Shakespeare Theology: A Polemic

by Ingrid Hotz-Davies

Thou shalt have no other Bards before me…

In his Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität (1796), the German philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried Herder had the following to say on a subject dear to him and his contemporaries:

Shakespeare […] stehet zwischen der alten und der neuen Dichtkunst, als ein Inbegriff beider da. Die Ritter- und Feenwelt, die ganze Englische Geschichte und so manch anderes intereßantes Mährchen lag vor ihm aufgeschlagen; er […] stellet sie dar mit aller Lieblichkeit eines alten Novellen- und Fabeldichters. Seine Ritter und Helden, seine Könige und Stände treten in der ganzen Pracht ihrer und seiner Zeit vor […] Nun aber wenn er in diesen Scenen der alten Welt uns die Tiefen des menschlichen Herzens eröffnet, und im wunderbarsten, jedoch durchaus charakteristischen Ausdruck eine Philosophie vorträgt, die alle Stände und Verhältniße, alle Charaktere und Situationen der Menschheit beleuchtet, so milde beleuchtet, daß allenthalben das Licht aus ihnen selbst zurückzustrahlen scheint: da ist er nicht nur ein Dichter der neueren Zeit, sondern ein Spiegel für theatralische Dichter aller Zeiten.[1]

Shakespeare, it seems, is indeed the poet “not of an age but for all time” as Ben Jonson put it, but then we could just have accepted his word for it and not troubled ourselves with Herder’s similar understanding. What interests me, however, is not so much the continuity between Jonson’s thought and Herder’s, but rather the curious Shakespeare that emerges from Herder’s vision: an antiquarian, a connoisseur of folk tales, a philosopher, an inhabitant of the middle ages and the modern period simultaneously, a transcender of time and human limitation and simultaneously time’s and human specificity’s most perfect embodiment. In short, a Romantic and specifically a Herderish dream come true in a characteristic mix of nostalgia for the middle ages as a pre-revolutionary time of harmonious social hierarchies, longing for a thoroughly non-confrontational poetics of the ‘mildest light’, and the dream of an all-encompassing vision. I think anyone would be hard put to imagine what plays specifically Herder may have had in mind: Henry VI with its slaughters, Richard III and its Machiavellian machinations, Richard II with its agonized reflections on legitimacy and revolt, ‘mild’ (Herder’s word) comedies like Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night where (some of) the characters have to learn the (very) hard way what’s ‘good’ for them? Iago? Hardly. In fact, one has to assume that Herder’s Shakespeare in this quotation is just that: Herder’s Shakespeare. And this is where I would like to begin my discussion, for while this tiny morsel of Shakespeare criticism may be in many ways exceptional and may not reflect the author’s more mature thought, Herder would forgive me for having singled him out like this once he realized that he is in fact in very good company. If we follow the many texts of the German Shakespeare-Mania in the 19th century through Schiller and Goethe and many lesser lights, we will always and unfailingly encounter similar formations. Whatever it is that Shakespeare is supposed to stand for, that is best or at least most desirable. Or conversely: whatever is best, must be in Shakespeare. And – not to forget – whatever is best is what the individual commentator holds dearest. So when A. W. Schlegel in 1796 found himself exclaiming „Er ist unser!“, his is a complex statement of appropriation, ownership and authorization[2] which would echo through the ages in many different contexts: ‘Shakespeare’s Mine!’

The basic assumption behind this argumentative structure is that ‘Shakespeare’ functions as a sacred text, a quasi-Bible which will render, again and again, in innumerable exegetical traditions and practices, heavily glossed and re-glossed, reverently examined and explained, whatever it is the believer seeks to find. Literary scholarship, and that is my contention, is this text’s continued exegesis and theology. What we produce are for the most part affirmative readings in which whatever it is we seek, believe, or want to believe must be found, produced, in Shakespeare. This strategy will subsequently be referred to as ‘position I’. If all of this sounds depressingly boring or self-serving, this would be very much misleading. For nothing about these exegetical moves is boring: rather, since there are many different traditions, each affirmative exegesis takes, as its point of attack, the ultimate goal of its interaction, not Shakespeare’s text (which must, of course, always be ‘right’), but the works of the other exegetes, their (mis)readings (whose purpose is always obviously transparent), their (mis)renderings of ‘Shakespeare’. One ‘Bible’, many exegetes, many sects: academic debate.

However, virulent controversy is not always to everybody’s taste and for those not inclined to do continual battle, there is a subcategory of ‘position I’ in Elizabeth Hanson’s elegant notion of the “Synecdochic Shakespeare”[3]. That is, whatever it is I wish to discuss, without even reflecting on my choice, I will ‘naturally’ look for it (and find it, too!) in Shakespeare and in speaking about Shakespeare I will also be saying something that is true for his whole period. Women’s speech and its curtailment? Desdemona for that, and possibly Emilia, but not Victoria (who’s she?) or that Duchess of Webster’s. The convention of the synecdochic Shakespeare ensures that the sacred text remains sacred (after all: who would seriously build a theology on the Dead Sea Scrolls rather than the Bible?), but at the same time it renders the assumption of the text as sacred

could (and did) put a foot wrong occasionally.[4] Grabbe’s is an almost solitary voice, for in stressing Shakespeare’s shortcomings he in fact diagnoses a form of idolatry in his contemporaries and in the plays something other than the sacred text. His is clearly a heretical position (subsequently called with, I admit, little creativity, ‘position II’). In the history of Shakespeare criticism, such positions emerge every now and then. However, they are rarely stable. In fact, a heretical position will inevitably bring on a flurry of affirmative readings which will, in the end, supersede the heresy in question. This does not mean that heretical readings (that is: not ‘radical’ readings of whatever kind but readings that do not locate perfection of meaning in the Shakespearean text) are pointless. On the contrary, they keep the machine going in that they set in motion the need for the recovery of the sacred text.[5] But they cannot be maintained without being eventually contained. To misquote one of Stephen Greenblatt’s favourite quotations: There is heresy, no end of heresy, only not for us. An amusing example can be seen in an essay by Maynard Mack[6] which opens its celebration of Shakespeare’s characteristic doubleness of vision with a generous acknowledgement of the influence of A. C. Bradley’s work to which, Mack claims, his own endeavours can only “aim at being a modest supplement” (125). But there is hope after all: for “Bradley is quite detailed about the faults [he found in Shakespeare’s plays]” – a heretical position if there ever was one. And thus, the recovery of orthodoxy (and the creation of much needed distance to Bradley) is possible:

Though Bradley’s analysis is still the best account we have of the outward shape of Shakespearean tragedy, a glance at his list of faults and, especially, his examples reminds us that a vast deal of water has got itself under the critical bridges since 1904. […] most of the faults he enumerates would no longer be regarded as such, but would, instead, be numbered among the characteristic practices of Shakespearean dramaturgy, even at its most triumphant. (126)

