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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.1 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.2 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 a disregard as complete as possible of all considerations outside it. One cannot yet (when its name is already a bit of an embarrassment) summarize the contributions of the New Criticism, because it wasn’t so much supplanted as extended by the next wave of critical change, that now loosely known as deconstruction. But deconstruction is one thing in theory, quite another in actual practice; and under the latter aspect, it is not all that remote from its predecessor. One logic controlling the change might propose that the New Criticism, trying by a close scrutiny of the text to uncover its artful structure as a tissue of resonant words and attitudes, led directly to a perception that language as such—not just artful language, or written language, but language as such—is inherently resonant and duplicitous. We always say more than we mean, with the result that as far as determinate, univocal meaning is concerned, we say nothing.

Where to go with this perception—not in itself very remarkable—seems to be (as with the previous instance of existentialism) a matter of individual taste. Deconstructionist ideas seem to be compatible with Marxist and Freudian concepts alike; they can be given a feminist twist, or they can be exercised in the search for what their exponents would, I suppose, call “the truth.” They are invariably nonhumanist or antihumanist; which makes their application to the Shakespearean canon a matter of special interest—as the jargon would have it, a “problematic.”

The major delusion in the new crop of books about Shakespeare has to be the volume of Northrop Frye. He has of course been a major force in stimulating new ways of looking at literature, and one feels not only regretful but embarrassed to report that the author of Anatomy of Criticism is hardly anywhere present in the new book, On Shakespeare. The chapters of the new volume were originally lectures delivered to a student audience; so, for that matter, were the units of Bradley’s book. But the contrast is almost painful; Frye’s lectures are pitched at a very low level, with a lot of plot paraphrase and some advice to listen to the play carefully when attending the theater. Frequent bits of cute colloquialism can’t avoid the appearance of condescension. The lectures don’t hold together well. We are told early on not to say that Shakespeare tries to do this or that—“Shakespeare doesn’t try to do things, he does them.” On the other hand, “Hamlet seems to me a tragedy without a catharsis, a tragedy in which everything noble and heroic is smothered under ferocious revenge codes, treachery, spying and the consequences of weak actions by broken wills.” One can’t help wondering why, given his perfect command over the dramatic medium, Shakespeare would want to write what sounds like a perfectly terrible play. Equally curious is the fact that this misbegotten muddle has been acknowledged for nearly four hundred years as one of the world’s dramatic masterpieces. Some of Frye’s brighter students must have been troubled by misgivings on points like these.

The book is not, in short, strong and bad like those of Thomas Rymer and John Dennis, whose ideas, even after centuries, are still worth quarreling with, but weak and bad. Of its parochial and simplistic judgments one example can stand for many. Speaking of the messenger who brings Cleopatra news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia, Frye says the scene shows the Egyptian queen “at her impossible worst.” It is the kind of phrase one would use of a shrewish faculty wife. Shakespeare is not trying to show a civilized, far less a well-bred Cleopatra, any more than he is trying to ingratiate Antony, when he has Thidias whipped for making free with Cleopatra’s hand. Antony is a “lion dying,” and what sort of females do lions consort with? Concepts like “just,” “fair,” and “prudent” don’t apply to animals like these. Shakespeare invites you to reject them (in much the same way as Stendhal invites you to think Julien Sorel a vulgar little opportunist) so that you may feel for yourself how much greater they are than the petty standards by which you judge them.

Comedy is stinted in Frye’s book, and what he has to say about The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest (both properly romances, as he notes) consists largely of paraphrase seasoned with wisecracks. One audacious speculation about Caliban is introduced with an excess of deprecation: “You may think this quite a long way out in left field, but I sometimes wonder whether the ability to see humanity in Caliban isn’t something of a test of character in the observer.” Really, now, that one isn’t out in left field, it’s nothing bigger than a pop fly to the catcher. Compared with what people since Ernest Renan have been thinking about Caliban, this speculation—if we must be colloquial—rates no better than wimpy.

A concise overview of recent approaches to Shakespeare is promised by a book titled Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Its sixteen essays include two by the editors, Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman; they deal under four headings with different aspects of and approaches to Shakespeare. The headings are (1) Language, rhetoric, deconstruction, (2) The woman’s part, (3) Politics, economy, history, and (4) The question of Hamlet. The categories are a bit out of sync (like the famous Oxford street sign, “J. Jones, Pork & Family Butcher”), and the contributors have also taken their assignments in an untrammeled spirit. Not all of them view the question of theory as a single question, far less as a question with a single answer. Some, not the least impressive, don’t seem to think it a question at all.

Not everyone seems to have taken the project with ultimate seriousness. René Girard restates an argument about the triangular nature of desire, its intimate affinity with jealousy, that he first put forward in 1961; it was not a bad argument then, and it is no worse now; but the phrase, “Thrift, thrift, Horatio,” makes itself heard. Yet more curious is Joel Fineman’s procedure in reprinting almost word for word a couple of pages from his book on Shakespeare’s sonnets (discussed below). At the level of abstractness on which he writes, they work just as well for The Taming of the Shrew as for the sonnets. Under “The woman’s part,” Elaine Showalter undertakes to write of Ophelia but discovers with admirable good sense that there’s not much to say about her because Shakespeare has told us so little. (She doesn’t consider the possibility that the playwright, having inherited from Saxo Grammaticus and presumably from Thomas Kyd’s earlier Hamlet play a much cruder temptation figure, could not in decency use her in that original part nor yet dispense with her entirely, lest that leave Gertrude as his only female character.) In any case, Showalter’s sensible solution is to sketch a stage history of the part, augmented by allusions to painters who depicted Ophelia on canvas, and by some material on the madness of women in the nineteenth century. It is an interesting and informative essay, but I cannot recognize any question of theory to which it relates.

Among the four essays under “Language, rhetoric, deconstruction,” Howard Felperin concentrates on The Winter’s Tale; he shows convincingly that the jealousy of Leontes, though indicated in various ways to be unfounded, cannot be positively, unequivocally known to be so, because of the inherent inexactitude of language. The same inexactitude appears, however, in the language of the fifth act, where the play’s difficulties are resolved. Felperin’s wise conclusion is that “if we cannot know except through the dark glass of language, we might as well accept what is a necessary limitation on our knowledge. Like Leontes yet again, we may even relax and enjoy it.” Perhaps naively, I had assumed that imaginative pleasure was one of the main reasons for going to the theater or reading a Shakespeare play in the first place, and that probing the inadequacies of the verbal evidence, like a lawyer earning his fee by niggling over the plain sense of a text, was a secondary pleasure.

  1. 1

    J.L. Styan, The Shakespeare Revolution: Criticism and Performance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1977).

  2. 2

    A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth (St. Martin’s, 1985).

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