade, despite intermittent attempts at imposing some overall cohesion. Of the nine pieces it contains, only two haven’t appeared in print before, so it’s just as well that one of these, ‘Alien Intelligence: Mercantile Exchange and Knowledge Transactions in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta’, is good enough to be worth the price of the whole collection.

Reading Shakespeare Historically might have been better served by an approach which emphasised its work-in-progress, occasional quality rather than trying to smooth it over. It would have been nice, perhaps, to have been provided with transcripts of the lively discussions which followed the first airings of these essays – the exchange of views which ensued after the opening piece on Othello, for example, was so lively that a bootleg cassette is still in circulation ten years later. Or perhaps, to do fuller justice to one of these rhetorical performances in particular, the book should have come with a supplementary videotape. As Jardine recalls: ‘The first version of “Twins and Travesties: Gender, Dependency and Sexual Availability in Twelfth Night” was written for a plenary session of the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in 1989 ... The occasion is probably remembered by participants in the session more by the fact that Peter Stallybrass and I enacted stage cross-dressing there and then by exchanging jackets before delivering our papers, than for what we either of us had to say.’ The surreptitiously tape-recorded row which followed Jardine’s paper on Othello when it was first given in 1986 was largely prompted by its attack on an essay about A Midsummer Night’s Dream published by Louis Montrose in 1983 in the second-ever issue of New Historicism’s house journal, Representations. Jardine had taken exception to Montrose’s much-reprinted article, ‘ “Shaping Fantasies”: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture’, which opens with a quotation from the 1597 diary of the astrologer Simon Foreman, purporting to describe a dream about sexually mastering Queen Elizabeth. Montrose juxtaposes this with a contemporary letter from the French Ambassador, de Maisse, describing the ageing Queen’s cleavage. The essay goes on to describe Shakespeare’s Dream as, in effect, performing a function analogous to that of Robert Bly’s ‘men’s movement’: the male anxieties revealed by Foreman and de Maisse about being ruled by this dubiously sexy old woman are imaginatively soothed through the conquest of the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, and the erotic humiliation of the fairy queen, Titania.

During their 1986 exchange, Jardine accused Montrose of credulity in accepting de Maisse’s titillated and titillating letter as a neutral description of the Queen’s ‘actual’ appearance in 1597 (and thus, by implication, of sharing the male fantasies his essay purported to dissect), and complained that New Historicism in general was interested in women almost exclusively in sexual contexts and as indices of patriarchal power. Her version of materialist feminism has reached something of a rapprochement with Montrose’s school since then – as can be seen in her piece about Twelfth Night, where gender difference is almost entirely subordinated to social rank. But she is still reprinting her critique of Montrose’s essay: the peace treaty doesn’t preclude the commemoration of a famous victory.

Although still trying to vindicate what remains the most influential reading of A Mid-summer Night’s Dream of its time, Montrose sounds like a sadder and wiser Historicist. The Purpose of Playing is really the final version of that 13-year-old article (considerably expanded, and supplied with a prefatory hundred-page overview of the relations between the Elizabethan regime and the theatre), but the passages that most irritated Jardine – the prurient quotations from Foreman and de Maisse and their explication – have been silently excised. Montrose’s arguments, too, have been toned down: indeed, the whole book is as much about their toning-down as it is about the Elizabethan theatre, as concerned to distance itself from the interpretative hubris of the early Eighties as to find anything fresh to say about the 1590s.

The result is a study which, sometimes half-apologetically, succeeds in avoiding the intellectual vices of New Historicism at its worst (‘The inconclusive conclusions on offer here cannot rival, for sheer excitement, the bold assertions that have become commonplace in the critical literature on the Elizabethan theatre’). But as its utterly generic subtitle might lead one to suspect, it retains the quasi-scientific, over-professionalised prose from which so much New Historicism has suffered. The Purpose of Playing is burdened, for example, with one of those self-important prefaces which feels required to situate itself within a totalising, idealist history of all the intellectual tendencies within the American academy since the advent of Theory, and is full of passages like this:

in the discipline of anthropology, the ambiguous status of the ethnographer as participant-observer of the alien culture which is his or her object of study has been reproblematised by a focus on textual and ideological dimensions of ethnographic practice, on the ethnographer’s discursive construction of culture. Such developments within the humanities and interpretive social sciences point toward a potential synthesis of historicist and formalist, materialist and textualist or tropological, interests and analytical techniques; and to the convergence of such disciplinary projects upon the interconnectedness of the discursive and material domains.