What is most striking about Mack’s assessment of Bradley’s ill judged comments is that he should attribute the emergence of the less critical view to the progress of time or rather: the progress of criticism. The implication is that given enough water under the bridge, any ‘fault’ in Shakespeare will eventually be revealed to be a thing representing Shakespeare at his “most triumphant”. It seems then that the heretical position is inherently instable. That is, given the nature of the sacred text, any heresy will produce new affirmative exegetical readings designed to destroy the heresy and save the sacred text. Very simply, you keep reading (while, no doubt, much water will pass under the bridge!) until you find a version that will be a confirmation of the perfections of the Shakespearean text and its insights. Those who want to adhere to the heresy will have to leave the church. That is, heretics have to give up participating actively in Shakespeare scholarship and strike out into different territories. I think we all know scholars and colleagues who – and it always just happens to happen that way, nothing to do with Shakespeare, rest assured! – prefer to write and lecture about practically anything else under the sun rather than ‘do’ Shakespeare: other dramatists who will just tacitly be assumed to be ‘worth the effort’, poets, prose writers at a stretch, women if nothing else helps.[7] Those, make no mistake, are the renegades, the non-believers, the closet Shakespeare atheists. And, as with the atheists of the Renaissance, our culture and the historians who will come to investigate us will assume that they never existed.

The question is: are there any games we can play which do not fall into position I or II and their interplay? If Shakespeare cannot be read non-affirmatively, at least not for long, the third option (‘position III’) is clearly to avoid taking sides in the matter. It may be best to leave Shakespeare’s texts alone altogether and focus instead on an investigation of the sects and schisms within the Shakespeare theology, their aims and hidden agendas, the politics of their readings. For the field of “Shakespeare-and-Women”, for example, one could trace historically, institutionally, and ideologically differently motivated trends: Shakespeare the sensitive portrayer of women (position I); Shakespeare the misogynist (position II); Shakespeare’s text as mirror of early modern gender politics (synecdochic Shakespeare); Shakespeare as stager of his period’s gender aporias and hence as both ‘subversive’ critic and ventriloquizer of early modern gender asymmetries (heresy containment and recovered position I); the reception of Shakespeare’s women as a mirror of a historical development in gender ideologies (position III). In this way, position III pursues a method of comparative Shakespearean religion studies or, as I prefer to call it: comparative theology.[8]

For my purposes here position III is clearly a viable and even necessary path, for so far I have proposed a very rudimentary theory of comparative theology of my own without demonstrating the truth of my allegations. For this, looking at all (!) studies of even recent years in search of positions I, II, III, or ‘other’ is not an option, but neither can I just select those studies of which I already know that what I say is true. Instead, I have proceeded on the assumption that if I am right, what I am claiming must be demonstrable using whatever material comes to hand provided that it offers a reasonable cross section. I have therefore decided to focus on Russ McDonald’s magnificent and brand-new anthology Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) since it contains many of the seminal essays of the period in question and focuses on a wide variety of ‘schools’ and concerns. This is designed to ensure that my findings will not be attributable to the fact that I selected ‘inferior’ examples of Shakespeare criticism. On the contrary, reading all the contributions (many of them old friends) has been a positive pleasure to me and often enough an occasion for wonder. The terrain covered by the anthology should provide a wide enough sample: Authorship – New Criticism – Dramatic Kinds – The 1950s and 1960s: Theme, Character, Structure – Reader-Response Criticism – Textual Criticism and Bibliography – Psychoanalytic Criticism – Historicism and New Historicism – Materialist Criticism – Feminist Criticism – Studies in Gender and Sexuality – Performance Criticism – Postcolonial Shakespeare.[9]

Affirmative Exegesis, or: Shakespeare Does It Best

By far the largest number of essays in this collection falls under the heading of “affirmative exegesis” and “synecdochic Shakespeare”.[10] First, those traditions dedicated to some form of ‘close reading’. Cleanth Brooks starts out, unlike Julius Caesar’s Antony, not to bury John Donne, the icon of the New Critics, but to praise him – and then arrives at a place where it is Shakespeare who is the best anticipator of the New Critics’ methods.[11] Wolfgang Clemen similarly and quite ‘naturally’ finds in Shakespeare the author most suited to his New Critical investigation of imagery and ambiguity.[12] William R. Keast has had it with New Criticism and proceeds to rescue Shakespeare from it (in the concrete manifestation of Bechtold Heilman) in the name of commonsensical contextualized meanings. Interestingly, he refers to Heilman’s readings (but not to his own) as an “exegesis” (69).[13] A. P. Rossiter provides a lovely emotional essay, indeed a love declaration, which celebrates Shakespeare the sceptic, the dialectician whose “two-eyedness” is seen as a most enduring mark of his genius, the best there is, the most knowing, the most adult, and not least, the most English. He quotes with approval Walter Raleigh’s belief that it “is indeed the everlasting difficulty of Shakespeare criticism, that the critics are so much more moral than Shakespeare himself, and so much less experienced” and then ups it: “I wouldn’t endorse [Raleigh’s] rather shapeless liberalism, which half suggests the (to me absurd) conclusion that Shakespeare is not moral at all – let alone one of the greatest moralists” (109). The conclusion is clear:

Shakespeare’s intuitive way of thinking about History […] is dialectical. […] his thought is dynamic, alterative, not tied to its age. It has that extra degree-of-freedom which is given only by what I called a constant ‘Doubleness’: a thoroughly English empiricism which recognizes the coextancy and juxtaposition of opposites, without submitting to urges (philosophical, moral, etc.) to obliterate or annihilate the one in the theoretic interests of the other. (113-4) [14]

On the subject of ‘two-eyedness,’ Norman Rabkin would concur, in an essay I am especially fond of, though his preferred model is Gestalt psychology’s duck/rabbit. No doubt, though, that Shakespeare is the best duck/rabbiter of them all and that of course the duck/rabbit is the best means to adequately body forth a profound truth: “The inscrutability of Henry V is [nothing less than!] the inscrutability of history” (262).[15] In a figure of thought that is quite standard, René Girard refuses to entertain the notion that the two seemingly irreconcilable images of Shylock are indeed disjointed. On the contrary, “both images belong to the play and […] far from rendering it unintelligible, their conjunction is essential to an understanding of Shakespeare’s dramatic practice” (353). Shakespeare is the ideal ironist who manages to stage the scapegoating of Shylock subversively and affirmatively for differently attuned audiences (358). The play is, of course, not anti-Semitic (but Jew of Malta is). In this, Girard’s essay is also a rebuttal of one of the more endurable heretical readings of this play.[16]

If we consider Shakespeare within a wider cultural framework, E. M. W. Tillyard of course famously thought of Shakespeare synecdochically as the author most attuned to the realities of the Great Chain of Being and all its attendant ramifications.[17] Anne Righter Barton places Shakespeare in the context of Jacobean disillusionments with the stage and its powers of signification but finds in him, compared to his contemporaries, a disillusionment more profound, more generally applicable, so that Shakespeare is clearly the ‘better’ Jacobean.[18] Northrop Frye sees in Shakespeare the best Fryeian myth critic, for

