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Yonder Shakespeare

In response to:

New Bards for Old from the November 6, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Robert M. Adams in his review of my Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays [NYR, November 6, 1986] reveals a curious misconception of Marxist literary criticism. He believes that a Marxist critic should show Shakespeare’s “proletarian affinities” and distinguish between “Marxist and Catholic economic thought,” the latter of which he asserts was mainly responsible for “early hostility to money and the cash nexus.” It would be strange indeed to find that Shakespeare showed proletarian affinities before the existence of the modern proletariat and that, living in the period of nascent capitalism, he was an exemplar of Marxist economic thought more than two centuries before Marx.

What Marxist Shakespeareans are concerned with doing is not with discovering that Shakespeare was a Marxist but with showing how an understanding of Elizabethan class relationships contributes to an understanding of the ideologies of the time and how this in turn contributes to an understanding of the plays. This is what I sought to do, at the same time indicating how Shakespeare’s depiction of the decline of feudalism in his English history plays and of the rise and fall of Roman civilization in his Roman history plays has significance for us in the period of the decline of capitalism.

Adams reveals another misconception concerning Marxist criticism: that the Marxist critic who engages in explication of the text is only intermittently Marxist. But, as I pointed out, the Marxist critic can make use of the methods of the critics of other schools, assimilating them to his Marxism. Trotsky, surely a full-time rather than an intermittent Marxist, found that “the methods of formal analysis,” although “they enrich our knowledge,” are “necessary, but insufficient.”

Adams reveals ignorance not only of Marxism but of contemporary Shakespeare studies when he states that I have come to “relatively unremarkable conclusions.” Any one who knows anything of the study of Shakespeare’s history plays knows that there has been a fullscale counter-revolution against E.M.W. Tillyard’s revolution of forty years ago. I sought to demonstrate that Tillyard’s historical scholarship is in the main still valid, despite the fashionable reaction against him, and that this scholarship can make a valuable contribution to a Marxist analysis. In so doing, I was swimming against the current rather than being borne along by the mainstream.

Paul N. Siegel

Long Island University,

Brooklyn, New York

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