This is perfectly true (if not exactly news), and even fairly clear, but after a few pages of it you feel you are in the company of someone whose first language is probably Fortran. Can it be accident that New Historicism first blossomed so close to Silicon Valley? Even in the process of disavowing over-systematising binary oppositions between subversion and containment, Montrose’s prose often sounds better suited to describing the workings of software than of historical agents or literary texts. To compound this he is afflicted throughout by a sort of dutiful professional narcissism, which obliges him to define his own methods and conclusions in precise relation to every single relevant article published in a refereed academic journal over the last decade, and the two hundred contemporary academics he cites rather upstage the ten Elizabethan playwrights. The Purpose of Playing is actually an eminently sensible and well-informed book, but the overall impression it leaves is of how joyless even so rich and exuberant a comedy as A Midsummer Night’s Dream can seem when read through the lens of the MLA bibliography.

There is nothing joyless about Patricia Parker’s Shakespeare from the Margins, though in its own way it can be just as frustrating. It’s a book primarily about Shakespeare’s puns, and its energetic demonstration of some of the post-structuralist fun to be had with Shakespearean wordplay goes a long way towards rescuing this topic from the merely glossarial, antiquarian or smut-cataloguing attention it has often received. One of the reasons this book feels so much sprightlier than The Purpose of Playing, indeed, is that although she shares Montrose’s engagement with cultural theory, Parker’s sensitivity to language has discouraged her from privileging its potentially deadening idiom over the Shakespearean terminology that is her subject. As her Introduction suggests,

Lacan’s ‘discourse of the Other’ (or its extensions in post-colonial theory) may seem to come closest among modern formulations to the extraordinary sense of occupation, or being occupied by another’s discourse, that is such a chilling feature of Othello; but the play itself also gives us its own language for this tragic loading/lodging (the alternate textual variants of its closing lines), in its ‘uncomic’ puns on lieu-tenantry and its reference to ‘Othello’s occupation’, an ambiguous combination of active and passive that makes it difficult to know, finally, what it might mean in this context to be possessed of agency or to be a speaking subject. In this as in other instances, the argument here is that the plays themselves provide a language with which to approach such questions, a historically more concrete and grounded language, finally, than importations from contemporary literary or cultural theory, however helpful the latter might be heuristically at different times.

This excerpt is in many ways characteristic of Shakespeare from the Margins: overflowing with ideas, not all of them quite to the purpose (what exactly does ‘the tragic loading of this bed’ have to do with the question of Othello’s speaking subjecthood? And where does the difference between the Folio and Quarto texts come into it?), but inclined to resort to plausible-sounding verbal repetition (what does ‘finally’ actually do for either of the consecutive sentences above, except convey a spurious sense of deep consideration?) Parker’s repetition is structural, too: this book doesn’t so much have seven chapters as seven successive drafts of the same chapter, each using several of the same examples. (Readers who are already tired of hearing what ‘preposterous’ implies for Shakespeare by the end of the Introduction are advised to skip heavily thereafter.) But then this is an obsessively repetitive book determined to reveal the Complete Works to be no less obsessively repetitive.

It is well worth tolerating all this to hear what Parker has to say about the verbal ‘doublets’ used by the inanely repetitive Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part 2 (a play acutely conscious of its own status as a repetition of Part 1) and their relation to the play’s sneaking sense of the repetitive inanity of patrilineal succession itself. Parker is splendidly acute, too, about ‘delation’ and ‘dilation’ in All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, ‘translation’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and good old ‘matter/mater’ in Hamlet. But her privileging of individual words over the wildly different theatrical contexts of their utterance tends to flatten the Shakespeare canon into a huge first draft of Finnegans Wake, an immense verbal system in which nothing can be allowed not to mean something important. And for all its aspirations to history, Shakespeare from the Margins gives surprisingly little sense of a society beyond the page in which any of the puns it traces might actually have made people laugh. The Elizabethan or Jacobean consumer Parker seems to imagine for Shakespeare’s works is strictly a reader rather than part of an audience, and a reader much more familiar with anti-theatrical tracts and treatises on rhetoric than with the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The analogous modern-day reader whom Parker’s approach suggests wouldn’t bother with books much, but would have access to Shakespeare and the Complete Oxford English Dictionary on CD-Rom in a university library. Whether or not Parker herself employs such mechanical assistance, Shakespeare from the Margins, dazzling, learned and suggestive as it is, remains essentially a virtuoso exercise in word-searching, and there’s a limit to how far such a method can get with a playwright, whose medium isn’t just words but speaking bodies.