[w]hen Shakespeare began to study Plautus and Terence, his dramatic instinct, stimulated by his predecessors, divined that there was a profounder pattern in the argument of comedy than appears in either of them. At once […] he started groping toward that profounder pattern, the ritual of death and revival that also underlies Aristophanes, of which an exact equivalent lay ready to hand in the drama of the green world. (97)[19]

C. L. Barber, not surprisingly, thinks Shakespeare’s comedies are the best example of “festive comedy”.[20]

Individual critical schools of course will also claim Shakespeare’s sacred text as ‘naturally’ and specifically theirs. Stephen Booth’s essay “On the Value of Hamlet” is hagiographic even in its title – Hamlet, it appears, is the best text for reader-responsers since it induces in the spectator a deep insecurity as to which character they should side with. The play “persists in taking its audience to the brink of intellectual terror [!]” because they can’t make sense of it (232). Booth’s notion of horror, i. e. that systems of signification could collapse, is itself interesting, and while Shakespeare, superhuman as ever, was obviously capable of enduring this horror (and producing it in his unsuspecting audience), the critics were not so tough: “the thing about Hamlet that has put Western man [sic] into a panic to explain it [i. e. Hamlet] is not that the play is incoherent, but that it is coherent [in its evocation of the intellectual horror of epistemological uncertainty]” (244).[21] If we move into the New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) already made clear that Shakespeare is the best of New Historicists, even though Marlowe, Spenser, More, and others may also participate in the adventure. It is not surprising, therefore, that the essay selected by McDonald comes to the conclusion that Shakespeare is the most uncannily Greenblattian of writers in his artistic vision (and that he can stand synecdochically for the whole of his society): in his enactment of early modern practices of “recording” alien voices, Shakespeare’s “balance is almost eerily perfect, as if Shakespeare had somehow reached through in 1 Henry IV to the very centre of the system of opposed and interlocking forces that held Tudor society together” (447).[22] For the Cultural Materialist Jonathan Dollimore, Shakespeare is the perfect anti-humanist materialist.[23] Gayle Greene sees in Shakespeare a proto-feminist and gender sceptic in that in Othello he shows the dangers for men and women of trying to live up to socially and psychologically expensive gender stereotypes.[24] Bruce Smith, on the other hand, finds in Shakespeare the early modern homosexual who is most poetic, most introverted, most conscious of his own separate identity, most ‘modern’: one who transcended his time and “improvised a new form of discourse” (698).[25] If we think of Shakespeare in the context of emergent colonialism (and postcolonial criticism), we find Francis Barker and Peter Hume, who seek to rescue The Tempest from affirmative or complicit imperialist readings to ascertain that Shakespeare was infinitely more subtle, in fact the best of anti-colonialists (790).[26] Ania Loomba, finally, fuses an approach sensitive to both gender and ‘race’ to find that, read correctly, Shakespeare’s Othello shows him to be both anti-racist and anti-sexist. All that is required now is the right readerly attitude: “Instead of allowing it to become a means of confirmation of these attitudes [of racism and sexism], Othello must be seized as a point from which we may examine and dismantle the racism and sexism which both our own [Indian] hegemonic ideologies and years of colonial education have persuaded us to adopt” (813).[27] In the establishment and defence of embattled critical methods, Shakespeare’s assumed superiority can do valuable work. J. L. Styan, for example, who wishes to defend performance criticism against the claims to superiority that textual criticism continues to put forward, points out that Shakespeare’s texts are better/more than either the versions produced by critics or by individual performances, so that to elucidate “Shakespeare’s greater vision” one needs both critical methods (749).[28]

What all these affirmative exegeses illustrate, ultimately, is the status of ‘Shakespeare’ as sacred text and – speaking with Bourdieu – ‘Shakespeare’s’ immense value as ‘cultural capital’. In the establishment of any ideological position, any truth-claim whatsoever, it seems, the basic formula is this: he (and increasingly also: she) who owns Shakespeare wins his/her case, whatever the case in question may be. It must be assumed that this is also the reason why this one-method mode of approach to Shakespeare has been so influential, so universally attractive, and seemingly so ‘natural’. After all, to borrow a German proverb, who would saw off the branch he’s sitting on?

Heretical Readings and their Containment

If we consider that seventeen out of McDonald’s 49 essays are affirmative exegeses affirming anything from Shakespeare the New Critic to Shakespeare the Reader-Response dramatist to Shakespeare the ‘modern’ homosexual, proto-feminist, anti-colonial commentator, etc., one really has to savour the fact that the whole collection contains only four examples of what might be called heretical readings, and two of these could also figure under the heading of “affirmative exegesis”. This state of affairs certainly reflects an imbalance that is discernible in Shakespeare criticism at large and that is the direct result of the fact that Shakespeare as cultural capital is more than just an author (perish the thought!). However, I also suspect that my choice of McDonald’s anthology as a basis may here warp the statistics. After all, this is a best-of collection and clearly Shakespeare agnostics, heretics and atheists will not easily be considered for inclusion in its hallowed pages.

Tellingly, all four examples come from disciplines within Shakespeare criticism which are the most closely concerned with the specific, the material condition of the Shakespearean text: performance criticism and textual criticism. J. L. Styan we have just met, and while he needs Shakespeare’s ‘greatness’ to affirm the validity of performance criticism, he also muses, heretically, that there is in fact only one Shakespeare, the one we ‘make’ in accordance with our needs: “both actor and scholar can only render what their sense of the dramatic medium will allow, for they see what they interpret before they interpret what they see. Their Shakespeare originates in the mind, in their reactions to Shakespeare rather than in Shakespeare himself” (748). Gerald Eades Bentley, another performance critic, suggests that we should see Shakespeare not as a poet-philosopher but as what he was, a theatre man whose primary concern was with his company, his audiences, his fellow actors, and not least his own profit. For Bentley it is clear that among his contemporaries he was of course the best, the most important of theatre men, but he also concedes that he was one of many talents active on that particular market, even in his own company’s theatres. When he considers, therefore, what the impact of the acquisition of the Blackfriars theatre may have been and concludes that Shakespeare had to write new and different plays for a different theatre and a different audience, he heretically thinks it possible that not only may Beaumont and Fletcher, comparatively ‘old hands’ in these surroundings, have been influenced by Shakespeare, but he in turn may have been gladly influenced by them: Shakespeare “might have asked advice – or even taken it – from the two young dramatists who had written plays for this theatre and audience […] before” (743).[29] Paul Werstine, approaching Shakespeare from the angle of textual transmission, rejects the convention that sees to it that Shakespeare is given “the sole credit for everything that is in a ‘good’ quarto […] and actors alone (sometimes ‘rogue’ actors) get charged with most and sometimes all of a ‘bad’ quarto’s variants” (296).[30] Gary Taylor, finally, rejects the notion of Shakespeare’s singularity in terms of textual production: “I know of only two great creative artists who, according to orthodox interpretation, never revised their work. One is, of course, Shakespeare; the other is, of course, God. This is part of a more general confusion between Shakespeare and God, prevalent in certain sects of the priesthood of literary criticism” (280).[31]

