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.
An excellent essay on Othello by Patricia Parker centers on the word “dilations” (III, iii, 123), which could bear the sense of “delays,” but which Dr. Johnson emended to “delations” in the sense of “accusations.” Both senses apply in the context, where Othello is referring to the “stops” or hesitations by which Iago, pretending to avoid accusing Desdemona, actually intimates crimes too awful to be spoken. This relatively minor point enlarges, under Parker’s expert urgings, into an analysis of the way the play develops through a sequence of rhetorical expansions and suggestions, then contracts toward closure through an equally striking set of silencings and stoppages. This pattern is related to a long-familiar sense of double time in Othello, where the hours often move so slowly that they must be filled with idle chatter (II, i) and then race forward so fast that the characters cannot keep up with them. The essay is a substantial and well-informed piece of work; it brings to the fore a working of language that might have remained only on the periphery of our awareness; it is convincing. But its theoretical procedures are strikingly traditional; it neither mentions nor uses any of the concepts of deconstruction.
Another splendid essay—it seemed to me the best in the collection—is “Shakespeare and the Exorcists” by Stephen Greenblatt. It starts from the long-established fact that Shakespeare drew for the Poor Tom passages of King Lear on the book of Samuel Harsnett, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). A major polemical device of Harsnett was to say that the exorcisms performed by clandestine Catholic priests were like theatrical performances. He meant, of course, to empty them of their religious significance; and Shakespeare, by representing Edgar’s pretend-madness and pretend-exorcism of Gloucester (IV, vi, 69 ff.), confirmed that emptying out of the old belief. But trickery on the stage, which is itself a trick of illusion, can acquire new sorts of authenticity, and the ending of Lear, with its unbearable sense of the moral vacancy and indifference of the universe, makes of vacancy itself an oppressive imaginative presence. This argument owes some debts to deconstructionism, among them, it seems clear, the concept of emptying language of one contextual meaning in order to transfer it to another function. But essentially its innovations rise from no procedures more remarkable than careful reading and vigorous thought. I should add that while I have truncated unpardonably all the arguments discussed in this review, the lucid and consecutive quality of Greenblatt’s prose rendered that act of barbarism especially painful.
Joel Fineman’s stimulating, strenuous book on the sonnets is entitled Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye and subtitled “The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets.” The title is a pun of sorts; most editors emend line thirteen of sonnet 152 to read “more perjured I,” but the printed text is indeed “eye,” and though the emendation makes a tighter and more “natural” sense, the original text is possible in itself, and serves an argument that Fineman wants to make. As for the subtitle, it may come as a bit of a jolt to anyone who had thought a troubadour like, say, Peire Vidal, or a petty criminal of genius like François Villon, not to mention Petrarch and Ronsard, were not wholly innocent of poetic subjectivity. But obviously Fineman means something special by the term; the body of his book is devoted to explaining what. Before entering on that argument, however, be it noted that Fineman nowhere substantiates his claim for invention by close comparison with any of Shakespeare’s predecessors; nor, more remarkably, is any later period, author, or poem indicated where one might look for some evidence of, or parallel to, Shakespeare’s new concept of poetic subjectivity. Did it bear fruit in Donne, Pope, Shelley, Browning, or W. H. Auden? Nobody in fact paid much attention to the sonnets until the end of the eighteenth century; “subjectivity” was not an English word until 1821. So the ontological nature of this invention which nobody noticed or named or in any way recognized for two hundred-plus years after it was made might have been worth defining.
It is with some trepidation that I undertake to summarize Fineman’s argument because it is repeatedly stated, qualified, restated in modified form, requalified, and modified until the qualifications seem to become the statement itself; it also proceeds on such a lofty level of abstraction, amid so many linguistic fireworks, terminological sideshows, and burrowings into its own verbal complexities, that this reader emerged from several concentrated trips through it with only a blurred sense of its import. Basically, though, I think Fineman is saying that in the Dark Lady sonnets (never specifically defined, but commonly taken to be numbers 127 152), Shakespeare deliberately countered the earlier and more conventional young man sonnets, replacing a poetry of ideal union with the praised subject, and turning a poetry of predominantly visual praise into a poetry of linguistic difference, distance, and hostility. And it is the loss of an ideal veracity both poetic and erotic that constitutes the one regret that the new poetry (captioned by Fineman “the paradox of praise”) can say it speaks with perfect truth.