While for Parker gender inversion is as likely to be a matter of grammar as of sexuality, her study nonetheless shares with its peers an interest in two motifs which, together with patronage, have an important place in the current version of Shakespeare’s England. These are cross-dressing (another example of the pre-posterous for Parker, a rhetorical ploy for Montrose’s Elizabeth I and a podium strategy for Jardine) and the same-sex desire pervasively associated by Puritans with the London play-houses (hysterically denounced in some of the polemics quoted by all four critics, and treated more lightly in a pun Parker explores on ‘English’ and ‘ingles’ – Elizabethan slang for ‘catamites’, especially those said to be kept by prosperous thesps). These motifs converge on the figure of the apprenticed boy actor, who used to seem an embarrassing minor historical detail of the Shakespearean theatre but is rapidly coming to be understood as the key to its entire meaning. This is one reason why Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations, which has grown out of his 1989 article, ‘Nobody’s Perfect, or, Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?’, seems the most substantial and the most important of these studies, despite being the shortest, the cheapest and by far the most entertaining.

Impersonations is a wonderfully sustained exploration of how the whole category of gender worked (and didn’t) in the English Renaissance, centring on the phenomenon of the cross-dressed boy player and the contemporary frames of reference within which this figure might be understood – such as gynaecology, common practices at work, classical pederasty or the semiotics of fashion. So polished and witty is Orgel’s prose and so lucidly constructed his argument that this is one of very few books on Renaissance cultural history which successfully demands to be read at a single sitting; it is one of still fewer which will actually change our understanding of the period.

One of its many recommendations is the rich array of contemporary case-studies which Orgel’s syncretic approach and wide erudition make available – from transvestite portraits of monarchs to the legal press-ganging of grammar-school boys onto the stage, from homoerotic glosses on Spenser to the career of the cross-dressed criminal Moll Cutpurse. (This is not to mention the book’s ravishing cover illustration, a 1619 Venus and Adonis by van Haarlem where the same model has clearly posed for both figures.) In addition, Impersonations manages to distil much of the best analytical thinking published on its topic over the last twenty years, and puts it to the service of some admirably nuanced and contextualised readings of Renaissance drama.

Perhaps more importantly, Impersonations is every bit as well up on the latest archival work as it is on the latest interpretations of it. Orgel makes a point of collecting all sorts of hitherto scattered historical evidence which has previously been either ignored or suppressed, evidence which cumulatively suggests, as he puts it, ‘how much more open the question of gender roles was for the Renaissance than it is for us’. He is delighted to be able to show, for example, that the guilds were never exclusively male (in 1600 nearly half the apprentices in Southampton were women; Chester boasted female blacksmiths), and that the stage, with which their organisational practices overlapped, wasn’t entirely so either – there were professional female performers in the pre-Restoration English theatre, Moll Cutpurse among them.

While such instances certainly dent the view that Elizabethan drama was the expression of a seamlessly invulnerable patriarchy in which women functioned only as a means of exchange, Orgel has to acknowledge that breaching gender roles was a good deal easier for men than it was for women, and his chapters on male homocroticism on and off the stage are both more convincing and more confident than those dealing principally with anomalous women. At one point, indeed, the confidence almost verges on aggression, as Orgel heavily underlines the dissolution of Rosalind back into the boy actor who has impersonated her during the epilogue to As You Like It: ‘Rosalind is surely among the most attractive and successful of Shakespeare’s women: it must be to the point that Shakespeare does not want to leave her intact.’ This whole passage may remind some readers of an old gibe from the feminism v. New Historicism battles of the mid-Eighties, to the effect that in order to be written about by a New Historicist, a woman had to either dress as a man, turn into a man or, preferably, prove to have been a man all along. In the wake of Cheek by Jowl’s succès fou of an all-male production and the two demoralised-looking both-sex ones which have followed it at the RSC, the Nineties are the first decade since the Renaissance when the role of Rosalind has seemed to offer better opportunities to men than to women: here Orgel’s argument for once seems to be pushing against an already open door.

The book’s rather abrupt conclusion – which includes the remark that ‘acting like a man is the most successful, the most compelling way of acting like a woman’ – won’t please everyone either. Is acting like a man a compelling way of acting like a woman, or just the only available strategy in certain circumstances, in the 1590s and the Nineties alike? I am reminded that for me the most memorable aspect of Jardine’s exchange of jackets with Peter Stallybrass was the realisation that if you hadn’t seen them swap you’d never have known which hegemonically masculine garment was which. However successfully Shakespearean scholarship may be reopening the question of gender roles, cross-dressing for success among its exponents still tends to be all one way.

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