While some of the essays classified by me as “affirmative” are also search-and-rescue missions designed to contain heretical readings,[32] there are some contributions which make the recovery of Shakespeare their explicit business. Sigurd Burckhardt, for example, upholds Shakespeare’s genius by defending him against those who assume that in Julius Caesar he “committed some sad boners” (209) in the matter of historical authenticity. Far from it: these ‘boners’ aren’t ‘boners’ at all but ingenious markers for different modes of historical being. This is a reading that is established via a vicious attack on Jonson, who was stupid enough to assume that verisimilitude mattered (213). Shakespeare, on the other hand, had landed a brilliant coup (at least for those discerning enough to pass the “acid test”), and the passage’s rhetorical overkill may say something about the stubborn nature of the heresy to be combatted:

That is the point of his anachronism – precisely defined, exactly calculated, and placed with shrewd irony so that it would serve as an acid test for his critics. It proves, not his ignorance, but his incredible capacity for laying himself open to the tumultuous realities of his age and situation and experience – and his extraordinary ability to penetrate them and embody them in metaphors so true, so carefully wrought, that they have remained valid ever since. (213)[33]

Meredith Anne Skura spends much energy on trying to wrest The Tempest (and Shakespeare) away from the postcolonials and their allegations that Shakespeare was in any way complicit in, cognisant of, invested in the colonial enterprise. This she tries to effect not by affirmatively reading The Tempest as an anti-colonial text but rather by (re)psychologizing the text and its characters so that Tempest is (once again) not ‘about’ colonial acquisitiveness, anti-colonial resistance or its rhetorics but ‘about’ the psychology of Prospero with Caliban playing the role of an externalization of his psychological anxieties.[34]

Comparative Theology

Linda Woodbridge offers a spirited (and understandably angry) run through Antony and Cleopatra’s reception history to reveal the startling ease with which critics have used the play as a screen for the projection of their own misogyny, gender panic and pathological fears. She wittily claims that the anti-Stratfordians are not the only ones who should have their heads examined: “Alfred Harbage […] looked at the personal lives of some of the anti-Stratfordians and found evidence of persistent neurotic delusions of the sort Freud had labelled ‘family romance fantasies’; perhaps it would be revealing to examine the lives of anti-Cleopatra critics for evidence of difficulties in relationships with women” (573).[35] Woodbridge’s essay is an attack on a particularly virulent set of beliefs within the canon of Shakespeare theology. However, in producing an affirmative exegesis of her own (unlike his critics, Shakespeare is a lover and understander of women, even Cleopatra), this is not a fully developed case of ‘comparative theology’. Rather this should be seen as an exact analogue to a phenomenon very well established in the field of ‘real’ theology: feminist theology which seeks to disable, step by step and necessarily by reference to the Bible, the long and mostly hostile traditions of the church. So it is the very sanctity of the text that gives the exegete leverage in her battle against powerful interest groups within her discipline. A quasi-religious debate of a different kind is S. Schoenbaum’s tongue-in-cheek exposition of the follies of the anti-Statfordians which he sees explicitly as a particular kind of Shakespearean heresy. The anti-Stratfordians, he maintains, are heretics and sectarians (8-9) who spread their errors about who was the ‘real’ Shakespeare through curious practices like mock trials, séances and wild exegeses of haphazardly collected material. The element of wish-fulfilment is all too obvious in that they produce Shakespeares who resemble themselves (as we have seen, though, they may well be merely more inventive and creative than their more sober colleagues, who find less startling ways of creating Shakespeare in their own images).[36] Needless to say that Schoenbaum does not see himself as a heretic (and does not point out that this must make him an orthodox but no less ‘religious’ participant in the debate). While Schoenbaum ponders the question of ‘Shakespeare’ at its most fundamental, material level, Alan Sinfield takes on the task of demystifying the uses Shakespeare has been put to in the production of the British middle-class school boy (or girl) who is coerced into producing affirmative exegeses of his or her own: “Give an Account of Shakespeare and Education, Showing Why You Think They Are Effective and What You Have Appreciated about Them. Support Your Comments with Precise References”.[37] In showing how the British educational system uses Shakespeare to extract desired affirmative responses from young people and how ‘Shakespeare’ takes on the qualities of a sacred text, this is clearly an exercise in comparative Shakespeare theology. However, it does not seek to oust ‘Shakespeare’ from his place of eminence. Rather, Sinfield would like to see other concerns and contents dealt with in the classroom.

It seems then that the best anyone can hope for is the replacement of one ‘Shakespeare’ by another, never his relegation to a different, less ‘Biblical’ status. In this sense, much as is the case with ‘position II’, comparative Shakespeare theology is always on the brink of collapsing into ‘position I’, an affirmative exegesis now effected not by way of textual interpretation but by way of contrastive analysis of the presumed idiocies of Shakespeare’s reception. One thing, however, which comparative theology can provide beyond offering a veiled version of ‘position I’ is the precise description of the mechanisms of ‘Shakespeare’s’ circulation as cultural capital. This is elucidated with particular clarity in Lynda E. Boose’s impressive article which offers a minute analysis of why American feminist Shakespeare critics chose to embrace a ‘feminist’ Shakespeare (their academic job descriptions defined them as ‘Shakespeare scholars’), while their more ‘cultural materialist’ British counterparts embraced, at least for a while, heretical readings of Shakespeare as the arch-patriarch (they had been hired as ‘Renaissance scholars’). New Historicists in turn came to occupy the previously marginal territory of Shakespeare-and-the-family as their own terrain and the site of their own empowerment. Her conclusion is, in essence, that nothing can be changed in the way we deal with Shakespeare:

Shakespeare is a site of such competitive jostling because Shakespeare is a site of enormous cultural power. As such, he is not only a universally available but likewise a dangerously charged locale, where maneuvers for appropriation, displacement, erasure, and the institutionalization of both cultural and academic privileges are invested with a particular energy […] Shakespeare scholarship effectively constitutes the equivalent of a cultural Rorschach inscribing the issues, the ideologies, the tensions, and the terms of debate that define the preoccupying investments for any given historical moment, including our own (607).[38]

Jean E. Howard, in yet another pertinent critique of New Historicism, is more inclined to question the status of Shakespeare as such as she illustrates how the New Historicists’ choice of authors as well as their reading strategies produce a special canon of the ideal of “submissive subversiveness”, a canon “inevitably male” (and one might add inevitably Shakespeare) (474). What is really at stake for her is “what status one gives to the isolated text or artefact when what occupies categories such as the ‘representative’ and the ‘important’ is itself a product of a particular political history of canon formation” (477). The critical enterprise is a “program for producing more ‘new readings’ suited to the twenty-five-page article and the sixty-minute class” (461). The assumption (ignoring Hayden White’s cautions to the contrary) of “history as transparent and objectively knowable is useful to literary critics, for it can serve as a means of unclouding the stubborn and troubling opacity of the literary text and of stabilizing its decentered language”. To counteract these mechanisms – and this would inevitably ‘trouble’ practically every essay in this collection – Howard proposes that while we direct our attention to specific texts, we should really investigate ourselves as we do what we do: “Essays which explain how and why one does and should read in a particular way are both more generous and more risky since they do not try to seal themselves off from what is polemical by aspiring to a timeless commonsense, but expose what is difficult and what is at stake in ‘making knowledge’ at this historical moment” (469).[39]

Other Games to Play?