A contrast between the early (young man) and late (Dark Lady) sonnets does indeed point to many major ideas; but it must not be made too absolute. There are among the early sonnets quite a few, of which number 94 is most remarkable, that speak of bitterness verging on hatred. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”—poetry can’t say it much straighter than that. And the rival-poet sonnets (widely scattered, but most of them within the bounds of 75–92) also make up a substantial unit of the sequence within which jealousy and alienation are a major element. They are not like the Dark Lady sonnets, to be sure, but neither are they much like the traditional poetry of praise as Fineman has defined it. For an acute and ingenious reader to ignore these major elements of the poetry is surprising.
In fact, Fineman’s close readings are often unpersuasive. For example, in contrasting sonnet 132 as a poem that “seems systematically to undo and subvert the homogeneous relation of eye and heart that is presented in sonnets 46 and 47,” the critic largely overlooks lines 10–12 of 132, which play off the mourner’s black of the lady’s eyes:
O, let it then as well beseem thy heart
To mourn for me, since mourning doth thee grace,
And suit thy pity like in every part.
This is a wished-for not an observed homogeneity, but it brings 132 to a close in the same way as the reconciliation enacted by 46 and 47. Again, in discussing 105, Fineman squeezes more metaphysical toothpaste out of lines 7 and 8 than the verses can possibly be supposed to contain. Shakespeare is explaining why his praises of the young man do not vary much; the reason is that the paragon is unfailingly “fair, kind, and true”:
Therefore my verse, to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
“Difference” in this context seems to me to mean “change,” “variety,” perhaps even “inconstancy” and “fickleness.” But Fineman sees in the word such matters as the difference between the sexes, the difference between the divine and human point of view, and most of the other meanings that recent semioticists have imposed on the wretched word “difference.” I admire the ingenuity of the argument, I find many of the generalizations suggestive in regions utterly remote from Shakespeare’s sonnets, but about lines 7 and 8 of 105 I am unpersuaded.
Beyond a doubt, something very special is going on in the Dark Lady sonnets, where Shakespeare assures the lady that he does not find her physically attractive and adds that she is in a variety of ways morally repulsive, without, however, surrendering the idea that he loves her. It is the same chord, I think, that Proust later struck when he had Swann cry out, “To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!” This is a moving perception indeed, and it contrasts with the jingling conceits of poor Petrarch’s inferior imitators; but that it represents the invention of poetic (or any other) subjectivity seems to me a Fineman hyperbole. Ovid (Metamorphoses VII, 20–21) put the basic idea in a speech by Medea: “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor” (“I see the better path and approve it, I follow the worse”).
Fineman’s prose is a topic in itself. One must accommodate to a good deal of semi-Anglicized Greek, such as the “a-lethetic light and shadow in Heideggerean metaphysics,” and in the same sentence verbal constructs that “deictically ‘bring to light,’ like Cratylitic magic wands, the logical structure of the world.” Again, a “scotomized occlusion” is said to define the “positive necessity associated with the literally unspeakable graphesis…of the proper name of God.” There’s a keen distinction to be made in one passage between epi-deixis and epi-deixis. On the other hand, the author is often gracious enough to translate his fancy talk into English, as on an early page, where “an empty language, insignificant because of the mise en abyme and aporias of recursive self-reference” is glossed on the same page as “essentially subjective showing off.” The plain version is both clear and comprehensive, except that the word “subjective” is redundant. It’s just showing off.
