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How to Read a Book

In attempting to answer that question, Chartier uses the techniques perfected by McKenzie and other bibliographers in order to show how the physical qualities of the books constrained certain readings. Some works, he observes, appeared originally in noble editions—in-folio or in-quarto, in fine paper and expensive bindings—intended for a noble clientele. Then publishers reissued them as chapbooks. They were abridged, cut up into short chapters, printed on cheap paper with worn-out type, stitched, and wrapped in the crude blue paper traditionally used for sugar cones (hence the Bibliothèque bleue), and peddled for pennies to a semi-literate public. When read or heard—for many were probably read aloud to groups of artisans or peasants—they could not convey complex plots and character development. They provided snatches of action which could be used for amusement or as food for thought by an audience that took them in episode by episode, paying attention obliquely while knitting socks or mending tools, rather as modern housewives listen to soap operas.

But precisely how did they pay attention? No one knows, because there is no adequate evidence to confirm the hypotheses that Chartier constructs from the physical qualities of books. The famous example of Menocchio, the sixteenth-century miller from Friulia studied by Carlo Ginzburg, suggests that plebeian readers took what they wanted from texts, extracting material and reassembling it in ways that had little to do with the originals. But sophisticated humanist scholars did the same thing, as Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton have demonstrated in a study of “How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy.” Harvey spread books out on a contraption like a small Ferris wheel, spun them around so that he could copy extracts into a commonplace book, and reworked the extracts into new texts that had little resemblance to their sources. Nothing proves that appropriation worked differently at different levels of society.4


Proof is sadly lacking in this kind of history, however rigorous the theory may be. At times, Chartier appears to paint himself into a corner, for the history of reading as he envisages it seems to be persuasive in conception and impossible in practice. But he finds a way out: he goes back to Molière.

Molière’s plays, like Shakespeare’s, lend themselves to wildly different interpretations, but the history of their performances can be determined with some accuracy, and that history has important implications for the problems raised by reception studies. Despite their obvious differences, performances of scripts are like readings of books in one respect: they are an activity which brings texts to life by making sense of them; and they add another dimension to the making of meaning, because the audience of a play interprets the interpretation of the actors. The history of the theater (or, more precisely, of performances) can therefore be studied as a complement to the history of the book (or of reading); and it has the advantage of being well documented. In the case of Molière’s players, la troupe du roi, later known as the Comédie-Française, we have stage directions, actors’ notebooks, box office receipts, even the original props and costumes, including the chair in which Molière was stricken during his final, fatal performance of the title role in Le Malade imaginaire. The productions have continued in an unbroken line from the time of Molière himself. This year, on January 18, the Comédie-Française put on its 2,177th performance of Le Misanthrope.

The evidence of productions (la mise en scène) can be studied like the material qualities of books (la mise en page) to determine the general character of interpretations. Of course, all such evidence must be handled with care and supplemented by other documentation, but when done well it can be convincing. Chartier executes such a feat in the most important section of his book, a long essay on Molière’s George Dandin, a play that was first performed before the court of Louis XIV in the gardens of Versailles on July 18, 1668, and then produced four months later for a Parisian public in Molière’s theater in the Palais Royal. By drawing on a wide variety of evidence, including inventories of the costumes, program notes, and contemporary correspondence, Chartier provides a wonderfully rich account of what the performances meant to two such different audiences.

The play concerns the humiliation of a rich peasant who tries to improve his status by marrying the daughter of a nobleman. Over the centuries, it has been performed as everything from an innocent farce to a seditious protest against the tyranny of rank. For the courtiers of Louis XIV, Chartier argues, it provided not merely amusement but also a sociological lesson about the nature of absolutism. The première took place at the height of Louis’s power, just after he had waged a successful war in Franche-Comté. It was but one moment in an extravagant round of festivities—banquets, ballets, masques, concerts, balls—designed to demonstrate the glory of the monarch. Contemporary reports dwell on the magnificence of the setting rather than on Molière’s wit. To the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, who happened to be present, the play was “hasty and not much.” Mme de Sévigné, who also attended the première, did not even mention it in her famous correspondence. Instead, she discussed the issue that dominated gossip in court: the efforts by various families to demonstrate their nobility by proving the antiquity of their titles before royal officials, as required by a declaration of the King in 1661.

That, however, was precisely the problem dramatized in the play for the courtiers who watched it on July 18, 1668, according to Chartier. No one in court took seriously a peasant’s claim to noble status, for peasants, however wealthy, did not marry into the nobility during the late seventeenth century. But George Dandin’s absurd marriage served as a commentary on the general process of establishing a social identity. In principle, one could move from the third (common) to the second (noble) estate through established procedures, such as the purchase of certain offices, but in practice one had to win recognition from people like Mme de Sévigné. Dandin’s attempt to convert wealth into status taught him that society was not merely ordered by a code but by the arbiters of that code. Things were not what they seemed to be, and the rules of the game depended on those who enforced them.