Position I, position II, position III – over and over again, with a heavy emphasis on I and the continual threat that even the fragile productions of II and III might at any moment be revealed to be after all position I. My question is this: is this all we can come up with? Over and over again, in all eternity, if not for as long as the moon shall rise at least for as long as Shakespeare criticism shall exist? I have to admit I find that distressing. But I think that very little is to be hoped for from within this critical tradition which seems to have been very happy for a very long time with three positions to choose from and which founds its cultural power on precisely these mechanisms. McDonald’s collection contains a small number of essays that do not fit into any one of my categories. I have tentatively (and affectionately) called them ‘mavericks’.[40] What I find interesting is that they often seem to yearn for a different kind of interaction with the text. Catherine Belsey, for example, pleads for a radical criticism which seeks “not to replace one authoritative interpretation of a text with another, but to suggest a plurality of ways in which texts might be read in the interests of extending the reach of what is thinkable, imaginable or possible” (633).[41] William B. Worthen, in a thoughtful essay which seeks to defend performance criticism against the assignation of an inferior status compared to the textual analysis of “deeper meanings” (763), pleads passionately that “the text is ‘against performance’ of all kinds, to the degree that it necessarily differs from any discourse that represents it” (770). He concludes that “our access to the text is always through its performance, a performance continually taking place offstage – as reading, education, advertising, criticism, and so on – before any stage performance is conceived” (772).[42] Like Styan, he calls for a notion of the text as the sum of its conceptualizations, for us as the makers of it. In the process, we may very well be producing only mirrors of ourselves as various critics have insinuated; but we might also with Belsey try to extend “the reach of what is thinkable, imaginable or possible”. Extending the reach of what is thinkable via literary works implies a strictly secularized, even strategic, approach to the text: potentially, any text would do, or even just a fragment of a text which poses an interesting problem for the imagination within an otherwise uneventful whole. Using a text in this manner means that it can no longer be sacred: it has become a tool, a realm for experimentation, a playing field. And that is suggestive, for if we are ever going to proceed beyond (or outside?) positions I, II, and III with Shakespeare, we have to give up the notion that ‘Shakespeare’ is anything other than a collection of plays and poems.

But how could such a different critical practice be imagined? It seems to me that most of the ‘mavericks’ seem to somehow point towards acting (not: “Performance Criticism”) as a possible point of reference. And so I have turned to Al Pacino’s film Looking for Richard (1996) about the filming/acting/finding of Richard III because I believe that this film is engaged in intelligently, playfully circling the question of what should be ‘done with’ Shakespeare. To lay open what this might mean, it will be necessary to strip the film of much of its rich filmic structure in order to make accessible a skeleton of strategic interpretive moves. The film shows how a group of actors get together to rehearse parts of Richard III in various settings, situations and fictions of enactment. At the same time it is interlaced with ‘interviews’ in which a wide variety of individuals from within and from outside the Shakespeare industry comment on Shakespeare, Richard III, Richard himself, acting, theatre-going, and so on. In this way, the film creates a complicated and interwoven web of ‘embodiments’ of the play and of commentary. On the level of its ‘commentary’, the film illustrates precisely the various ‘positions’ I have been describing here: that is, the various interviewees battle it out with each other through affirmative readings of ‘Shakespeare’ in which each seeks to occupy ‘Shakespeare’ for himself or herself or wishes to demonstrate that Shakespeare is ‘universal’. For example, we have British and American actors debating whether Americans can ‘do’ Shakespeare at all. John Gielgud presents us with the British-only position, whereas Derek Jacobi wants to urge his American colleagues not to be cowed by British snobbery or by Shakespeare.[43] One actor denies vigorously that academics have anything worthwhile to say about Shakespeare, claims that Pacino “knows” more about Shakespeare than they ever will and that therefore no academic should be allowed to proclaim the ‘truth’ about Shakespeare into the camera. Pacino seems generous (“It’s just an opinion”), but the academic who does get to speak into the camera is (satirically?) shown to have indeed nothing worthwhile to say. Male and female actors battle it out over their parts (Winona Ryder has a hard time not to have her suggestions sneered off the screen by her colleagues; Penelope Allen must ensure that her character isn’t reduced to being “hysterical”). Various voices, academic and non-academic, render their ‘truths’ of ‘Shakespeare’. There is even a large segment of those usually not audible in Shakespeare criticism: the agnostics who don’t know him at all (and don’t want to) and those who are outright atheists and find him risible rather than divine (definitely position II, heresy!). These heretics are (a very Shakespearean idea, this!) clearly cast as the ‘people’: and as such one might say that they can afford to ignore the Shakespeare creed since they don’t live off it. In presenting these different voices, Looking for Richard produces something like a ‘position III’ reading of ‘Shakespeare’, enriched by the normally excluded voices of irreligious doubt.

So much for Looking for Richard’s intervention as a piece of criticism (or rather: as the playful and not always reverent enactment of the mechanisms that produce ‘criticism’). But does the film have no position of its own which it speaks from? I would say it does, very markedly, in its foregrounding of the performance as an ephemeral act and in its idea that reading and acting Shakespeare is, literally, the task of unlocking the play’s emotional possibilities, not by commenting on or analysing them but by trying to understand and, for a moment, ‘inhabit’ them. This is carefully prepared by a variety of statements which permeate the film’s structure on various levels. Pacino himself (that is: the ‘Pacino’ who is written into the texture of the film as the film’s director and main actor) sets the tone:

It has always been a dream of mine to communicate how I feel about Shakespeare. I asked my colleagues to join me and by taking this one play, Richard III, analysing it, approaching it from different angles, putting on costumes, playing out scenes, we could communicate both our passion for it, our understanding that we’ve come to and by doing that communicate a Shakespeare that is about how we feel and how we think today. That’s the effort.[44]

So, we are in the presence of a particular kind of exploration of the text: one that is profoundly communal and communicative (there is no way anyone could do this alone); one that allows itself to be inspired by the text but also seeks to honour 20th-century concerns. But most importantly: one that insists on entering the play by trying it on as one would try on another’s clothes. The task is to feel one’s way forward, to consciously remain tentative, provisional, and in this way to ‘find’ the part, the play, to ‘invent’ it. But to ‘invent’ it always and only for the moment, for a rendering which will end whenever the performance ends. Hence the film’s heavy reliance on the non-permanence of the human presence which finds itself encoded in the fragility of the moment seemingly arrested, fixed by the film while the voice-over tells us: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”.

