Shakespeare the American

First published in English Studies in Canada 19.4 (1993): 497-500.

Review of Michael Bristol, Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1990)


It might seem paradoxical to propose that a book which tells us nothing about the specific meanings of Shakespeare's plays or poems and quotes not so much as a line from any of them is nonetheless one of the most important studies of Shakespeare to appear within the past decade. There are, however, good grounds for making such a claim about Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare. Other recent attempts at an overview of the receptions of Shakespeare (Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare, for example) pale by comparison with this book's theoretical acuteness and moral energy. Michael Bristol's account of the intricately reciprocal relationship between the institutionalizing of Shakespeare in the United States and the cultural politics which have been dominant in that country will prove continuously challenging not just to Shakespeare critics and textual scholars, but also to literary theorists and cultural historians, and indeed to anyone interested in making sense of the so-called “culture wars” of the Reagan-Bush era.

Identifying three distinct meanings in the concept “Shakespeare,” Bristol at once sets two of them aside. He is concerned neither with the actor and playwright whose historically situated subjectivity would, he concedes, be well worth constructing, nor with the author-function which he sees as having been retrospectively constituted so as to provide a basis for “the expressive unity of 'Shakespeare: the man and his works'.” Bristol directs our attention rather to that “ghostly entity,” that “socio-cultural or spiritual origin, source, or presence” which serves as a principal love-object in what he terms “the humanist erotics of reading”; Shakespeare in this sense “is the name of a tutelary deity of cult-object” (18-19) in the quasi-religious rites of a literary and academic institution which has tended to experience modernity as a state of mourning and to understand its own role as one of submission to and disinterested love for the authoritative monuments of a traditional culture.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described Shakespeare as “the father of the man in America,” and the man who “wrote the text of modern life.” With these words in mind, Bristol draws together an intriguing narrative of the incorporation of Shakespeare into American culture as a kind of allegorical institution or institutional allegory that at once represents and legitimizes a typically conservative and hierarchical vision of the American social order—so that, as he argues, “the interpretation of Shakespeare and the interpretation of American political culture are mutually determining practices” (3).

The first part of Bristol's narrative—which is also, to my mind, the most consistently brilliant—focusses upon the institutional infrastructure of “Shakespeare's America.” Two illuminating chapters of a primarily theoretical bent are devoted to analyses of “the political economy of scholarship” and of competing understandings of the concept of tradition; these are followed by an account of the assembly and the functioning of an American Shakespeare archive (exemplified by the libraries founded by Horace Howard Furness and Henry Clay Folger), and by an incisive discussion of the theory and practice of textual editing, or of what Bristol terms “the deuteronomic reconstruction of authority.”

As this last phrase may suggest, one distinctive feature of this book is the ease with which Bristol moves from an informed understanding of the processes of canon-formation and tradition-making in Judaism and early Christianity to a no less scholarly examination of analogous processes evident in the formation and transmission of the Shakespeare canon, from the First Folio to the New Variorum, the “New Bibliography” of Fredson Bowers, and the most recent work of revisionist textual critics like Stephen Orgel and Anna Mette Hjort. Another attractive feature of Bristol's analysis is its inclusiveness: his vision of the Shakespeare institution takes in Charlie the Tuna, who in the Starkist commercial wants to demonstrate his good taste by “doing Shakespeare” (“I beat guys wit' 'dis sword whilst hollering poetry” [15]), as well as the Folger Library, the bequest of a president of Standard Oil, which stands next to the Capitol in Washington, so oriented that, as its first director explained, “[A] line drawn from the site of the Folger Shakespeare Memorial through the Capitol building and extended onward, will all but touch the monument to Washington and the memorial to Lincoln—the two Americans whose light also spreads across the world” (76).

The second half of Bristol's book tells a complementary story—that of the constitution of “America's Shakespeare” by the discourse of critics from Emerson to Stephen Greenblatt. A recurrent tension runs through this narrative—between “the emergent social project of American democracy and self-government” (129), and the modes of traditional privilege and domination available within the Shakespearean canon for appropriation by scholars eager to legitimize similar patterns of domination in their own settings; or, in different but related terms, between the emancipatory potential which many interpreters have glimpsed within that canon and sought in various ways to activate, and the binding mancipatio which is a condition of receiving the Shakespearean text in a ministerial spirit (and thus attaching oneself to the tradition of its more priestly possessors).

The first chapter in this section of the book offers brief analyses of Emerson's perception of a “Shakespearized” modernity (“Now, literature, philosophy, and thought are Shakespearized,” he wrote; “His mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do not see”), of the modulations of Emerson's view of expressive authority in the hands of George Lyman Kittredge, and of the enlistment by Charles Mills Gayley in 1917 of an Emersonian Shakespeare as a legitimizing originator of a doctrine of American liberty directly opposed to popular rule. (Bristol acknowledges that Gayley's book, Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America, may seem aberrant to contemporary readers—while also reminding us that its themes “are still not only widely current, they are in fact official policy in the areas of education and foreign affairs” [142].)

The chapters which follow offer similar groupings of “representative men”: A. O. Lovejoy, Theodore Spencer, and Hardin Craig are taken to exemplify an “old historicism” which at times seems “committed above all to the defence of its own theoretical innocence” (160); Harry Levin, Northrop Frye, C. L. Barber, and Maynard Mack illustrate more egalitarian interpretive tendencies within a post-war period of cultural reintegration; and the work of Stanley Cavell, Richard Levin, and Stephen Greenblatt is seen as responding with different strategies of containment to a threatened disintegration of the Emersonian ideal of autonomous subjectivity in the post-Vietnam era.

These readings are consistently astute—as, for example, when Bristol reveals eerie resonances between Mack's famous 1952 essay on Hamlet, an article on Vietnam that followed it in the same number of the Yale Review, and the “massive parapraxis” by means of which an “oration” on the American defeat in Vietnam intrudes itself into Stanley Cavell's 1976 analysis of King Lear. And yet one might very well object to the broad historical periodizing which characterizes these chapters, to the insistent metonymies which allow one essay or book to stand for a scholar's entire output, and that output for the work of an entire generation, or (since Stephen Greenblatt's writings take us into the mid- and late 1980s), to the fact that Bristol's narrative makes no mention of the feminist work that since 1980 has very substantially altered the course of Shakespearean studies.

The first two objections could be made of any study that offers a historical narrative of this kind. The third, moreover, is not wholly fair, since in his introduction Bristol pointedly aligns his critique with the work of feminist theorists, who like him are concerned not just to know the world but to transform it, and who should find congenial his detailed analysis of an “institutional pathos” which can be understood as “an array of specifically masculine subject positions” (5).

Should one then suspect, as a matter of principle, that any reviewer who so earnestly wishes to revise the text at hand—in this case with a concluding chapter on the work, say of Linda Woodbridge, of Coppélia Kahn, of Marjorie Garber, and of Janet Adelman—may perhaps be confessing, in that charmingly backhanded manner which seems typical of academic discourse, that he would be proud to have authored so much as half a chapter of a study of this quality?