New Bards for Old

On Shakespeare

by Northrop Frye
Yale University Press, 186 pp., $17.95

Shakespeare and the Question of Theory

edited by Patricia Parker, edited by Geoffrey Hartman
Methuen, 335 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets

by Joel Fineman
University of California Press, 365 pp., $35.00

New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama

by Richard Levin
University of Chicago Press, 277 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays

by Paul N. Siegel
Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 168 pp., $25.00

That Shakespeherian Rag

by Terence Hawkes
Methuen, 131 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Joseph Pequigney
University of Chicago Press, 249 pp., $19.95

Less than ten years ago a student of Shakespeare published a book entitled The Shakespeare Revolution. What he meant by “revolution” was a series of changes in the production of Shakespearean plays, from a realistic or even an archaeological mode to a variety of “non-illusory” styles of which, for him, writing in 1977, the stagings of Peter Brook represented an ultimate achievement. The author of the book was a literate and thoughtful man, and it’s hardly to be doubted that he would stand aghast at some of the excesses to which his revolution has recently led. The Shakespeare Quarterly reports them regularly: Mariana (in Measure for Measure) sprawled on a haystack glugging red wine, a nymphomaniac Ophelia, Claudio (in Much Ado) urinating publicly on Benedick. Still, though the results of his revolution were probably not all agreeable to him, the author’s title was not absurd; the revolution in staging Shakespeare, though it began more than a century ago with the first amateur productions of William Poel, is recognizably present, for better or worse, in Shakespearean productions to this day.

How different the situation with critical interpretations! A title like The Shakespeare Revolution would raise at once the question, Which revolution? with the added question of whether the several revolutions aren’t now complicated by a counterrevolution. And below these riptides is a standing pool of unchanging opinion—the Baconians still mulling over the insights of Ignatius Donnelly, the literary detectives still grinding out identifications of the Dark Lady, even a handful of recalcitrant negativists proclaiming that the whole Shakespeare achievement is a hoax and an illusion. For these people there has been no revolution.

The general shape of the twentieth-century critical changes, of which the books under review present a very limited sampling, is that of successive, increasingly rapid waves of opinion. At the century’s dawn, a major critical achievement was A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy; for nearly thirty years after its publication in 1904 it held the field by virtue of its judicious and comprehensive analysis of the central characters in four of Shakespeare’s tragic plays. Bradley was an aloof, quiet, and unusually broadminded man who combined, extraordinarily, considerable competence in formal philosophy with a deep dedication to the poetic imagination; he also had the misfortune of surviving his own best work by a matter of thirty years. Accordingly, when he began to be repudiated in the 1930s and 1940s, the shift was not only abrupt and acerb, but it was preceded by a rather violent dismembering. What he had said in one limited context was attacked without regard for what he had said elsewhere. Bradley was most vulnerable on the score that he sometimes discussed the characters of Shakespeare as if they were real flesh-and-blood persons, subject to the laws of mundane existence.

The reaction to this failing of Bradley was intensified by pressure from the New Criticism, then in its cocky youth. It emphasized close reading of the text and …

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Letters

Yonder Shakespeare March 26, 1987

Yonder Shakespeare March 26, 1987