The ultimate arbiter was the King. By requiring “his” nobility to establish its legitimacy through all sorts of bureaucratic procedures, Louis XIV made himself the master of the games people played in order to win a position in the social hierarchy. So George Dandin, one of the great losers in all literature, provided his aristocratic audience with something more than amusement. He gave them a lesson in sociology, a sociology remarkably similar to that of Pierre Bourdieu.

In Paris, the play took on a different meaning, one closer to that of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. It exposed the dangers of trying to rise above one’s station to an audience of commoners who might be tempted to do so. Instead of examining social distinctions as a process of negotiation and arbitration, it reinforced the status quo: “The spectators at the Palais Royal must have sensed that the comedy, under the guise of showing a peasant in a farce, carried a warning against unwarranted ambitions and a message in support of an order in which everyone stayed in his place.” Chartier’s interpretation sounds convincing, but he supports it at crucial points with phrases like “must have” and “may have” instead of with solid evidence. One could turn the “may haves” in a different direction, because other scholars have argued that the theater audiences in Paris were heavily aristocratic.5 The Parisians may have understood the play in essentially the same way as the spectators in Versailles.

It seems ungenerous to raise such an objection after following Chartier’s masterly account of the play’s performance at the court. One simply desires more—an equally rich interpretation of the Parisian performances. If in the future Chartier can complete his reception study by filling in the second half of the traditional formula, la cour et la ville, he will indeed advance far toward his goal of developing a history of cultural appropriation.


Meanwhile, literary historians on the other side of the Channel, and of the Atlantic Ocean, have made advances on another front of the same set of questions. They have gone even further than the French by reworking their own tradition—that is, by going back to Shakespeare. The so-called New Historicism developed within Shakespearean studies as an attempt to break out of the closed circuit of theorizing in which literary criticism seemed to be lost. The New Historicists did not reject postmodernist thought. Their work bristles with citations of the usual suspects, especially Michel Foucault. But they tried to make a connection with social history by applying theoretical concerns to concrete problems, above all the problem of finding affinities between the performances of Shakespeare’s players and the preoccupations of the Englishmen who saw them.

Scholarship in this vein has poured out at such a rate during the last two decades that it has transformed our sense of the literary landscape four centuries ago. Stephen Greenblatt showed how The Tempest expressed the first wave of English imperialism in the New World. Richard Helgerson demonstrated the linkage between the patriotism in Henry V and the attempts to transform the kingdom of Elizabeth I into a nation-state by drawing maps and codifying laws. Lisa Jardine exposed the similarities between gender relations in The Comedy of Errors and the unequal war between the sexes in society at large. And as early as 1973, Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong examined the ways that comedies like As You Like It and tragedies like Macbeth belonged to the power plays of the Tudor-Stuart courts.6

One of the best monographs, The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England, by Steven Mullaney, supplies precisely the fine-grained analysis of urban theater that is lacking in Chartier’s book.7 Of course, Shakespeare’s London differed from Molière’s Paris, especially around the edges—that is, in the “Liberties,” or border areas outside the city walls and south of the Thames, where the city shaded off into the countryside and the jurisdiction of the city authorities thinned out into something close to lawlessness. Here it was in 1576 that James Burbage erected a building that he called a “Theatre,” a new kind of structure designed for public performances of plays.

By 1600 London was ringed with theaters, impressive edifices like Shakespeare’s Globe, which rose above a landscape of taverns, bawdy houses, gaming dens, cockpits, bullrings, lazar houses, flea markets, prisons (The Clink), prison-like hospitals (The Lock), and a graveyard for unidentified aliens (No Man’s Land). The gallows stood nearby, a reminder of the affinity between the scaffold of the hangman and the scaffold (stage) of the players. It was marginal territory, full of wild things to be marveled at and mastered, among them the English language, as Shakespeare demonstrated in Henry IV Parts I and II. Mullaney takes his reader on a tour of this territory and of Shakespeare’s texts. It is a tour de force, showing how this new institution, the public theater, expressed the tensions of a dangerous border zone, where the social and political conflicts of Tudor-Stuart society were played out.

  1. 4

    Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), and Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present (November 1990), pp. 30-78.

  2. 5

    John Lough, Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford University Press, 1957).

  3. 6

    Stephen J. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (Routledge, 1990); Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (University of Chicago Press, 1992); Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1983); Roy Strong, Splendor at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power (Houghton Mifflin, 1973); Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (University of California Press, 1975).

  4. 7

    University of Chicago Press, 1988.

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