Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?

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

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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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