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  • Repositioning Shakespeare: National Formations, Postcolonial Appropriations
  • Liedeke Plate
Thomas Cartelli. Repositioning Shakespeare: National Formations, Postcolonial Appropriations. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. xi + 233 pp.

In Repositioning Shakespeare, Thomas Cartelli examines a wide range of literary and cultural appropriations of Shakespeare: from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (ca. 1688) and its stage adaptation by Robert Southerne in 1695 to Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story (1990) and Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991); from polemical and political essays to novels, plays, films, and the 1849 Astor Place Riot; and from England to the United States and the West Indies, Kenya, South Africa and the Sudan. Clustered around three themes—American democracy, The Tempest and Othello—Cartelli’s readings of these texts and events center on the ways Shakespeare (his texts, but also his clout) is made to serve specific social and political interests.

A large part of Cartelli’s book is devoted to American constructions of Shakespeare, and the analyses he provides of these texts all deal with the characteristic ambivalence that marks America’s relationship to Shakespeare. First placing Robert T. Conrad’s play Jack Cade (1835) and its 1841 revision by Edwin Forrest and William Leggett in the context of Forrest’s effort to establish a national drama, then juxtaposing it to the Astor Place Riot of 1849, when Forrest’s nativist sentiment contributed to the violent sending back to England of the British Shakespearean actor and producer William Macready, Cartelli examines the contradictions implicit in a critique of Shakespeare’s feudal and aristocratic ideals thus articulated. In a similar manner, Percy MacKaye’s Shakespeare tercentenary masque Caliban by the Yellow Sands (1916) is shown to contain telling contradictions between its democratic claims and “the largely anti-democratic bias of its themes and organization” (74) no less than between its explicit rejection of “feudal” British values and the implicit valorization of Anglo-American culture. In contrast, Cartelli’s analysis of Jane Addams’ enlisting of King Lear to identify the conflicts of management and labor in the Pullman Strike of 1894, as well as his discussion of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, focus rather on how the writer’s personal history and context informs her deployment of Shakespeare. According to Cartelli, Jane Addams’ use of King Lear is clearly (over)determined by her own relationship with her father; and Behn’s novel, however hard it tries to elicit sympathy and admiration for its “Royal Slave,” is too much steeped in the racial constructions of its time to be able to truly operate against its parameters.

Cartelli’s examination of postcolonial appropriations of Shakespeare center on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat (1968), Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven (1989) and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966). Cartelli’s interests are with post-independence negotiations of Shakespeare, for as he argues, “the practice of postcolonial writers to ‘write back’ to the center has by now been exhaustively documented” (106). In Cliff’s novel, Cartelli fastens onto the ways in which her postmodern sensibility “disenchants The Tempest’s monopoly on the available forms of postcolonial identity” (116). In contrast, A Grain of Wheat and Season of Migration are scanned for the reading of Shakespeare they rehearse or act out: the former is shown to articulate a view of The Tempest now largely obsolete within Shakespeare scholarship yet demonstrative of the play’s ideological function; and the latter’s “writing back” to Othello reveals “the specifically Orientalist proportions of Othello’s construction, and its implications for a very different kind of self-fashioning” (148). [End Page 225]

Building on a body of existing scholarship, Repositioning Shakespeare does not provide an exhaustive survey of appropriations of Shakespeare; nor does it attempt to present competing readings. Instead, it examines selected appropriations of Shakespeare and attends to the specific ways in which all that “Shakespeare” stands for (England, imperialism, British values, and whatever these words mean at particular moments in particular places) is engaged and refashioned to produce meaning. As such, it exemplifies the best of cultural analysis, and constitutes almost required reading for Shakespeare and other scholars alike.

Liedeke Plate
Utrecht University...

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pp. 225-226
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