Theorizing Shakespeare

First published in University of Toronto Quarterly 57.1 (Fall 1987): 109-11.


Review of Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York and London: Methuen, 1985)


As recently as ten years ago, Howard Felperin, one of the contributors to this volume, could still remark, with evident distaste, on “the pastoral tranquility of renaissance studies” (Shakespearean Representation [Princeton 1977], p. 14). In the intervening decade literary theory has arrived, however belatedly, here as elsewhere: if the study of Shakespeare and his contemporaries remains to any faint degree an Arcadian realm, it is no longer one characterized by a Theocritan nostalgia for past delights, or a Tillyardian nostalgia for departed orthodoxies, but rather such an Arcadia as Sir Philip Sidney imagined—delightful still, yet traversed by violent oppositions, and open to subversion from within and invasion from without.

Most of the major cross-currents of contemporary Shakespeare criticism are represented here (a notable exception being that anthropologically oriented theorizing of mimesis best exemplified by the recent work of A. D. Nuttall). But the resulting effect is not one of turbulence. What is most striking abut the sixteen essays assembled here is rather a calm and admirable strenuousness of argument—which, if in places it may seem to devolve into a formalist relentlessness-for-its-own-sake, is still preferable to those strains of thematic, ironic, or naively historicist interpretation that predominated in Shakespearean studies until the present decade. These essays are without exception rigorous and challenging, and some are by any standards brilliant, as interpretations not just of Shakespeare's writings but also of the motives, the mediations, and the contexts which inform the act of interpreting.

The title of this book, if seen as balancing two singularities, a proper name and the name of a question, is to that extent misleading. The proper name conceals a plurality: in various ways, beginning usually with close rhetorical analysis, these essays draw our attention to the polytropic, polyvalent materiality of the texts which confront us under that name (which Shakespeare, then?); and some of the most stimulating of them take the further step of analysing the politics of appropriation implicit in all interpretations of these texts (whose Shakespeare?). The question alluded to by the title (is it addressed to or from, posed by or about theory?) is similarly plural: prompted by the diverging multiplicity of voices which speak from the Shakespearean texts, and by the disturbing polysemy of their utterances, it takes a variety of forms: feminist, deconstructionist, psychoanalytic, Marxist, and 'new historicist.'

While these modes of discourse overlap, the dominant one here is deconstructionist. Howard Felperin's analysis of The Winter's Tale, which predictably discovers reference in this play to be indefinitely deferred, and Geoffrey Hartman's discussion of Twelfth Night, which transfers to “language itself” the burden of mystery more commonly loaded by commentators onto the shoulders of the Bard, seem to me the least satisfactory ventures in this mode. Elsewhere, in Elizabeth Freund's reading of Troilus and Cressida, Jonathan Goldberg's critique of certain feminist alignments of gender and genre, Joel Fineman's explication of the “rope-tricks” of rhetoric in The Taming of the Shrew, Thomas Greene's tracking of puns on “husbandry” through the Sonnets, and Margaret Ferguson's analysis of the irruption into Hamlet of an anamorphic memento mori, the results are intriguing. The most dazzling demonstration of the theoretical and interpretive richness of this approach, however, is Patricia Parker's fine essay on “dilation” and “delation” in Othello.

Other kinds of formalism are represented as well, in René Girard's elucidation of the patterns of “mimetic desire” in Troilus and Cressida (a reading which collides interestingly with Freund's), and in Thomas Berger's perceptive (though oddly anti-theatrical) psychoanalytic reading of the opening scenes of Richard II. But a rhetorically sophisticated criticism must move as well as provoke its reader, or be convicted of a failure to set its own precepts into motion. For this reader at least, the most moving of these essays are those in which theoretical distinctions are grounded in worldly as well as textualist concerns. I refer to Nancy Vickers's powerful feminist reading of Lucrece, and more particularly to Elaine Showalter's brilliant demonstration in “Representing Ophelia” of the power of literary interpretations to shape our constructions of lived reality; to the key theoretical move of Robert Weimann's proposal that the Marxist term “appropriation” offers a means of transcending “the unacceptable alternative between discursive and nondiscursive definitions of mimesis” (p. 279); and to Stanley Cavell's discussion of Coriolanus not as a political play but as a play “about the formation of the political, ... about what it is that makes a rational animal fit for conversation, for civility” (p. 262).

As Terence Hawkes shows, this worldly, engaged criticism can be playfully engaging as well: his delightful reception study of Telmah (I leave the reader to discover his reasons for spelling it backwards) is at once theoretically acute and wickedly funny. Most impressive of all is Stephen Greenblatt's “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” a wonderfully illuminating exploration of the relationship between between theatricality and ideology in King Lear. The analytical economy of this essay is breathtaking, as are its scope and its explanatory force. We have every reason to be grateful for the invasion, the irruption of theory that has made work of this quality possible.