What we have here is not what we academics do (after all our productions will accumulate dust in libraries until the end of time!): we appropriate a text by replacing it, transcribing it into meta-language, or more benignly, speaking for it in order to unlock its meanings. In Looking for Richard, we see what actors do (or rather what these actors do): they effect a momentary, inner appropriation which consists not of establishing distance between the text and oneself but of seeking to diminish distance, of a slipping into the text, inhabiting it, becoming it for the moment of performance, differently for each performance, in order to then also leave it behind, to leave it ultimately free of one’s merging with it. That is the film’s aesthetic and its critical credo. As a consequence, Looking for Richard neither produces a complete staging of Shakespeare’s play, nor indeed only one staging of the segments it does enact. Neither does it produce a coherent ‘interpretation’ of Richard III, let alone a ‘theory’ of it.Rather, we are given what Catherine Belsey seems to long for: an extension of “the reach of what is thinkable, imaginable or possible”. In mounting its ‘Shakespeare’ the way it does, therefore, Looking for Richard is profoundly non-academic, even anti-academic. And yet, one of the film’s interviewees, a man who appears to be homeless, pleads that this could be different, that we should introduce ‘Shakespeare’ (this film’sShakespeare maybe) “into the academic”:

When we speak with no feeling we get nothing out of our society. We should introduce Shakespeare into the academic. You know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other. But if we were taught to feel we wouldn’t be so violent. [and later on] If we think words are things and we have no feelings in our words then we say things to each other that don’t mean anything. But if we felt what we said we’d say less and mean more.

I hesitate to designate this uncredited ‘voice of the people’ as ‘that homeless character’ (all one can say with certainty is that he is African American and nearly toothless). After all, he might be the film’s most consummate actor, a screen virtuoso with his dentures removed. On the other hand, he might be exactly what he ‘looks like’. But then, were does that leave us? Who is to say that this is not an academic on the skids? One thing, however, is certain: structurally, by having him come on twice and having his views tie in with the film’s other voices, his seems to be one of the film’s most authorial statements. Vanessa Redgrave, appearing “as herself”, has something very similar to say about the pernicious divorce of feeling from speech and of both from ‘truth’: “The music […] and the thoughts and the concepts and the feelings [in Shakespeare] have not been divorced from the words. And in England you’ve had centuries in which word has been totally divorced from truth and that’s the problem for us actors.” Taken together with Pacino’s declaration of intent, this nexus of feeling, speaking and living appears to be the film’s credo. In this way, the at first paradoxical statement that “we should introduce Shakespeare into the academic” makes sense. For while we may think that we “in the academic” are the natural owners of Shakespeare, this street philosopher tells us that we have yet to introduce him: as a school for the emotions and their expression and for empathic abilities. And while Redgrave and ‘the homeless guy’ (and possibly the films itself) clearly believe that Shakespeare is the best cultural place for instituting such a school of the emotions (because he is the most in touch, the deepest, the greatest etc., as ever, this time in producing emotional effects), the film’s whole trajectory actually produces a de-sanctification of ‘Shakespeare’. After all, there is nothing in Looking for Richard that could not also be done for any other play: we could, with possibly incalculable results for ‘Shakespeare’, start Looking for Volpone, Looking for the Arden of Feversham, or Looking for the Jew of Malta. In any case, the film as a whole suggests that its model of inhabiting the text as an act of exploring it, feeling it, speaking with it, letting oneself be temporarily silenced by it as one enters into its domain, that these are what “the academic” needs, certainly what Shakespeare needs. The overall effect, it seem to me, is a surprisingly coherent message, an intervention in its own right in the Shakespeare impasse I’ve been describing. While many of the characters in the film participate in a game of positions similar in structure to the one which dominates academic debate, the film as a whole says something rather startling in its simplicity: Richard III is a play (even: just a play!) and the play is in the playing. It is not Holy Writ. Whether it is ‘the best’ of anything need not concern us and would, in any case, only reveal itself in the course of our enactments through an experience of what it can do for and to us (or fails to do).

The question is: how could such an insight be transported into academic practice? In teaching, yes, there is might be possible. But in research and criticism? In our approach to the texts? Is it possible to imagine a path, an academic path, wich would allow us to say: let us seek out the ephemeral, the fleeting in our readings, let us inhabit a play instead of colonizing it. Can we say: These are (merely) plays and the play is in the playing? Could there be a criticism of empathetic invention? A criticism where the text ‘owns’ the critic for a time instead of the critic claiming the text? I have no answer to these questions. But it seems to me that they would be worth contemplating. I cannot say that I have ever quite understood what Deleuze and Guattari might mean by their notion of ‘becoming’: ‘becoming animal’, ‘becoming woman’, ‘becoming machine’, etc. In fact, I suspect very much that these things we are supposed to ‘become’ are already heavily inscribed with cultural notions: myths rather than animals, machines, let alone women, whatever they might be. But I believe that their idea of ‘becoming’ might be stretched to accommodate something a little more imaginable (and no doubt more homely) than what they may have had in mind: that we can experience, in our contact with the ‘other’ (and of course every text is ‘other’, even Shakespeare’s) a momentary fusion, a suspension of self, a mutual inhabiting. What Deleuze and Guattari call “not pity, but unnatural participation”.[45] I take unnatural participation to mean in its broadest sense ‘being outside one’s own nature’, something that always happens if I let the ‘other’ into my head, but it also means ‘participating’ in modes of being which our culture tells us are genuinely ‘unnatural’ for us.[46] I do not want to suggest that we should all start to write impressionistic reader diaries about our emotions when we write about Shakespeare. But allowing, accepting an approach which takes as its starting point an inhabiting of the text, a feeling one’s way into it, a tentative experimental approach that refuses to immediately ‘know’ what it is in contact with, might also give us a different place to start from in deciding what it is we wish to ‘do’ with a text. Maybe this way we can short circuit reading habits which will all too easily find the always already known in the text. Under the impact of an ‘unnatural participation’, we might end up asking questions which will be in the fullest sense of the word: strange.



[1] Johann Gottfried Herder, 98th letter, Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität (1796); quoted from Auseinandersetzungen mit Shakespeare: Texte zur deutschen Shakespeare-Aufnahme 1790–1830, ed. by Wolfgang Stellmacher (Berlin: Akademieverlag, 1985), p. 39. For those unfamiliar with German, here a rough translation: “Shakespeare […] is placed between the older and the newer tradition of poetry as their ultimate embodiment. He had, in front of him, the world of fairies and medieval knight, the whole of English history, and many other interesting tales. He […] presents them with all the mellifluence of an ancient master of the fable or novella. His knights and heroes, his kings and estates emerge in all the glory of their own and his time. […] But then, when he opens to us the uttermost depths of the human heart in those scenes of the old world, when he presents to us in a most curious but thoroughly characteristic style a philosophy which sheds light on all the estates, all the relationships, all types and situations of humanity, with a light so mild that it everywhere appears to emanate from them: then he is not only a poet of a newer age but a mirror for dramatic poets of all ages.”

[2] For the ins and outs of the German Shakespeare reception in the Romantic period and beyond, see Roger Paulin, The Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany, 16821914: Native Literature and Foreign Genius (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2003).

