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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 imply that these scholars were misguided [End Page 130] or, at best, oblivious. And they were so for two reasons: first, because during this time the term “elite” was roiled into “a term of reactionary political abuse” (29)—and why associate one’s profession with such a term?—and second, because capital and democratization have made academia anything but elite. What Albanese does not explain is why these developments, which have resulted in the “proletarianization” of many colleagues (34), should not be bemoaned and resisted rather than accepted or celebrated as an inevitable result of the academy’s having “confronted issues of the relation between representation and democracy, within the demographics of the profession and within the aesthetic forum that is the canon” (36). Conceivably, one might press the points that elitism is not a dirty word and that “representation and democracy” per se in higher education is not and should not have been the point. One might follow Terry Eagleton following T. S. Eliot, and celebrate the possibility of an “intelligent elitist” who “is also a full-blooded populist.”2

In “Shakespeare Goes to School,” the book’s third chapter, Albanese rightly points out that “the mass culture most immediately pertinent to a discussion of Shakespeare in perimillennial America is the culture of mass education” (70). Consequently, Shakespeare’s plays “are for all intents and purposes now as much a part of U.S. public culture as any other subject in secondary education” (141–42). I wonder how this culture maps onto public culture in the United States. Just how significant to American public culture is, say, a subject like algebra, like Shakespeare a subject essential to college preparatory requirements? Albanese does not answer these questions, but she does adumbrate the history in the secondary schools of a small canon of Shakespeare’s plays, sanctioned early in the twentieth century by the College Board as necessary for college admission:

Once the plays found their way into the secondary school curriculum for the purposes of college preparation for a few, it seems to have been determined they would stay, despite the fact that admission to college has . . . long since hinged on the scientistic testing of aptitude rather than on the acquisition of specifically textualized cultural capital....Having outlasted his real utility to the work of a once-restrictive higher education in the service of industrial capital and of the racial imaginary of the nation for which his texts were enlisted approximately a century ago, Shakespeare lives on in the schools, a compulsory good and residual formation from that earlier moment


True, “Shakespeare lives on in the schools,” but how? As a “compulsory good” and a “residual formation”? Or as something else? For Albanese, a “handful of plays, most frequently Julius Caesar and Macbeth but also often Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and, more recently, Romeo and Juliet have become pervasive in the experience of Americans who have completed a high school degree” (69). Research published in 1993 by Arthur N. Applebee confirms this canon of plays, except for Midsummer Night’s Dream.3 (Incidentally, Albanese credits Applebee for spurring [End Page 131] her interest in this topic; she frequently cites the 1974 edition of his Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English but not the study published in 1993.) But Applebee’s research indicates that “pervasive” may be too generous a label to describe the extent to which those who have obtained a high school diploma have engaged Shakespeare in class: a significant difference in curricula exists between those who are college bound and those who are not. Applebee found that curricula for the college bound were more similar in the public, Catholic, and independent schools he studied than were the curricula for the college bound and the non-college bound within each type of high school. (Does this mimic—or prefigure—the neoliberal dispensation under which we now live, in which professionals in the United States have more in common with professionals in India or France than they do with the working-class people who live in their cities or towns?)

Admissions to tertiary education may rely on “scientistic” testing rather than “specifically textualized cultural capital,” in Albanese’s terms. But educators apparently believe that such capital is essential to success in college. In any event, assuming that Shakespeare’s representation in the college preparatory curriculum has remained constant since 1993 (a questionable assumption, given the likely entrance into that curriculum of works by persons of color), how many students study college preparatory curricula? The measure Albanese uses is the number of students having attended some college, which she pegs at “40 percent in the very near future” (92), but this percentage does not reflect the number who have studied a college preparatory curriculum. Most four-year institutions are barely selective, at best; the majority of matriculating students are at community colleges, which do not require a high school diploma. In addition, when school districts require everyone to study a college preparatory program, completion rates for the courses, unsurprisingly, decrease.4

