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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 290-291

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Book Review

Shakespeare's Theory of Drama

Shakespeare's Theory of Drama. By Pauline Kiernan. First paperback edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; pp. xii + 218. $18.95.

Did Shakespeare have "a coherent theory of drama, or, indeed . . . a theoretical position at all" (1)? In this book, Pauline Kiernan passionately answers yes. In the process she defies "criticism's fundamental assumption that Shakespeare equates the theoretical and moral purposes of literary poetry with those of his own [dramatic] art" (2), and she rejects the persistent notion that Shakespeare regards drama as "a medium whose 'limitations' must be overcome" (159). She also repudiates "the assumption that a Shakespearean play is intended to be an imitation of life" (95).

Provocatively Kiernan argues that Shakespeare espouses, not just in his plays but also in his sonnets and narrative poems, a theory of drama that challenges "the views expressed in Sidney's Defence of Poesy, to form, in effect, a refutation of Renaissance aesthetics" (3), particularly "the mimesis concept of art" (8), which, she says, values "skilled imitation of nature so life-like we are deceived into thinking the imitated subject is the real thing" (8). Giving sustained attention to Venus and Adonis, Kiernan stresses Shakespeare's affiliation with Ovid. His effort in Metamorphoses to tell widely known stories "aliter--differently or in a different way" (25-26) informs Shakespeare's effort to avoid "the seminal chaos of literary imitation" (51) by using language that, "uncontaminated by the rhetoric of other poet's words" (84), is Orphic in its capacity to "bring life into being for the first time" (49).

A central component of Shakespeare's theory of drama is, Kiernan emphasizes, rejection of "the Renaissance commonplace of drama as mimesis" (96). Concentrating on The Rape of Lucrece, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, she sees "an almost obsessive preoccupation with the idea of mimetic art as something doubly false" (68). One arresting instance of "the numerous moments in Shakespeare where we find the idea of art attempting to outdo nature mercilessly mocked" (79) is the debate in The Winter's Tale between Polixenes and Perdita. Perdita, Kiernan declares, wins the debate, showing "the absurdity of art which arrogantly attempts to imitate, perfect, and surpass nature" (81) and anticipating the final scene, where "the warm and wrinkled body of her mother is made to negate the timeless perfection of [the sculptor Julio Romano's] mimetic art" (81). Kiernan's contention that Prospero is "Shakespeare's false-magus poet" (89), not [End Page 290] a self-portrait, is typical of her willingness to contest widely accepted positions.

Complementing Shakespeare's rejection of mimesis is his "insistence on the fictitiousness of his art. It is a dramatic illusion, not a mimetic one; we engage emotionally with a fiction, not with an imitation of life" (98). The Pageant of the Nine Worthies in Love's Labour's Lost demonstrates "what happens when spectators demand mimetic illusion from drama" (100), while the conflicting reactions of Hal and Mistress Quickly to Falstaff's impersonation of the King in 1 Henry IV (2.4.371-91) and "the entire process of staging 'Pyramus and Thisby'" (109) in A Midsummer Night's Dream show how "all drama that sees itself as adhering or not adhering to mimesis falls apart" (114-5). Kiernan regards Hamlet's comment on seeming (1.2.75-86) as evidence that "Shakespeare's drama does not pretend to represent truth . . ." (123). "Shakespeare's drama," she boldly asserts, "claims only the status of fiction. All it can do, and wants to do, is lie" (160).

Profoundly influenced by "the humanist concept of anachronism" (3), Shakespeare's history plays, Kiernan contends, replace "historical accounts of past events with a self-proclaimed fiction in order to challenge history's claim to truth" (3). A Shakespearean play is "not a re-enactment of what actually happened, nor a dramatisation of 'historical' sources, but an enactment that is altering and replacing earlier authorities" (151). After analyzing Prince Edward's questions about the Tower of London in Richard...


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