Fatal Triangles

A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare

by René Girard
Oxford University Press, 353 pp., $29.95

René Girard’s new book interprets Shakespeare’s plays psychologically, but from an unfamiliar perspective. Girard analyzes Shakespeare as a writer who was once alive and possessed of recognizable attitudes and intentions, some of which can be related to the patterning of the plays.

An old-fashioned book about Shakespeare, in other words, but taking a fresh slant; and with little to say about textual problems, nothing about the staging, very little about the sources, almost nothing about the critical history of the plays. It is not a book of close verbal analysis; it is neither feminist, Marxist, Freudian, nor homosexual in its analysis. The argument is doggedly, and sometimes dogmatically, interpretative; references to “the critics” (i.e., previous interpreters of Shakespeare) are few, unspecific, and almost always contemptuous. It is by no means an ingratiating book, repeatedly hammering hard at the same basic point in different contexts. But it has a genuine point to make, and the point has many ramifications which will attract close scrutiny from other critics. Bardolaters and theater buffs will likely wind up feeling impatient; but in graduate seminars and certain other quarters where methodology is a potent concept the book will likely create a stimulating buzz.

René Girard is an Americanized Frenchman currently teaching at Stanford University. His first book—a very fine one—appeared nearly thirty years ago, when he was at Johns Hopkins. Its title in French, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque, was a little more cogent than the English version, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. His thesis, illustrated with analyses of Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky (with secondary allusions to Cervantes and Flaubert), was relatively simple and is by now generally familiar. It is the frequent presence in human desire of a triangular or mimetic structure. The model is geometrical in its simplicity. A is, and understands himself to be, in love with the enchanting B; but his passion is stimulated if not actually formed by the presence of a nearby rival, C, who gives price to the love object and validity to A’s original choice, but who also threatens to supplant A in the affections (if any) of B.

Jealousy or envy concealing itself behind the mask of spontaneous desire thus becomes an all but limitless resource for the analytic storyteller—and equally for the analyst of stories, also known as the critic. The third party who controls the lover’s imitative passions may be a personal model (Boniface de la Mole or Napoleon for the suggestible Julien Sorel), or a literary concept (knight-errantry as described in heroic romances for Don Quixote); it applies to females as well as males (Lydia Bennet, desperate to get married on any terms before her older sisters). Lacking a tangible rival, jealousy can create rivals out of thin air, as Corvino does in Jonson’s Volpone. Complications of admiration and antipathy such as rise out of triangular desire can be traced through their secret implications to the limit of the analyst’s ingenuity. One obvious but general consequence may be the darkening of a…

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