I spoke above of a counterrevolution; three books on the same theme can be mentioned to substantiate it. Richard Levin’s New Readings vs. Old Plays was published in 1979, Norman Rabkin’s Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning in 1981,3 and Harriett Hawkins’s The Devil’s Party in 1985. The Levin and Hawkins books both grew out of the experience of reading for review large numbers of books and critical articles about Shakespeare. It is a distinctive experience, not exactly equivalent to treading on red-hot plowshares, but close; it may account for a certain acerbity in those who have undergone it (present company not excepted); but it helps one to recognize certain classes of distorting procedure that recur again and again in writing about Shakespeare. Levin enacts a crafty polemic; he quotes the critics he attacks, but without identifying them. Thus one may discover, in the ripenesss of time, that a particularly silly opinion was committed by a deeply respected author. This is good for the circulation. Rabkin, though proceeding suaviter in modo, acts no less fortiter in re when he shows that inferior eighteenth-century recastings of Shakespeare plays trumpet forth all the blatant moral platitudes that Shakespeare himself avoided and that much modern commentary tries to reintroduce. Hawkins argues not only against finding literal moral teachings in Shakespeare, but against the kind of critical blue-sky speculation that is capable neither of proof nor of disproof.
Even when it isn’t earnestly decomicalizing the comedies, much modern Shakespeare criticism is owlish, not so say grim in tone; special cheers, then, for Ms. Hawkins, who not only writes like a person of this world—with wit, flair, and a sharp colloquial sense—but is not above appealing to a movie such as Some Like It Hot or to the wordly philosophy of Tallulah Bankhead to make a point. That she has, in addition, a finer and subtler literary mind than most of the profundity plumbers shows reassuringly that style is not incompatible with substance.
All three books argue against translating the plays into increasingly comprehensive and therefore vague moral abstractions (conflicts of faith and reason, appearance and reality, etc.); they denounce the practice of interpreting what Shakespeare characters say by contraries (Hamlet says he hates Claudius so that means he admires and envies him); and they protest the idea that characters in a play are to be judged by some impossibly exalted standard imported from a long ways off (Othello when he courts Desdemona’s good opinion falls short of St. Augustine’s advice that one should seek only “good fame” in the eyes of God).
To these now-familiar tricks of interpretative illusionism deconstruction has now added others: an urge to create puns and plays on words (better incongruous than congruous because they stretch the language more and deepen our insight into the rich ambiguities of the author), often by leaping across wide distances or even from text to text; also a fondness for oxymoron, duplicity, and flat contradiction wherever it can be discovered or invented. (Whatever unequivocal statement or impression the plays make must be suspected of meaning, alternately or simultaneously, the exact contrary.)
If there is a counterrevolution under way, I think its leading principle is likely to be a return to imaginative sympathy with Shakespeare as a playwright who knew his business and conveyed to public audiences the human complexities that interested him—the things he did not want to say as well as the things he did—surpassingly well. Though he does not need a lot of translation, summarizing, or agonized exegesis, careful criticism can help the texts toward some of the many diverse ends that we now ask Shakespeare to serve. But I suspect we’ve gone about as far as it’s worth going on the primary assumption, concisely and I think innocently phrased by Angus Fletcher on the jacket of the Parker-Hartman collection, that Shakespeare is “our most enigmatic author.” No doubt about it, the present generation includes the most enigma-hungry readers Shakespeare ever had; but I think that’s more than half the problem right there. Going at the plays as if they were contrived and challenging deceptions from which we are bound to extract a single triumphant, all-satisfying “solution” may be the most self-defeating of all procedures.
Two Marxist studies, old- and new-fashioned, however, defeat themselves in other ways. Paul N. Siegel’s book on Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays climaxes a sequence that began in 1957 with a book on the tragedies and continued in 1968 with a study of the comedies. All are described by the author as Marxist in their approach; but to judge from the present instance, the Marxism is intermittent in its application, and much of the procedure is old-fashioned explication de texte, covering relatively familiar ground to relatively unremarkable conclusions.
