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A Rich Harvest Recent Books on Shakespeare

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 117, Number 4, Fall 2009
pp. 655-665 | 10.1353/sew.0.0192

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The nineteenth century found Shakespeare scholarship moving from the province of enthusiasts to that of university men. The labors of English and Germanic philologists bore rich, if varied, fruit. By the early twentieth century, armed with the scientific methods of word-frequency counts and the tallying of image clusters, the identification of other dramatists' hands in the bard's plays tended to elicit stern aesthetic criticism of those parts deemed "obviously not written by Shakespeare." By the middle of that century cooler heads prevailed, and an expanded idea of dramatic collaboration combined with an appreciation of the business of theater opened up a new window onto the world that was Shakespeare's London. Although there was a fairly clear sense of a canon, serious scholars no longer saw much to be gained by arguing whose hand was where and, instead, referred to the variorum editions that preserved all the known states of a play's text. In the 1960s, no doubt reflecting the political malaise of the day, any given play was fair game for "a multiplicity of readings." This view was realized in production most famously through the experimental theater of Peter Brooks in the 1970s. In the academy, almost as a battle cry, "the instability of the text" gave rise to bard-bashing and calling into question the value of canonical literature altogether.

This oversimplified survey of the fortunes of Shakespearean criticism is intended only to point out that each successive generation has had its dominant way of reading Shakespeare. Most recently, in the wake of New Historicism and a series of posts (most notably poststructuralism and postcolonialism), while we were waiting for the next big thing, Transversal Poetics took the stage. Notwithstanding the daunting name, this approach does help to expand and enrich the contexts for investigating what makes Elizabethan drama still so compelling. Collaboratively pioneered by Bryan Reynolds (head of Ph.D. studies in drama at the University of California, Irvine), a coterie of graduate students from Irvine and San Diego, and a handful of like-minded English professors, Transversal Poetics is, in the parlance of the trade, gaining traction. The ensuing special language for bringing out new ways of looking at old texts, while self-consciously sportive, is not gratuitous. It enables practitioners to move beyond the interpretive relativism associated with deferring judgment and hedging one's bets; their mission is to explore the crosscurrents of social deviance reflected in the worlds of the plays.

What once was called "the world of the play" when describing the ethos or atmosphere of a work's influences and resonant themes has been dubbed Shakespace—a term that encompasses the plurality of Shakespeare-related "articulatory spaces and the time, speed, and force at which they transmit and replicate" through places, cultures, and eras. And, in the case of a particular play, for example The Roaring Girl, we get Mary/Mollspace; for Romeo and Juliet, R&Jspace. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The key talismanic words with which to conjure in this new critical argot include reflexive consciousness, emergent activity, subjunctivity, transversal power, conductors, investigative-expansive thinking, theaterspace, paused consciousness, and fugitive exploration. The uninitiated must ask whether it is worth learning to speak and write according to these categories of thought and, further, whether doing so will make for better understandings of the plays. I conclude that the ideas behind these terms are worth taking seriously, even if one shies away from repeating them in one's own critical writing. Among the unexpected gleanings of this fugitive harvest is a detailed argument explaining why Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus is not "the other," thus overturning the Lacanian premise indispensable to psychoanalytic and colonial approaches to Shakespeare. Indeed this subtly reasoned chapter, written by Reynolds with Glenn Odom, may well be the most compelling and convincing in the book overall. More generally the notion of paused consciousness, championed throughout, offers a useful corrective to Marxist explanations of why we allow ourselves to be conned by the theatrical spectacle, and goes on to address more fundamentally why people still enjoy going to plays. Reynolds uses this theme of paused consciousness to ask some hard...

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