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Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?

Matthew Reisz talks to academics who have devoted their lives to studying the Bard

Kenneth Branagh, Macbeth, Manchester International

Intelligent, observant readers can always offer new insights, although the deluge of scholarly articles makes it harder to find the gold amid the dross

In performance, Shakespeare can safely be left to look after himself. His plays deal in primal emotions and obviously have a broad appeal. Tickets for Kenneth Branagh’s recent Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival sold out in less than 10 minutes. All‑male productions, all-female productions, productions in dozens of languages from every corner of the Earth all manage to pull in the crowds, and it seems to be possible to stage some of the plays in just about any setting. So we get King Lear in a children’s playground, Henry V in Iraq or Measure for Measure in Freud’s Vienna, while Romeo and Juliet cries out to be relocated to a sectarian city such as Belfast or Beirut.

Every director and actor inevitably brings something new to a familiar text and interprets it in subtly different ways from their predecessors. Lewd or gay subtexts can be played up or played down. A character such as Shylock may be touching or terrifying, repellent or ridiculous. Petruchio and Katherina’s relationship in The Taming of the Shrew may be portrayed as abusive, slapstick or playfully flirtatious (in an S&M kind of way). And, although we know virtually nothing about the man, Shakespeare’s presence remains as solid in the theatre as in the souvenir shops of Stratford-upon-Avon.

But what about the parallel academic industry of Shakespeare studies?

In 2006, Laurie Maguire, professor of English language and literature at the University of Oxford, produced a curious book, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, promoting Shakespeare as a “life coach” for the Sex and the City generation. Yet she also notes how many academics think it more impressive to discuss Shakespeare in terms of “epistemology and representation and semiotics and différance and liminality and cultural positions” rather than to talk at all personally about jealousy, love or loss.

Shakespeare is such a vast cultural icon in the English-speaking world that every new school of critical analysis and jargon soon gets applied to him, so we’ve had lots of Christian and Marxist Shakespeares, psychoanalytic, deconstructed and postmodern Shakespeares, and postcolonial and queer Shakespeares. At the same time, more traditional scholars continue to bring to bear Elizabethan or Jacobean social history on the plays, which can run the risk of turning Shakespeare into something antiquarian, requiring prior knowledge of the rhetorical handbooks, property law or theological disputes of his times.

All this raises two big questions. What is the relationship between historicist and “contemporary” approaches? Even more fundamentally, how much is there still left for academics to say about Shakespeare that is new, true and important?

Farah Karim-Cooper is head of higher education and research at Shakespeare’s Globe.

“When new historicism came on to the scene,” she recalls, “it created a wave of Shakespeare criticism that dug deep into the cultural history of his period, looking at rare books and manuscripts that surround Shakespeare and throw new light on his plays. Understanding property law helps you understand what the implications might be for Capulet [in Romeo and Juliet] for his only child to marry the son of his greatest enemy. It packs more of a punch when you read history into Shakespeare.”

Karim-Cooper’s first book, published in 2006, is titled Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama. This draws on her research into “a huge number of tracts written in the Elizabethan period about women who paint their faces and use cosmetics, basically arguing that it is evil, sinful”. The theatre companies not only made extensive use of cosmetics but also subverted this “horribly misogynistic” discourse and used it as “a principal metaphor for defining what is good art and what is bad art. Shakespeare engages with it in a variety of ways, for example in the early Sonnets when he’s trying to convince the young man to get married and have children so his beauty is preserved: reproduction becomes a sort of cosmetic process.”

Disputing the notion that academic writing has to be detached and bloodless, Karim-Cooper says she was “passionate about uncovering an aspect of women’s history in relationship to Shakespeare” that also feeds into today’s debates about body image.

Brian Vickers, distinguished senior fellow at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, published his first book on Shakespeare in 1968 and believes that “intelligent, observant readers” can always offer new insights into the plays – although the deluge of scholarly articles makes it ever harder to find the gold amid the dross. He also has strong views on the right and wrong approaches, as he set out in a 1994 book, Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels.

“What I am bothered about”, he explains, “is looking at a historical phenomenon through a present-day lens. The lens is a distorting glass focusing in on some issues in a particular play and totally excluding others.

“The plot of Othello is set in motion by the jealous and resentful Iago, who hates Othello and sets out to destroy him using Desdemona as the tool. The first generation of feminist critics seized on the play as an instance of Shakespeare’s misogyny and started with Act Three. That seems to me a partial, distorting reading of the play: if you can’t register the presence of Iago, who creates all the destruction and ends up destroying everybody, including himself, you are not reading, you’re imposing a particular scheme, only interested in the harm that men do to women – not who causes it, not the anguish and agony Othello goes through.”

Similar problems, in Vickers’ view, mar psychoanalytic and postcolonial criticism.

Sarah Dustagheer, lecturer in early modern English at King’s College London, is exploring the difference between outdoor and indoor performances in Shakespeare’s England, since his company had two playhouses and he started writing for the smaller, more expensive indoor theatre at Blackfriars (now being reconstructed by the Globe) after 1609. She has carried out “detailed historical research about the playhouses, the spaces, legal aspects of their existence, the ways they were regulated by governments and their repertories”, since “we haven’t explored Shakespeare fully in the context of the industry in which he worked. There definitely are areas that are unexplored.”

But although her own work is rooted in historical analysis, she is supportive of different and more “contemporary” approaches and sees “almost a separation between Shakespeare as a playwright in his own time and what [he] has become in the 400 years since his death. He is now an icon and indicative of ongoing cultural debates we have about homosexuality, about sexism, about colonialism.

