- The Purpose of Playing, and: Materialist Shakespeare
Critics come and go, and many of them write about Shakespeare’s works. The going is not always pretty: Bradley was strung up years ago, only to be replaced by Tillyard on the gibbet. Like the aging heads on London Bridge, the image of Tillyard grew old as a warning example for up-and-coming young scholars, and, with what seems like increasing frequency, others have taken his place.
The two books under review might well both be labeled “materialist” (an increasingly ambiguous term), but their relationship to ideas about critical development could not be presented more differently. In The Purpose of Playing, for example, Montrose’s prologue makes clear that he is concerned with “a shift from an essential or immanent to an historical, contextual, and conjunctural model of signification; and a general suspicion of closed systems, totalities, universals” (2). Montrose’s book, however, is far from being tendentious or nasty. In the places where Montrose takes on critics from other schools, he invariably wins his battles through courteous and persuasive argument.
The Purpose of Playing does what Montrose claims it will: It shows the complexity of the production of drama in the English Renaissance. The book is readable, informative, and at its best when dealing with the intertwining of literature and history. Montrose’s discussion of Hamlet, the Essex rebellion, and the (now) famous production of Richard II that preceded the rebellion is particularly strong. Montrose links the image of Hamlet—a prince, a gentleman, a scholar—giving instructions to the players with that of Augustine Phillips, one of Shakespeare’s fellow sharers in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, giving sworn testimony. After the Richard II production commissioned by the Essex conspirators, Phillips stated that the players would have preferred to have performed something less out of date than Richard II, but what could they do? What indeed? What is unspoken about the replies—of the players in Hamlet and of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—is, as Montrose indicates, that one does not say “no” to those To-The-Manor-Born.
Montrose’s discussion of the tensions among theatre, city, and state, and the unreliability of attempting to use theatre as a political tool, reveals unknown cultural complexities that not only shaped but that were shaped by drama. One of the best attributes of this book is that it comes to no pat conclusions about the kind of power that drama wields, or where that power lies. Yet Montrose makes it clear that Puck (and Prospero, and the rude mechanicals) feel the need to apologize for something to the audience. Something transgressive is happening that is too complicated, as Montrose argues, to be understood by a basic model of subversion and containment.
The second section of The Purpose of Playing focuses on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is perhaps less compelling. Sometimes the close readings seem overly simple; at other moments (as, for example with the idea that “the choice of the name Titania . . . fuses Circe . . . with Diana” ) the readings seem overdetermined. These swings in style of interpretation may, however, work to remind the reader of just how complex a play A Midsummer Night’s Dream is. For instance, Montrose has a fascinating and convincing segment on the play’s many reminders of Theseus’s lurid past.
Ivo Kamps’s edition of essays, Materialist Shakespeare: A History stands in marked contrast to The Purpose of Playing. I have little or no argument with the essays themselves; Louis Montrose on As You Like It, Alan Sinfield on Macbeth, a wonderfully anecdotal new historicist essay by Stephen Greenblatt, Robert Weimann on authority and theatre, Lynda E. Boose on Scolds, and John Drakakis on Julius Caesar are just a few particularly notable ones. Indeed, reading many of them was rather like meeting old friends, since they are all reprints. But Kamps’s introduction is simply annoying. Montrose, as...