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Reviews A Theater ofEnvy: William Shakespeare, by René Girard; ix & 366 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, $29.95. I remember as a graduate student (in the English Department at SUNY at Buffalo) waiting for the start of the second installment ofa colloquium in which C. L. Barber and René Girard had agreed to reverse their customary roles. Barber, who had written a subde and adventurous book on Shakespeare's use of traditional ritual in the early plays (Shcawspeare's Festive Comedy), would talk about Proust; and Girard, who had written about Proust (and had published a volume on five European novelists—translated as Deceit, Desire, and me Novel— which had won him widespread critical acclaim), would speak for the first time on an author endrely new to him: William Shakespeare. Barber had spoken the day before and now Girard would speak on "Identity Crisis in A Midsummer Night's Dream." The performance that followed was electrifying, and afterward, with the room still abuzz from the tour deforce to which we hadjust been witness, C. L. Barber stood up and declared: "I have been teaching this play for fifty years, René, and you have just explained it to me." René Girard's work has that effect on people—a kind of "Midas touch" which reorients you entirely towards texts or subject matters with which you have long been familiar—and I suspect the current book is likely to prove no exception . The volume is composed of diirty-eight chapters on some twelve of Shakespeare's plays—principally, TL· Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night's Dream, TL· Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You LiL· It, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, Othello, A Winter's Tale, and The Tempest—and a selection of the sonnets and narrative poetry. Girard's thesis is that Shakespeare discovers the phenomenon of "mimetic desire" some time in die early 1590s and that it centrally preoccupies his writing from then on. The phenomenon is developed most fully, in Girard's view, in the early comedies where the obstacles to love often prove generative of the feeling itself. The tragedies and so called "problem plays" trace the destructive consequences of a mimetic or sacrificial crisis that has gone unchecked and begun to invade Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 174-238 Reviews175 larger social structures in which it was previously contained. The late romances hint at a burgeoning transcendental—even religious—attitude toward this material , one which culminates in TL· Tempest where the author recounts the entirety of its history. The notion of a desire not directed toward an object but toward the desire of another is of course hardly new for Girard. He has elaborated it at length in some eight books (including, for example, in addition to the first mentioned above, Violence and tL· Sacred and Things Hidden Since tL· Foundation ofthe World) and the current volume would seem in this context something of a return to his earliest endeavors. The theoretical apparatus, for example, so prominent in previous studies—concerning anthropological, psychological, philosophical, and religious phenomena—is here almost entirely absent and in its place we experience athoroughgoing immersion into the vagaries ofShakespeare's bountiful literary output. What is new—and likely to stir up trouble among the guardians of humanist literary study and postmodernism alike—is that Girard for the first time takes Shakespeare seriously as a modern thinker, as "our contemporary" as Jan Kott so astutely remarked. Here is a thinker, on the one hand, every bit as sensitive to moral, ethical, and political dilemmas as the humanist establishment prides itselfon being, and, on the other, every bitas smartabout matters ofmythological thinking, imitative desire, sacrificial structuration, and the relation of these to violence and destructiveness—in short, about human "being"—as our most avant-garde avatars of deconstructive philosophy and multicultural study. Reading him within these customary critical boundaries, we have simply never before granted Shakespeare the capacity to speak about matters of the utmost urgency to us. Freud did. So did Joyce—and in fact Girard devotes a chapter to Joyce's discussion of Shakespeare in Ulysses as similar in ways to his own. And...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 174-176
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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