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Readers' comments (7)

  • Even in terms of traditional scholarship, not everything about Shakespeare's plays has been said or accepted. As this article points out, fashions and fads in scholarship not only talk more about current interests, with Shakespeare as a pretext, but also preclude or sideline studies which do not follow those fashions or fads.
    Until Boydell and Brewer accepted my proposal and published my book, about three dozen university presses in America and England, all expressing interest in it, later rejected it on the grounds, stated or implied, that it did not fit current approaches or interests. The thesis, demonstrably original, is stated in its title: "Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance." After two printings, it is out of print. I am preparing a second edition for free distribution.

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  • I feared the worst by the time I got to the second paragraph and was out of the blue dealing with an unidentified authority by the last name of "Kerrigan." This is apparently the best we get from an industry in denial.

    The quest to understand the bard is only beginning. The fact that so many Shakespeare professionals still don't understand this is the result of the internal dynamics of communication within the industry that have systematically prevented the emergence of a legitimately informed discussion of the historical genesis of these plays and poems. There is nothing "life changing" about penalizing your students with a bad grade for asking unauthorized questions.

    As the author himself writes in Sonnet 76:

    Why write I still one, ever the same
    And keep invention in a noted weed?

    Think about it.

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  • Prof. Stritmatter:

    In response to your posting, I feel obliged to point out that if you understand the "second paragraph" of the article to be the first mention of John Kerrigan, you perhaps have only read the third page of this article. If you had read the entirety of the piece, you would have seen, on Page Two, that Kerrigan was, in fact, credited rightly as: "professor of English at the University of Cambridge."

    I can imagine your frustration, however, that this interpolation of academics and production practices, or, at, least, the third page of it, also failed to credit Edward De Vere as the "author" (that you quote and somehow also failed to name, despite the clear association the Earl has with your name, and the link you drop...very Roe of you). Amidst that frustration, it is very understandable that you leapt to disparage Mr. Reisz's journalistic practice and integrity, and his supposed association with the "industry in denial," without reading most of what he has to say on the subject.

    In my opinion, there is still much to be gleaned from Shaksper's original practices, including collaborative efforts and sources, as well as theatrical styles and practice. You might be surprised how much we agree on how the story of the "author" has been altered to fit a legend, or fetishized academically (this article talks about this quite a bit, on Page 1 and 2). And many Oxfordians, in my experience, have certainly done their homework, and know the history better than many "Strats."

    However, I would caution you, as a rather prominent academic leader of this...movement, from cherry picking items from a limited reading of the available materials in order to press your point. Smacks of denial.

    Think about it. :)

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  • Mr. Field,

    First, I should apologize to the author for following a link to the third page of this article and not realizing where exactly I was in cyberspace and hence thinking he was less competent than he actually is.

    As for the rest of your remarks, well, you seem to have missed the fact that this site labels itself as being "at the heart of the higher education debate." This article is more on the heart of a failing intellectual enterprise than it is at the heart of anything that could effectively be labeled "higher education." Your opinion in noted. I reflects what Irvin Matus said at the University of Massachusetts over fifteen years ago when he pointed to the long and very well documented tradition of someone named "Shakespeare" making an impresa for the Earl of Rutland and waxed on with great eloquence about how much this record might tell us about the bard's other occupation as a goldsmith. Given the history of over two hundred years of failed biographies (i.e. biographies that routinely tell us nothing of substance about the works they allegedly elucidate), it is only natural that the continued defense of the traditional view of authorship should continue to promise that by tomorrow it will be bringing forth new mountains for us to climb with breathtaking vistas of the real Mr. Shakspere in the distance.

    The trouble with all this high talk about "collaboration," of course, is that it entirely overlooks the serious methodological problem of distinguishing between active, ongoing collaboration between two or more living writers (such as we have, for example, in the case of "Eastward Ho!" - in which Jonson and Marston put aside their feuding in late 1604 and join with Chapman to write an homage to "Shakespeare") and mere after-the-fact editing and rewriting in order to complete, censor, or polish works in manuscript. So far mainstream Shakespeare scholars have, by and large, generally avoided dealing honestly with this problem. They prefer readers to believe that any evidence for more than one hand in a play is proof for active collaboration.

    It is not.

    As someone who takes an interest in such questions and assures us that these are important lines of inquiry I advise you to make such distinctions for your readers before your critics are obliged to point out how far your rhetoric departs from sound scholarly method.

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  • This article eloquently expresses the future of the illusion:

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  • Stanley Wells once commented that a Shakespeare play" was simply an occasion that gave rise to a unique occurrence - the interpretation of that play - either by its producers or its audience." So if we adopt Wells's pov - yes, there is always something new - something unique - to learn from Shakespeare - new edition or not.

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  • Tom Goff

    I'm with Professor Stritmatter on this one. Brian Vickers, as quoted, does an eloquent job of explaining how "Shakespeare" saw the dynamics of the Othello-Iago-Desdemona relationship. In other words, the Bard saw events almost as did the Earl of Oxford, who believed his "Desdemona's" family (the powerful Cecil family) hated him, and that one of his supposed friends was out to break up his marriage, using "Desdemona's" (Anne Cecil's) presumed infidelity as a weapon.

    Those who note that Othello, later in the play, seems to revert to a pre-Christian belief in magic and witchcraft should also know that Oxford's false friend, Lord Henry Howard, may have been trying to win the earl back to another Old Religion, Catholicism.

    This is much too much detail, but the point is that we need to revisit Shakespeare's ill-fitting biography and perhaps replace it with that of someone who could have written the great plays.

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