Extramural Shakespeare by Denise Albanese (review)
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Extramural Shakespeare. By Denise Albanese. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Illus. Pp. xiv + 182. $79.00 cloth.

Denise Albanese’s Extramural Shakespeare aims to revive debate about the status and place of Shakespeare in contemporary American culture. This is a worthy goal. Noting the rise over the past decade of so of a depoliticized criticism “strictly archival” in character (2) and offering what many readers will judge to be a presentist argument against this trend, Albanese admirably does not claim the presentist label. She maintains instead that what she is doing—and what many more of us should be doing—is political criticism. One might be moved to say, “If it was political criticism then, why isn’t it political criticism now?” Extramural Shakespeare is a book Shakespeareans should contend with, even if one disagrees with its conclusions. Limitations of space encourage me to apologize in advance for not being able to address all of Albanese’s provocative assertions. [End Page 129]

Extramural Shakespeare has three main theses. First, the political criticism of Shakespeare published from about 1980 to 2000 did nothing to dislodge Shakespeare “from the realm of the elite” (9). In those works and for those critics, it is “all but an article of faith” that “Shakespeare is elite” (116); furthermore, as a result of these works, Shakespeare, like other artifacts of high culture, has “been all-but-permanently consigned” to a position of privilege (16, 5). Second, because Shakespeare’s plays are taught in the secondary schools, because Shakespeare pops up often in the mass media, and because tertiary education as a whole now has an attenuated relationship to the achievement of social power—the bachelor’s degree being no guarantee of a comfortable life and the Ph.D. (in English) being no guarantee of a (tenured) position predicated on research and writing—these plays should no longer be considered a form of “cultural capital” identified “with the work of dominance” but just a “part of a public culture in the United States” (4, 5). Third, and following from the second set of assertions, is “that something productive might be happening” (134) when, in extramural spaces, like a prison, someone engages Shakespeare in ways that contemporary criticism deems “outmoded and even abject” (141), which is to say in ways that emphasize literature’s ability to develop “fellow-feeling,” to “[enlarge] . . . the sense of self,” or to “[stretch] . . . the mind” (132, 136). Such possibilities of “enlargement,” Albanese contends, subtend “a progressive politics in allowing anyone [presumably, any working-class person] who deems himself or herself addressed by the texts ...to escape the hermeneutics of suspicion and the charge of class treachery with which the desire to be Shakespeareanized has for too long been embroiled” (9).

These three assertions and their sundry corollaries are made, sometimes together and sometimes not, throughout Extramural Shakespeare. The book is composed of an introduction and five chapters. Two chapters address film (Looking for Richard, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet); two address education; and one addresses a “big house” performance of Hamlet, which Albanese accesses through an episode of the radio program This American Life. The author pursues her first point right away, insisting in the book’s first chapter that twenty years of political criticism of Shakespeare rein-scribed rather than undermined Shakespeare’s association with high culture and elite status. Yet Albanese fails not only to provide a comprehensive review of these two decades of work but also to engage Richard Burt’s Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares, made at the nearer cusp of this time period. In 1998, Burt argued that as a result of theoretical and political intervention, Shakespeare had already become “a signifier of elite and of popular culture ...positioned inside and outside of academia”; that his appearance in popular culture was often “just plain stupid”; and that what was (and no doubt still is) at issue in the breakdown of barriers between high and low culture was the displacement not only of Shakespeare but also of the literary.1 Not engaging Burt and not offering a comprehensive review of two decades of work allow Albanese to...