A bold interpretive venture, such as the brief Chapter 5, on Richard III and the spirit of capitalism, resolves itself into the assertion that Richard is depicted as a ruthless follower of his own self-interest, and that is the charge brought by Marx and Engels against the international bourgeoisie. But it is the identical charge brought by Cicero against Verres, by Christ against the Pharisees, by his enemies against Cesare Borgia, by any resentful victim against any heartless acquisitor. Shakespeare had a special interest in denigrating the last Plantagenet; it is a minor though not uninteresting note that he used the vocabulary of mercantile self-interest to blacken Richard—though in historic fact it would have been better applied to Edward IV or Henry VII. But we are still fairly remote from a “Marxist interpretation” of Shakespeare’s play. As a matter of fact, early hostility to money and the cash nexus comes mainly from writers with Catholic backgrounds (More, Jonson, Donne, Pope), rather than proletarian affinities. It’s no novelty that Marxist and Catholic economic thought share certain sympathies, such as suspicion of free enterprise and an open market—but one would expect Marxist critics in particular to show more initiative in analyzing the similarities and clarifying the differences.
Terry Eagleton launches into his book William Shakespeare with one of the better deadpan comic lines in recent criticism when he declares, “Though conclusive evidence is hard to come by, it is difficult to read Shakespeare without feeling that he was almost certainly familiar with the writings of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Derrida.” But, exploring a little further, one finds that as a rule Eagleton is neither that crazy nor that witty. His little book is a vigorous exercise on the high wire of verbal dialectics—agile, intricate, abstract, and self-absorbed. For example, of King Lear he writes:
The paradox which King Lear explores is that it is “natural” for the human animal to transcend its own limits, yet this creative tendency to exceed oneself is also the source of destructiveness. Being “untrue” to their own nature is natural to human beings: what we call culture or history is an open-ended transformation of fixed boundaries, a transcendence of mere appetite or rich surplus over precise measure. But when this process transgresses the body’s confines too far, it violates the bonds of sensuous compassion and begins to prey on physical life itself. A hubristic, overweening consciousness must then be called sharply to order, shrunk back violently within the cramped frontiers of creaturely existence. The problem is how to do this without extinguishing that authentic self-exceeding which distinguishes an animal with history from other natural species.
There is surely a sense in which this metaphysical kite-flying can be applied to some speeches of King Lear the character; to the play as a whole it applies rather less. Actually, it applies best to plays not by Shakespeare at all—to Tamburlaine, for example, The Spanish Tragedy, and Bussy D’Ambois.
Few inconvenient facts intrude into Eagleton’s book, calling for careful interpretation; the only verification offered for anything is the dialectic itself, i.e., the critic’s say-so. One could read through this shrill, headlong treatise on Shakespeare without any sense that the subject of it is some plays or that the plays contain some poetry. Curiously, about halfway through Eagleton seems to run out of gas. Accounts of The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure bog down in heavy-footed logic chopping about law and mercy, while the last couple of chapters dispose of three titles apiece in a matter of ten pages. Bourgeois subjectivity bothers the critic a lot, and his pamphlet is a fine example of it.
Terence Hawkes’s pungent collection called That Shakespeherian Rag has more ideas about and in the neighborhood of Shakespeare than its author can make into a tidy packet, but that’s all right, because he doesn’t believe in a single Shakespeare anyway, only a bundle of different Shakespeares for criticism to shuffle over. (One of his five essays, by no means the best, appeared in the Parker-Hartman volume; its title is “Telmah”—Hamlet backward, get it?) The biggest and probably the best of Hawkes’s many ideas is that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a combination of commercial, political, and racial energies took over the study of Shakespeare (and of English Lit. generally) into the service of what for short can be called The Establishment. Dover Wilson, Walter Raleigh, and to a much lesser extent A.C. Bradley were prominent in this movement, which culminated, on one level at least, in the Newbolt report of 1919, “The Teaching of English in England.” Hawkes is a tough, funny, well-informed man; when he leaves off an ugly vein of jeering and sneering, he’s a first-rate destructive critic. Much of what he destroys is good riddance; but the analogy with jazz, which he invokes to fill the void he has created, seems thoroughly unconvincing. Collective improvisation is a high art in itself, but far removed from cooperation—however heartfelt and sensitive—with a text that can only be moved so far without being trashed entirely. I think that what Hawkes wants is something like what Susan Sontag called approximately “an erotics of literature.” It’s a fine and maybe even a necessary component of sympathetic reading; but to write about it, or otherwise formalize it, leads inevitably to the sort of self-indulgent mush that Hawkes would be the first to blast if he found it lying around loose.
