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  • Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance
  • Martin Harries (bio)
Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance. By W.B. Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; 274 pp. $60.00 cloth; $22.00 paper.

Shakespeare, and the conventional theatre that name embodies, are increasingly distant from the field of performance studies. Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance identifies one of the chief reasons for this distance in the print culture that confirms that iconic status. Working the well-worn seam— [End Page 195] or chasm?—between text and performance with great sophistication, W.B. Worthen draws from recent work in performance studies, the history of the book, and media studies to put Shakespeare back into the play of performance. This measured, wide-ranging, and generous book argues at once for the relevance of performance studies to Shakespeare and for the importance of Shakespeare to performance studies.

In order to bring drama back into the field of performance, Worthen might have chosen an author less thoroughly associated with the syllabus, the canon, and the authority of the regime of print. His choice emphasizes, however, precisely the ambition of this book. Worthen wants not only to disturb our sense of Shakespeare as the incarnation of print culture, but also to upset our sense of print's authority. To achieve this disturbance, he brings together work that has transformed literary studies and performance studies over the past decade or so. Drawing on Judith Butler, Andrew Parker and Eve Sedgwick, and Sue Ellen Case, Worthen argues that theories of performativity can illuminate the theatre, which, since J.L. Austin's invention of the term, theorists have relegated to a zone outside of the performative. Equally important is the explosion of work on the history of the book, and in particular the renewed interest in the multiple texts of Shakespeare's plays. So, Butler's work is important here, but no more so than that of Roger Chartier. What is the performative force of Hamlet? This question, Worthen shows, is a tricky one, not only because of the complexities of the performative, but also because we should not assume that we all agree with what "Hamlet" names. Is Hamlet a particular performance, the idealized sum of all performances, a potential ideal performance? Is Hamlet the text of the play in the Arden edition, or the First Folio, or the so-called "bad" quarto?

Worthen follows the implications of these questions through four chapters. The first, "Performing History," raises especially compelling questions about the relationship between performance and the past. The second and third chapters, "Globe Performativity" and "Shakespearean Geographies," center on London's new Globe Theatre. This pair of chapters focuses on two productions at the Globe, the Brazilian company Grupo Galpaão's Romeu e Julieta and Mark Rylance's turn in Hamlet, which Worthen saw, both at the Globe, on 23 and 25 July 2000, respectively. A substantial portion of this book, then, is dedicated to unpacking the conditions behind two almost consecutive nights of theatre-going. ("Shakespearean Geographies" also includes a detailed reading of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.) The last chapter considers implications for Shakespeare in cyberspace's renovation of some of the conditions of print culture.

The book's most intriguing questions surround the relationship between history and performance. The explicit subject of "Performing History," these concerns are never distant. Drawing on the work of Michael Bristow, Joseph Roach, and others, Worthen asks whether performance might be a mode of historical knowledge. The force of modern performance, to use the terms of his title, might then be to confront the audience with what is not modern—not with some comfortable, commodified "past," but with history in its alterity and strangeness. Worthen is frank about the connections between the Globe and Disneyworld, but he does not dismiss the possibility of an encounter with history through performance as a delusory chimera. A quotation demonstrates Worthen's skeptical appreciation of efforts to stage the past:

Whether it is possible to recapture early modern subjects in contemporary performance seems to me at best an open question; however, to do so will require us to imagine a more...


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pp. 195-197
Launched on MUSE
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