- Citizen Shakespeare: Freemen and Aliens in the Language of the Plays
Jeffrey Archer's latest book is an eminently useful compendium — in his editor's words, a "lexical archive" — of language in Shakespearean plays that relates in various ways to citizens, their affairs, citizenship, and things against which citizens identify themselves, especially non-citizen Londoners of provincial and foreign origin (xii). The three main chapters address selected plays from the comedies, the histories, and the tragedies — Archer addresses more than half the Shakespearean dramatic canon in the 167 pages of text. In his introduction, Archer claims that his book "answers Patricia Parker's call for a 'historical semantics'" — a genre that strives to trace "the manifestations of material life as well as philological change in literary language" (1). Archer's book keys off Etienne Balibar's observation that the citizen comes into being after the subject; Archer responds, in effect, that citizenship brackets subjecthood, it comes both before and after it. "The negative 'freedom' of early modern London created a need for another understanding of citizenship, one that looked forward but also backward to the example of Rome" (167). In advancing his interpretation of the significance of citizenship in early modern London, Archer rejects the "two-tier model of class" relied upon by scholars such as Greenblatt and Rankin in favor of Leinwand's insistence on "a third or intermediate group in the theater of social relations" (13). The citizens of London, as well as immigrants to London both from elsewhere in England (like Shakespeare) and from Continental Europe, are of this "middling sort" (13). [End Page 977]
Archer compares his book to one of Leah Marcus's "local reading[s]," which are concerned with "parallels between the action of the plays and situations linked to particular places (and times) including Jacobean London" (19). In this same vein, Archer acknowledges a "particular debt" to Jean Howard, a former colleague of Archer's at Columbia (ix). In line with other "local readings," Archer objects to the "overwhelming disposition to understand drama mainly in terms of representation rather than language" (20). "Plot, character, and place," Archer argues, "have conspired to install a totally mimetic theater" — a situation Archer starkly describes as the "despotism of mimesis" (20).
Archer distinguishes his study from others that addressed the city, citizens, and citizenship in Shakespeare by noting that none of these books "discusses strangers in the city" (20). Archer considers this perspective useful both because Shakespeare himself was one of these strangers, and because "the alien was the definitional opposite to the citizen, and this close if antagonistic relation is borne out in citizen vocabulary" (20). Accordingly, Archer concludes that "what was heard on stage is at least as important as what was seen" (20). Citizenship, according to Archer, "cannot be understood apart from the city and the language of its material culture" (165). And citizens cannot be understood without understanding how they defined themselves against "others, principally alien immigrants in London" (166).
Archer takes quite seriously his antimimetic stance. He refrains from trying to make any larger interpretive point about Shakespeare or his plays based upon his clearly thorough exploration of the language of the plays. By my count, Archer examines in excess of 400 usages from more than twenty plays in less than 145 pages (setting aside the introduction). Reading such a refined distillation can prove challenging at times.
The supreme value of Archer's book, I think, is that it provides the necessary foundation for a succeeding study that would answer the interpretive question that Archer studiously avoids directly addressing, but which looms large over the pres-ent book: "How then are we to explain Shakespeare's apparently derogatory attitude toward citizens in his plays?" (167). That Archer has been considering this question is apparent by the way he ends his book. There he examines Cymbeline, a late play in which Archer believes Shakespeare addresses citizenship in a radically different...