Shakespeare and Literary Theory by Jonathan Gil Harris (review)
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Shakespeare and Literary Theory. By Jonathan Gil Harris. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. viii + 224. $45.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

The first thing a reader might notice about Shakespeare and Literary Theory is the mathematical order of its composition. The body of this book consists of twelve chapters, each covering a basic topic in the field of literary theory as it pertains to Shakespeare. The chapters are grouped under three general rubrics—“Language and Structure,” “Desire and Identity,” and “Culture and Society”—each containing four of the twelve chapters. Each of these chapters is further subdivided into three sections devoted to individual representatives of the topic discussed. So, the opening chapter on “Formalism” considers the work of William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and Mikhail Bakhtin. This scheme calculates out to thirty-six different thinkers whose work is discussed in just exactly 180 pages, or 5 pages per critic. I’m actually quite partial to this kind of tidy symmetry and I’ve even used it myself— after all, there are twelve months in the year, twelve sons of Jacob, twelve apostles, twelve eggs in a box, twelve days of Christmas, twelve eclogues in The Shepheardes Calender, and twelve players on each team in the Canadian Football League.

The worry, of course, is that the treatment of so many different theorists in such a concise format may end up being quite diffuse, even for a series whose purpose is to “provide short books on important aspects of Shakespeare criticism and scholarship” (back cover). That said, I think it is only fair for a reviewer to consider more than the table of contents and the overall page count in the evaluation of a book. At the start of his presentation, Harris points out that the English word “theory” “derives from Greek theorein, meaning to view, look at, contemplate” (2). In early modern English usage, theory had the primary sense of a sight or a spectacle, and in this sense the word was closely aligned with the concept of theater, itself derived from Greek θέάτρον, a place for viewing.1 The current usage for “theory” is better understood, however, as a general explanation for a group of related phenomena. The theory of evolution provides a comprehensive explanation for a wide range of observations in the domain of biology based on the paradigm of natural selection. Quantum mechanics provides a precise explanation for observations in the field of [End Page 99] subatomic particles based on a paradigm that can only be expressed clearly by means of a complex mathematical formalism.

Theories are comprehensive explanatory models that pertain to a well-defined object domain. In this sense, it is not altogether clear what would count as a specifically literary theory. Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism was a notable attempt at the comprehensive ordering of the literary universe. A close friend and colleague recently described Frye as “the Darwin of literary studies.” If that’s true, then Frye still hasn’t yet found a Thomas Huxley to be his bulldog. Frye’s work is nowhere mentioned in Shakespeare and Literary Theory, even though he published widely on Shakespeare. Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence—also not mentioned—might also be a kind of analogue to the idea of natural selection that could fit in with Frye’s more comprehensive theory, despite its willfully obscure vocabulary and the general messed-up-ness of Bloom’s ideas. Finally, one might also mention the now mostly forgotten work of Roman Ingarden, who attempted to provide a comprehensive explanatory model for the field of literature in his many books, notably, The Literary Work of Art.

Jonathan Gil Harris does not refer to any of these large-scale projects in his book, but I do not consider this to be a sin of omission. He has other dogs to whip. The central aim here is not to provide a digest of the various “positions” adopted in recent criticism, but rather to develop a particular thesis about the way the thinkers discussed actually engage with the challenge of Shakespeare’s poetry and drama. The genius of this book is in Harris’s...