Monday, 11 September 2006

Some of the People, Some of the Time The new issue of Bookforum features James Shapiro's excellent review of Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars and Kenneth Gross's Shylock Is Shakespeare. As I noted last month, I've come to Shakespeare through the criticism. Instead of having my love of The Bard desanguinated by years of graduate study, I've acquired a taste for the man whose works inspired Dead Poets Society to inspire generations to hazard a thwack at the GRE Subject Exam in Literature in English.[1] Not only that, I've been inspired by the very works which earn Rosenbaum's ire: Had Rosenbaum finished up at Yale and landed an academic job (at a time when it was still possible to find one), he would probably have been one of those colleagues soured by the success of New Historicism, cultural materialism, and deconstruction. By the 1980s, Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries had replaced Cleanth Brooks's reading of Macbeth on syllabi, feminists had shown how much earlier Shakespeare scholarship had ignored, and Irving Ribner's providential approach to the history plays had given way to Stephen Greenblatt's "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V" and other brilliant readings. Initially, I thought "other brilliant readings" Shapiro's attempt to distance his position on the Dollimore/Greenblatt junta from Rosenbaum's. Two paragraphs later, I had to reconsider: Rosenbaum blames "Theory" for this turn of events, and his book is in part an attempt to persuade us that, in the end, Theory lost and Shakespeareans are beginning to cast off its shackles and once again celebrate beauty, pleasure, and ambiguity. This is wishful thinking. Theory didn't lose; its victory was so complete that we no longer need Theory with a big T anymore because we all do theory, though most of us do it without giving it much thought. I don't exactly disagree with Shapiro so much as question how complete that victory actually is; that is to say, I wonder whether the distinction drawn here between the New Critics and proponents of theory ever existed outside overheated rhetoric. But I digress. I want to focus on that "though most of us do it without giving it much thought," which strikes a similar note to the earlier "other brilliant readings." Are Dollimore and Greenblatt like "most of us" or do they actually produce "brilliant readings"? Do they do so because of or despite their theoretical sophistication?[2] That Shapiro continues by praising Rosenbaum's account of Shakespeare's recent editorial history doesn't help much; after all, sussing out the authentic Shakespeare is more paleographical than bleeding edge. He wants to find the middleground between materialism (cultural and paleographical) and close-reading, like the work destined to follow Linne Mooney's "Chaucer's Scribe"—discussed informally here, formally here—in which historicism wins a "victory" as complete as theory's. Still, he insists there's a place for idiosyncratic works like Gross' Shylock Is Shakespeare: Argument and speculation can only get you so far in pursuit of a character's mystery. So he...

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