- Local Shakespeares: Proximations and Power
Local Shakespeares is a boldly experimental study which in its aims and methods challenges the epistemological complacency of criticism generated from within what Orkin calls "the Shakespeare metropolis," meaning the academies and related communities of Europe and North America (1). Orkin's critical endeavor builds on the consciously politicized approach to Shakespeare elaborated in his earlier Shakespeare Against Apartheid (1987) and the collection of essays Post-Colonial Shakespeares, coedited with Ania Loomba (1998). His new monograph juxtaposes Shakespeare's plays with "knowledges" derived from cultural locations such as pre- and postapartheid South Africa and the conflict-ravaged Middle East to explore how "local knowledges . . . may sometimes provocatively extend our sense of Shakespeare's text" (43). Part 1, "Local Knowledges and Shakespeare's Global Texts," comprises three punchy chapters which in diverse ways frame and foreshadow the reading practice exemplified in the more sustained and substantial part 2, "Encountering Men in Shakespeare's Late Plays," where Orkin investigates what he calls a "muscle of equivocation about masculinity" (10) in each of four romances: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale,and The Tempest.
The concept of "proximation"—between men and women, between different cultures—forms one theoretical compass for Orkin's book. In chapter 2, "Intersecting Knowledges: Shakespeare in Timbuktu," he reconsiders anthropologist Laura Bohannan's essay, "Shakespeare in the Bush," and finds points of connection between [End Page 363] the West African Tiv belief in omens or witches, focused through their response to the ghost in Hamlet, and Renaissance ideas of supernatural agency. A similar "discovery of . . . possible proximities" (28) in the area of gender forms the overarching impulse behind Orkin's pursuit in the late plays of "a processual meditation on masculinity, a struggle towards and away from complexities within male cognition and corporeality as well as male authority" (13). His inquiry into "the significance of these dissenting moments" (10) gathers strength and urgency from an acutely felt present-day political context of "male-generated violence" (11) both in South Africa, where Orkin formerly resided, and in Israel, where he currently lives and works. In this context, the discussions of Pericles and The Winter's Tale have much that is illuminating to say about Shakespeare's portrayal of both masculinity and motherhood.
"Processual" is a key word in Orkin's methodology, as is the notion of "lived-in detail" (77, 113); these concepts are borrowed from John L. Comaroff and Simon Roberts's Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context (1981), a study of conflict resolution procedure among the southern African Tswana people. In the Tswana perspective, the ambiguities of experience exceed the conventions and customs by which that experience is interpreted and judged. The usefulness of this cultural model lies by analogy in "flexibility about what might count as evidence in a text or what might be concluded about it," and this flexibility is in a sense exemplified in the "process-oriented readings" which the book conducts (11). Too often, however, the sheer volume of materials through which Orkin views Shakespeare's work crowds out the text itself as a dramatic and poetic artifact. For example, chapter 3, "Active Readers: Whose muti in the Web of It?" meditates upon the significance of Othello's "North African handkerchief" (30) by way of a discussion of the play Men and Women (1939) by South African dramatist Herbert Dhlomo and a consideration of the African custom of muti, or the investment of material substances with healing or magical properties. Orkin uses Dhlomo and his play to propose a model of hybridity which encompasses more than mimicry and division, so prompting us to recognize in Shakespeare's characterization of Othello such faculties as "skill, survival, negotiation, struggle" (38). Orkin asserts muti to be a "cultural practice, which Othello's description of his handkerchief, at the least, resonates" (33). (This use of "resonate" as a transitive verb, ubiquitous in Local Shakespeares, makes for obfuscatory prose.) The problem is that Othello's "view of the handkerchief" (41...