[3] Hanson argues that we should stop making Shakespeare speak syncecdochically for his whole culture or see in him always the most obvious embodiment of particular early modern phenomena. In a spirited juxtaposition of the ‘conservative’ Merchant of Venice with the ‘avant-garde’ work of Ben Jonson, she reminds us that reading Shakespeare snyecdochically is a practice that is “universalizing, but not universal”. See Elizabeth Hanson, “Against a Synecdochic Shakespeare”, Discontinuities: New Essays on Renaissance Literature and Criticism, ed. by Viviana Comensoli and Paul Stevens (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 7595, p. 95.

[4] See Christian Dietrich Grabbe, „Über die Shakespeareo-Manie“ (1827), Auseinandersetzungen mit Shakespeare: Texte zur deutschen Shakespeare-Aufnahme 1790–1830, ed. by Wolfgang Stellmacher (Berlin: Akademieverlag, 1985), pp. 287–307.

[5] Needless to say that ‘ideological’ critiques are especially rewarding for such seesawing between heretical readings and their containment. Take for example postcolonial Shakespeares: Shakespeare the critic of emergent colonialism and racism – Shakespeare the collaborator with or even spokesman for emergent colonialism – Shakespeare the bodyer forth of colonialism’s ideological aporias (I leave it to the reader to assign the different tags to these positions).

[6] “The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies” (1993). The essay has been reprinted in Russ McDonald’s anthology Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 19452000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 125148.

[7] Years ago, a friend of mine (who shall be nameless for his own protection) and I decided that we wanted to co-author a book entitled Why We Hate Shakespeare (I have to admit I can hardly bring myself to write it down!). The book never materialized. At the moment, we console ourselves by planning it as something to look forward to in our retirement. Though it is to be feared that by then so much water will have passed under the bridge that we won’t, no matter how hard we try, be able to remember what it was we found hateful so long ago…

[8] After all, “comparative religion” would imply that something as ‘different’ as Hinduism, Shamanism, Christianity, etc. are studied comparatively (So: our reception of Shakespeare versus that of Jonson versus, – who knows? – Beckett or Woolf). In Shakespeare studies, however, we have the comparative analysis of major trends within one religion, Shakespeare theology.

[9] The only contributions I will not be talking about are the three essays under the heading “Reading Closely”. As ‘pure’ stylistic analyses, they are outside the range of my discussion (though, in foregrounding Shakespeare’s use of language, they are possibly ‘synecdochic’ in their approach). Their exclusion here is no indication of any lack of merit. All references to McDonald’s anthology will be noted parenthetically in the text.

[10] For the sake of brevity, I will not discuss those essays that fall under the rubric ‘synecedochic readings’. These are, of course, non-explicit forms of affirmative exegesis since they assume that demonstrating a point in Shakespeare is either self-evidently relevant and/or will speak for the culture as a whole. Practically all psychoanalytical essays in the collection are synecdochic readings in the sense that they do not feel the need to question Shakespeare’s relevance to their particular mode of enquiry, nor do they feel the need to claim him as the ‘best of psychoanalysts’. In this way, their readings appear ‘neutral’, merely ‘self-evident’ elucidations of psychoanalytical facts. This, I would suggest, is in accord with psychoanalysis’s perception of and presentation of itself: after all, wherever you go, all you ever find (can find) is the truth of psychoanalysis. See Janet Adelman, “Anger’s my meat”: Feeding, Dependency and Aggression in Coriolanus” (1979); Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear” (1987); Harry Berger, Jr., “What Did the King Know and When Did He Know It? Shakespearean Discourses and Psychoanalysis” (1989); Joel Fineman, “The Turn of the Shrew” (1985). Other ‘schools’ also produce synecdochic Shakespeares designed to elucidate a particular reading of his culture as simply ‘there’. See Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture” (1985) for New Historicism; Robert Weinmann, “Shakespeare’s Theater: Tradition and Experiment” (1967) for Materialist Criticism; Madelon Gohlke Sprengnether, “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare’s Tragic Paradigms” (1980) for Feminist Criticism; Stephen Orgel, “The Performance of Desire” (1996) for “Gender and Sexuality”. Valerie Traub’s essay on “The Homoerotics of Shakespearean Comedy” (1992) is on the one hand synecdochic in that it posits two Shakespeare plays as typical examples for open and anxious forms respectively of staging homoerotic pleasures. But she does see the need to correlate her findings to other writers like Lyly, Sidney, Jonson, Middleton, etc. and entertains the idea that they might have something differentbut equally ‘central’ to say about early modern sexualities (723).

[11] Cleanth Brooks, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness” (1947), sub-heading “New Criticism”.

[12] Wolfgang Clemen, “Introduction” to The Development of Shakespeares Imagery (1951), sub-heading “New Criticism”.

[13] William R. Keast, “The ‘New Criticism’ and King Lear” (1952), sub-heading “New Criticism”.

[14] A. P. Rossiter, “Ambivalence : The Dialectic of the Histories” (1961), sub-heading “Dramatic Kinds”.

[15] Norman Rabkin, “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V” (1977), sub-heading “Reader Response Criticism”.

[16] René Girard, “To Entrap the Wisest: Sacrificial Ambivalence in The Merchant of Venice and Richard III” (1991), sub-heading “Psychoanalytic Criticism”. I promised myself not to comment on the positions I am summarizing here but in defence of Marlowe, I do feel compelled to say that Marlowe’s play does all the things Girard claims for Merchant at least as well if not better than Merchant.

[17] E. M. W. Tillyard, “The Cosmic Background” (1944), sub-heading “Historicism and New Historicism”.

[18] Anne Righter Barton, “The Cheapening of the Stage”, sub-heading “The 1950s and 1960s”.

[19] Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy” (1949), sub-heading “Dramatic Kinds”.

[20] C. L. Barber, “The Saturnalian Pattern” (1959), sub-heading “Dramatic Kinds”.

[21] Stephen Booth’s “On the Value of Hamlet” (1969), sub-heading “Reader Response Criticism”.

[22] Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V” (1985); sub-heading “Historicism and New Historicism”.

[23] Jonathan Dollimore, “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism” (1984), sub-heading “Materialist Criticism”.

[24] Gayle Greene, “‘This that you call love’: Sexual and Social Tragedy in Othello” (1995), sub-heading “Studies in Gender and Sexuality”.

[25] Bruce Smith, “The Secret Sharer” (1984), sub-heading “Studies in Gender and Sexuality”.

[26] Francis Barker and Peter Hume, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest” (1985), sub-heading “Postcolonial Shakespeare”.

[27] Ania Loomba, “Sexuality and Racial Difference” (1989), sub-heading “Postcolonial Shakespeare”.

[28] J. L. Styan, “The Critical Revolution” (1977), sub-heading “Performance Criticism”.

[29] Gerald Eades Bentley, “Shakespeare and the Blackfriars Theatre” (1989), sub-heading “Performance Criticism”.

[30] Paul Werstine, “Narratives About Printed Shakespeare Texts: ‘Foul Papers’ and ‘Bad Quartos’” (1990), sub-heading “Textual Criticism and Bibliography”.