The question of how Shakespeare lives on in the high schools, like the question of how high school curricula map onto American public culture, is empirical. Persuasive answers require data—numbers, surveys, personal histories, anecdotes—even if those data are difficult to obtain. How Shakespeare exists in a system of higher education that is nonselective but fosters intense competition for acceptance into the approximately 10 percent of highly selective four-year colleges and universities requires data as well. Albanese concedes that a “correlation” exists “between how, where, and by whom Shakespeare is studied, and the chances of gaining admission to a selective college”; she acknowledges that “in very delimited educational contexts his is still a name to contend with” (78). But the concession reads to me like a dismissal of those “delimited educational contexts,” as if the small number of institutions whose admissions standards are very high and that prompt Americans to expend thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, in order to gain their children’s admission to them are irrelevant either to a discussion of Shakespeare in public culture or, more importantly, to a discussion of Shakespeare’s relationship to social power or to the status of the professoriate, we might say to “the work of dominance”(4). [End Page 132]

The concession thus reads like a refusal to consider that despite democratization and massive growth in tertiary education, social power remains tied to education, including liberal arts education and (of course) Shakespeare. Albanese repeatedly claims that social power and tertiary education, and particularly the study of Shakespeare, no longer correspond “one-to-one” (see, for example, 22, 69, and 117). But I am not convinced social power and the study of Shakespeare ever did correspond “one-to-one”; even if they did, it does not follow that they no longer have any relationship at all. For some persons, social power and Shakespeare emphatically do correspond. Perhaps a simile may help. Access to Shakespeare in the schools is like access to home ownership in the larger society: offered to millions more people during the last decade, home ownership proved beneficial to some new owners but devastating to the majority least able to afford the indulgence. Never did it mean that social power was held by the new owners; the banks and mortgage companies knew exactly how dubious were the loans they negotiated and how much profit they would derive from the dubious loans, regardless of the debtors’ ability to pay.

A similar problem emerges in Extramural Shakespeare’s anxiety about the diminished status of professors of English and about the deprofessionalization (or as Albanese puts it, proletarianization) of many in the profession. Just as she strains to deny a relation between Shakespeare and social power, she strains to deny the stratification that exists within higher education, the necessary result of expansion and democratization. Thus, while she concedes that “gradations of privilege” exist within institutions and, presumably, within the profession, Albanese is at pains to insist that a tenured position predicated on research and writing at, say, the CUNY Graduate Center is not an “elite” job (36, 37). All—even those at the top of the profession—are tarnished by the profession’s decline in status. This is not true. Following the leads of Alain Touraine, Randall Collins, and Dolores Burke (the latter of whom concluded in 1988 that prestige long has been “the oxygen of higher education”),5 John Guillory has written compellingly that expansion and “democratization” have only enriched the oxygen, have only “intensified effects of competition and stratification” among institutions of higher education.6 Furthermore, for professors status is correlated with remuneration, although not, of course, in a one-to-one correspondence. Without citing the Chronicle of Higher Education’s comprehensive data on salaries, one can safely say that almost all full professors working at major research universities, even in English departments, receive remuneration that places them at the very least in the top decile of income for families in the United States, which in 2005 began at $99,200.7 [End Page 133]

Suggesting that the research professoriate is proletarianized is like suggesting that America’s retail workers are middle class; the homogenization clouds our view of the social and institutional landscape. With respect to higher education, the clouds grow thicker by the year, as the nation retreats from its public mission and its research mission, at least in the humanities. One might hypothesize that rather than a proletarianized situation in which professors of English, as Albanese notes, “no longer affiliate themselves and their interests with the dominant class whose aims they are said to share” (36), we face a situation with ambiguous implications for faculty, in which elite higher education calves from mass higher education, which now stands in relation to the job market and to intellectual quality where the high school stood a half-century ago. Guillory has written that “a college degree no longer guarantees ‘a job of the professional or managerial sort.’”8 A “university education” is now, as Albanese observes, the “all-but-mandatory [requirement] . . . for employment in many routine clerical jobs” (92). For many college graduates today, who constitute less than 30 percent of the population, the bachelor’s degree is the functional equivalent of their grandparents’ high school diploma.9 Should we be surprised that the status and remuneration of those who teach Shakespeare to college students who will perform “routine clerical jobs” resemble those of a high school teacher? Should we be surprised that the status and remuneration of those who teach Shakespeare to college students who will matriculate at the nation’s elite law, medical, and business schools resemble that of the research professoriate?

