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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 guiding thesis, which is that theory is not something exogenous that critics can apply to the study of Shakespeare. Theory is a response to something already there in the works critics address in their interpretations. Harris’s real subject is the vocabularies and the influential styles of analysis currently favored by the interpretive communities comprising the larger nation of Shakespeare studies. And yes, it is rather satisfying to think that there are just twelve tribes that make up this nation, no more, no less. But the book is something more than an overview or a convenient field guide to contemporary strategies of interpretation. It could be used for this purpose, but it is really a more substantial and a more interesting project. What makes the book more useful is the way it brings out the areas of overlap and crossover between the various theoretical positions. The different theories are imbricated, much like shingles on a roof.

Harris concentrates on theory as a way to grasp thematic meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. And he shows that it has a heuristic rather than an explanatory function. His primary focus is on the more playful aspect of Shakespeare’s use of language. “Shakespeare ...is ‘a good wit’ who delights in any opportunity to turn a word inside out and reveal other, unexpected meanings” (7). Each discussion is concerned with bringing out the complexity of Shakespearean utterance and the personality of the individual theorist whose work is discussed. The personality of the author doing this is consistently engaging, even when his individual subjects are not so congenial to my own personal preferences in Shakespeare criticism. What I find impressive here is the way Harris’s discussion shows that Shakespeare’s works actually exist independently of the various critical languages that are being used to describe them. It’s just not true that literary theory can remake Shakespeare in its [End Page 100] own image or that we can say that the plays mean whatever we want them to mean. The plays never mean what we want them to mean. And it’s Shakespeare who is remaking literary theory in his own image. I’m not entirely sure that this is the result Harris is trying to achieve—he might be aiming at something more wised-up, disenchanted, and poststructural—something more in the spirit of deconstruction. Maybe there is a big difference of opinion between us and I’m reading something into this text that isn’t really there. But a difference of opinion or even a misreading is not the same as a criticism. I liked the book, and I learned something from reading it. This is a fine essay on Shakespearean poesis and on contemporary efforts to grasp his artistry.

Michael D. Bristol  

Michael D. Bristol is currently David J. Greenshields Emeritus Professor in English Literature at McGill University. He has written extensively on a wide range of topics in Shakespeare criticism and scholarship. His most recent volume is an edited collection of essays entitled Shakespeare and Moral Agency (2010).


1.  Wesley J. Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), s.v.“θέάτρον.”

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Subject Headings

  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation
  • Harris, Jonathan Gil. -- Shakespeare and literary theory. -- 295917
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