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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 167-170

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Book Review

Shakespeare: The Two Traditions

Shakespeare: The Two Traditions. By H. R. Coursen. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1999. Pp. 271. Illus. $42.50 cloth.

In Shakespeare: The Two Traditions, H. R. Coursen is attempting something extraordinary--to discover a synthetic critical language, a tuneable cry made up of Jungian, Marxist, formalist, feminist, and historicist critical discourses, that will allow him to recognize the "archetypes" that connect--and the discontinuities that divide--Shakespeare's playtexts from both the wide variety of cultures that have received those texts and from the equally wide variety of artistic and culturally shaped technologies or "traditions" that have produced them. He is especially interested in the two traditions of theatrical performance and film. How, Coursen keeps asking, are Shakespeare's plays like Helena's "jewel"--our own, and not our own? [End Page 167]

Central to Coursen's analysis are four terms: archetype, unity, coherence, and production--each of which is deeply implicated in and limited by its own set of critical and ideological assumptions. But Coursen disturbs and renews these terms by detaching them from the conventional wisdom. Thus archetype, a Jungian term, becomes not a universal collective truth but a culturally produced meaning that nonetheless can often be recognized by viewers from another culture: "Shakespeare 'works' in media undreamed of in his dramaturgy because the story picks up and reflects archetype. It is the archetype that gets translated. By archetype I mean a configuration deeply imbedded in Western culture, and in other cultures as well, though sometimes the narrative changes its emphasis" (18). Similarly, Coursen argues for both thematic unity and coherence but not so as to return us to New Critical or merely rationalistic assumptions: "I am suggesting not that such 'unity' inheres in a platonic entity known as the script or text, but that it should be an element of any individual production" (21). Production is Coursen's key term, for it brings together much of what needs to be negotiated: contemporary interrogations of essentialism, the multiple voices that authorize and shape performance, and some sense of an inherited script. Citing Barbara Hodgdon's notion that a production results in a "disturbance" of a playtext, Coursen argues that such disturbances, if coherently shaped, may allow "an intervention into our time and emotional space, a disturbance where something is going on within the theatrical frame and within its spectator-participants" (24).

For Coursen, "[t]he productive point of view sees the performance as pulling with it and compressing within it the elements of inherited text and immediate cultural context, as opposed to some activity within an ahistorical vacuum in which the text is 'interpreted'" (16). Theatrical and film productions of Shakespeare, then, must use their own quite different conventions and resources in order to disturb Shakespeare's playtexts. Coursen "will argue for a controlled postmodernist concept of production: controlled because unified, not a willy-nilly presentation of unrelated ideas; controlled because aware simultaneously that 'the past is another country' and that it exists in the scripts as our own past exists in our memories and dreams. . . . The plays must move forward in time, but time must bring them forward with a sense of where they have been" (23-24).

Coursen then looks at the two dominant "traditions" of producing Shakespeare's plays--theatrical performance and film--and at a number of recent productions, including some history plays, The Tempest, Macbeth, and Hamlet. These are amazingly detailed and compelling analyses of individual productions, such as Michael Kahn's 1996 and 1995-96 Shakespeare Theatre productions of Henry VI and Henry V or Karin Coonrod's 1996-97 New York Public Theater production of the Henry VI plays. How, Coursen asks, does a production engage us with the philosophical and religious energies that made sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century anxieties about kingship reverberate in deeply metaphysical ways? Coursen shows how, by seeing clearly into the design of these plays, Karin Coonrod's Public Theater production revealed a late-medieval culture's self-conscious fascination with...


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