Albanese ends Extramural Shakespeare with a “utopian” gesture, seeing Shakespeare as a repository for “social dreaming,” a writer whose works, “even when imbricated in questions of political economy and acts of hegemony, can still be useful, can still signify beyond those confines” (117, 8–9). To illustrate this “social dreaming” that figures a “dispensation toward revolutionary transformation associated with the utopian Marxism of Ernst Bloch” (121), Albanese focuses on what reading and performing Shakespeare mean to several incarcerated men, as represented in an episode of This American Life. Albanese recognizes the problems inherent in this focus: not just that her encounter with the incarcerated is deeply mediated and attenuated but also that “one might deem any such performance coercive, and no doubt there are coercive elements in all rehabilitation programs, for all their dependence on voluntary association” (134). Still, reading the prisoners’ professions of love for Shakespeare as “merely symptomatic of hegemonic formations is to deny subjects like [them] . . . any access, however incomplete and however apparently compromised by institutional agendas, to self-determination and self-understanding” (138). It is difficult to disagree; furthermore, despite Albanese’s implication, I find it difficult to believe that any Shakespearean would disagree. Misguided, oblivious, now hard-hearted, denying the incarcerated any slim grasp on autonomy: we are an objectionable group. [End Page 134]

Objectionable we may be, but in concluding this review, I would like to offer a bit of social dreaming about the incarcerated that does not rely on Shakespeare to “enlarge . . . the sense of self”or to “stretch . . . the mind”within a poor cell (136). Might we not eliminate the cell? Might we not begin to confront the fact that the United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other country, or the fact that in state prisons, 47 percent of prisoners are nonviolent offenders, while in federal prisons, 92 percent of prisoners are nonviolent offenders, almost half are incarcerated for drug offenses, and fewer than 8 percent are incarcerated for a violent crime?10 Might we not ask why these people are incarcerated, whether they should be, and whether they might more rightfully and fruitfully engage Hamlet outside of prison? Hamlet knows something about prison, or thinks he does: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space— were it not that I have bad dreams.”11

Bad dreams about what and because of what? About the prison that is Denmark? Because of the prison that is Denmark? Granted, Hamlet’s sincerity here is questionable—he toys with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—but might we not read Hamlet to mean that prison causes bad dreams rather than social dreaming? If so, and if—much virtue in if—Shakespeareans’ goals are to promote such utopian dreaming and a “dispensation toward revolutionary transformation,” perhaps a wiser course of action is to help eliminate (many of) the prisons rather than to promote the use of Shakespeare to “enlarge . . . the sense of self” of some few numbers of those misguidedly or even wrongly incarcerated. Achieving these goals, however, would require Shakespeareans to engage politically outside of their professional roles, to change their lives, a difficult task that was, one might argue, the wall into which crashed the political criticism of the 1980s and the 1990s. [End Page 135]

Sharon O’Dair  

Sharon O’Dair is Hudson Strode Professor of English and Director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama. The author of Class, Critics, and Shakespeare: Bottom Lines on the Culture Wars, she currently writes on early modern ecocriticism, Shakespeare’s characters, and the state of the profession.


1.  Richard Burt, Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 6, xxix.

2.  Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 112.

3.  Arthur N. Applebee, Literature in the Secondary School: Studies of Curriculum and Instruction in the United States (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993).

4.  Connie Llanos,“Many Students Failing College Prep Courses,” Los Angeles Daily News, 10 May 2011, www.dailynews.com/ci_18037782?source=most_viewed (accessed 20 December 2012).

5.  Dolores Burke, A New Academic Marketplace (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 114.

6.  John Guillory, “The System of Graduate Education,” PMLA 115 (2000): 1154–63, esp. 1154.

7.  Emmanuel Saez, “Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States,” Pathways Magazine (Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality) (Winter 2008): 6–7, esp. 6. Online at http://www.stanford.edu/group/scspi/_media/pdf/pathways/winter_2008/winter_2008.pd (accessed 20 December 2012). For the author’s latest statistics, see http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/.

8.  Guillory, 1160.

9.  See Randall Collins, “Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities,” in The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, ed. Steven Brint (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002), 23–46, esp. 23–24.

10.  International Centre for Prison Studies, “Entire World—Prison Population Rates per 100,000 of the National Population,” http://www.prisonstudies.org/info/worldbrief/wpb_stats.php?area=all&category=wb_poprate; and Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, “Prison Population Declined in 26 States during 2011,” press release, 17 December 2012, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/press/p11pr.cfm (both URLs accessed 23 January 2013).

11. Hamlet, 2.2.254–56, in G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

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  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation
  • Albanese, Denise. -- Extramural Shakespeare. -- 295926
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