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Shakespeare and Modernism (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 848-850 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0011

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Though three centuries separate modernism, the major aesthetic movement of the twentieth century, from William Shakespeare, the major literary figure of the English canon, readers of Ulysses who encounter the “face of William Shakespeare, beardless” staring back at Stephen and Bloom may get a feel for the interest critics have in correlating these two literary subjects (U 15.3821–22). From Ruby Cohn’s Modern Shakespeare Offshoots, a survey of how modernist writers re-wrote Shakespeare’s work in their novels and drama, to Alexander Welsh’s Hamlet in His Modern Guises, a study of narrower focus investigating the modern novel’s engagement with Hamlet’s youth and mourning, specialists have built up a hefty body of research examining the connections between the modernists and the Renaissance playwright.1

Carl DiPietro adds to this work with Shakespeare and Modernism. Though the book’s title does little to indicate what DiPietro means to offer, he deviates from Cohn’s and Welsh’s approaches. He does not exhaustively explore offshoots or trace a single Shakespearean theme through a domino of modernist texts. Rather, DiPietro draws on several critical frameworks—aesthetic Marxist ideologies of the modernist period and Nietzschean and Freudian currents in the air, as well as “the patriarchal narrative” coupled with the early feminist reaction to it (13)—to explore the modernists’ engagement with Shakespeare in their literature, literary criticism, and theatrical and book production.

DiPietro begins Shakespeare and Modernism by discussing George Bernard Shaw and T. S. Eliot’s shared effort “to disconnect modern literature and theatrical practice from . . . the idealizing and romanticizing tendencies” of the nineteenth-century Victorians (42). This study of Shaw transitions nicely into an investigation of early biographical criticism (specifically Frank Harris’s The Man Shakespeare2) followed by a discussion of Stephen Dedalus’s theory of Hamlet in the ninth episode of Ulysses. From here, DiPietro detours into a history of various revolutionary theatrical practices and theories from around the turn of the century. He begins in 1911 with William Barker publicly burning film reels of his scenes from Henry VIII and moves through “the campaigns for national and repertory theatres” (11), Edward Gordon Craig’s desire to replace all actors with his “Über-marionette” (20), and the aesthetically progressive and politically disturbing art and criticism of Theodore Komisarjevsky (118–36). Then DiPietro focuses on 1923 (the tercentennial of the Folio) and highlights the various editions of Shakespeare’s plays published during that time. This specific year, according to DiPietro, was “a meeting-ground for text and performance,” where ideas of performance as a textual practice became complicated with ideas that performance actually “conflicts and divides the text between various idealizations of author and representation” (166, 166–67). He ends his book with an interesting chapter on Virginia Woolf that explores A Room of One’s Own, Orlando, and her only extant play Freshwater (which she first drafted in 1923 and later revised up through 1935). DiPietro reintroduces Ellen Terry (the actress to whom Bernard Shaw writes the letter that opens Shakespeare and Modernism) and analyzes the way Woolf, in her fictive portraiture of Terry in Freshwater (akin to the portraitures of Shakespeare in Harris, Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Joyce’s texts),3 replaces Shakespeare as a “haunting image of . . . anxiety-inducing aesthetic patriarch[y]” with the “actively re-imagined” actress “in order to thematize the idea of female subjectivity in art” (183, 171).

This impressive range of topics, however, neglects Shakespeare at times, leaving him in the background while DiPietro foregrounds subjects that appear indirectly related. For instance, he ends his third chapter discussing at length the “fairly obvious correspondence between [Komisarjevsky’s] own aesthetic doctrine and the political doctrines of totalitarian dictators” such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Benito Mussolini (136). While the disturbing implications of such a comparison are certainly interesting (and relevant to a discussion of modernism’s legacy, given the political affiliations of other artists such as Ezra Pound and Richard Wagner), the last several pages of the chapter contain no specific mention of Shakespeare, the man, or his works. Though DiPietro does highlight several of Komisarjevsky’s Shakespearean productions, they merely serve as preface to general discussion of...



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