[31] Gary Taylor, “Revising Shakespeare” (1987), sub-heading “Textual Criticism and Bibliography”.

[32] Asserting Merchant’s non-anti-Semitism (though not pro-Semitism) also means rescuing the play; finding in Shakespeare a proto-feminist means protecting him both from his period’s prevalent misogyny and from critics who would foreground these elements in their analyses.

[33] Sigurd Burckhardt, “How not to Murder Caesar” (1968), sub-heading “The 1950s and 1960s”.

[34] Meredith Anne Skura, “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest” (1989), sub-heading “Postcolonial Shakespeares”. Skura’s critique further (and I believe rightly) seeks to establish the lack of precision with which ‘postcolonial’ readings locate the colonial ‘other’ in the text. However, she also – in a quite problematic move – seeks to forestall readings friendly to indigenous cultures by pointing out the ‘truth’ of the text: that Caliban after all is “bad” (and Prospero is “good”). This misses the point that none of these characters is anything that the author hasn’t assigned to them. For a heretical postcolonial reading, Caliban-the-rapist and Prospero-the-good-father would be precisely the textual proof for Shakespeare’s racism and complicity in the colonial enterprise.

[35] Linda Woodbridge, “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism” (1977), sub-heading “Feminist Criticism”.

[36] S. Schoenbaum, “Looney and the Oxfordians” (1991), sub-heading “Authorship”.

[37] Alan Sinfield, “Give an Account of Shakespeare and Education, Showing Why You Think They Are Effective and What You Have Appreciated about Them. Support Your Comments with Precise References” (1985), sub-heading “Materialist Criticism”.

[38] Lynda E. Boose, “The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or the Politics of Politics” (1987), sub-heading “Feminist Criticism”. When Boose’s essay appeared, Renaissance women writers were just in the process of being rediscovered for and by feminist criticism (by now they occasionally even make it into ‘mainstream’ Renaissance criticism, though never of course as a threat to Shakespeare). In any case, Boose would have doubted their ability to seriously unsettle ‘Shakespeare’ (and would have been right in this estimate) (see p. 611).

[39] Jean E. Howard, “The New Historicism in the Renaissance” (1986), sub-section, “The New Historicism”.

[40] These are Barbara Everett, “Reflections on the Sentimentalist’s Othello” (1961) which seeks to defend Othello the character against Leavis’s ‘Iagolatry’; Jan Kott, “King Lear or Endgame” (1964) which produces a grotesque Lear in keeping with Kotts dramaturgy and ideology. The fact that Shakespeare has to share the limelight with Beckett shows that Lear is after all only one of many plays of possible interest to Kott; Barbara Hodgdon, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet: Everything’s Nice in America?” (1999), which is a defence of Baz Luhrmann’s film as a perfect mediation on US gender, sexuality and ‘boys with guns’. My favourite ‘maverick’ is William Empson. “‘Honest’ in Othello” (1951) in its investigation of the notion of honesty as a category in crisis in the early modern period makes no claims that Shakespeare is in any way ‘the best’ at dismantling words-in-crisis. Nor does it say that Shakespeare speaks synecdochically for his culture: Othello just happens to be a play that picks up on and renders audible a particular form of ‘class trouble’. It is to be assumed that if one had the suspicion that the use of the word villain in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine pointed to trouble in the period’s religious terminology, one could write Empson’s essay all over again without losing anything specifically ‘Shakespearian’ (though, depending on one’s own talent, one might lose everything that is specifically ‘Empsonian’).

[41] Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies” (1985), sub-heading “Studies in Gender and Sexuality”. This is an essay on gender in the Renaissance which uses Shakespeare as one of many possible and equally telling or ‘important’ texts and sources.

[42] William B. Worthen, “Deeper Meanings and Theatrical Technique: The Rhetoric and Performance of Criticism” (1989), sub-heading “Performance Criticism”.

[43] I will, for the sake of brevity continue to speak as if the various voices we hear were ‘authentic’: “Gielgud says” instead of “the film shows Gielgud as saying” (which is not at all the same thing). But we should be aware that Looking for Richard is an orchestration of these voices (hence a product of art), not an interview for the New York Times.

[44] I am working from my own transcription of Looking for Richard as available on VHS.

[45] The phrase and the ideas come from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible”, in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, transl. by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1987): 233309, p. 240. In their work on Kafka, they reject the notion that Kafka’s works should be ‘interpreted’ in favour of a notion of ‘experimentation’ – see their Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) p. 3.

[46] For those who think Deleuze & co. ‘too far out’, let me offer a completely non-far-outish critic, Wayne C. Booth, who spends much of The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) pondering the question of what might be the ethical implications of reading, i.e. of allowing myself be temporarily be colonized by another’s mind. And while he comes to quite un-Deleuzeish conclusions, he is nevertheless adamant that “to remain passive in the face of the author’s strongest passions and deepest convictions is surely condescending, insulting, and finally irresponsible” (135).



Die Shakespearekritik bewegt sich seit ihren Anfängen auf überraschend engem Terrain. Während die Anzahl der Herangehensweisen an Shakespeare potentiell unendlich ist, ist ihnen jedoch fast allen etwas gemeinsam: die Tatsache, daß in der jeweiligen kritischen Auseinandersetzung eine affirmative Exegese produziert wird, die im ‚Heiligen Text‘ Shakespeares jeweils die beste Verkörperung des angestrebten Resultats sieht. Wir haben es also zu tun mit einer scheinbar infiniten Ansammlung von verschiedenartig mit Begehren besetzten Lektüreanliegen und affirmativen Lesarten, ein Phänomen, das sich auch in der Shakespeare-Rezeption deutlich zeigt: im Kampf darum, wem Shakespeare ‚gehört‘, welche Anliegen und politischen Positionen er zu bestätigen scheint, wie er auf wundersame Weise immer unserer Meinung zu sein scheint, unabhängig davon, welche dieser Meinungen gerade gebraucht werden. Und im Umkehrschluß: in einer kulturellen Auseinandersetzung gewinnt derjenige, der das, was er wertschätzt, bei Shakespeare findet (und der dafür sorgt, daß es sich dort wird finden lassen). Der Beitrag zeigt die verschiedenen Positionen auf, die der Shakespearekritik, die ja eigentlich eine ‚Shakespearetheologie‘ ist, derzeit zur Verfügung stehen und belegt diese Positionen anhand eines repräsentativen Korpus von zentralen Beiträgen zur Shakespeareforschung. Im wesentlichen spielt sich demnach die Diskussion zwischen drei ungleich gewichteten Optionen ab: affirmative Exegese, Häresie, Vergleichende Religionswissenschaft. Ob es jenseits dieser Lektürehaltungen etwas anderes geben könnte, bleibt im Bereich der Phantasie. Mit Hilfe von Al Pacinos Film Looking for Richard (1996) wird jedoch ein Versuch unternommen, zumindest einen möglichen Weg aus dem ‚Tal der drei Möglichkeiten‘ hinaus anzudenken.