Joseph Pequigney’s Such is My Love is another book about the sonnets, this one dedicated to dragging Shakespeare out of the closet where, by presumption, he has long been immured. It is not, of course, news that many of the sonnets are addressed to a young man in terms that imply—well, what they imply depends on the social outlook of the viewer, and that well-known “climate of opinion” which controls it. In the eighteenth century, before Shakespeare became a National Treasure, it was possible for George Steevens to denounce the sexual direction of the sonnets in terms of unmeasured disgust. During the Victorian era, and especially as Shakespeare took on the lineaments of a national paragon, various formulas of evasion and suppression were invoked. Dowden’s pussyfooting phrase, parodied in Ulysses, is typical: “All we can say is that life ran very high in those days.”
As recently as fifteen or twenty years ago, people who knew perfectly well that there was a pederastic component in the sonnets were ashamed or embarrassed or afraid to say so. Now, of course, the tables are turned, and homosexuality is likely to be written down very much to Shakespeare’s credit. And so we get Professor Pequigney, who comes off as a man far more interested in homosexuality than in poetry. He not only asserts (or, rather, assumes) that the sonnets are homosexual, but labors hard, with the help of Freud, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, and whatever homoerotic material can be assembled from a range of Renaissance texts, to show that they are literally and (if this word retains any meaning in 1986) crudely so. Sonnet 4, we learn, could be “aptly dubbed” (Pequigney’s phrase) “A Disquisition Against Masturbation.” Before long we are meditating (by direct invitation when not, as more frequently, by explicit statement) on genitals, pricks, and their surrogates pens and pencils, semen, wet dreams, anal intercourse, fellatio, and other ways in which a man can simulate a woman’s role in sex.
The point (I’m sorry about the phallic overtones here) is argued through an extremely close and determined reading of the sonnets; it is a relentless exploitation of a thesis which will remind many readers of a prosecuting attorney’s well-prepared case. What it does to the poetry is another matter. Pequigney himself speaks at one juncture of “such unsavory subject matter,” and the phrase could be applied far more widely than he ventures to do. It is certainly a book that had to be written, that will make impossible any return to the old vague euphemisms, but that, after reading, one will be glad to keep distant in one’s memory if one wants to enjoy the sonnets themselves—which also, by their sustained rhetoric, distance the very topics that Pequigney wants to lift into the foreground.
A second and lesser argument proposes that the order of the sonnets in the first (1609) edition should be preserved. This is an argument more over tone than substance, since, though many critics have toyed with the idea of rearranging the sonnets to bring out this or that thematic element, editions almost always (I’m not sure about the “almost” here) follow the 1609 arrangement. If devotion to this ordering seems on the whole tepid, the reason is simply that students have been teased by the prospect of somehow by rearrangement learning more about the sonnets, which still are felt to harbor mysteries. But Pequigney (and it’s typical of his dogged literalness) not only wants to prove, but says he has proved that the 1609 order is “indubitably and conclusively that of Shakespeare himself.” Those are very strong words, and it’s likely that a frequent response in the profession will be, “Pequigney, it’s not for you to say.” Any assertion of the sort, that shuts off all future speculation forever, is likely to be ill received. Overkill, then, is this book’s prevailing flaw, but for a reader who approaches it with some skepticism and more humor, it’s not likely to be all that fatal.
November 6, 1986
J.L. Styan, The Shakespeare Revolution: Criticism and Performance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1977). ↩
A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth (St. Martin’s, 1985). ↩
Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (University of Chicago Press, 1981). ↩