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Reviews David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare After Theory. New York: Routledge, 1999. Pp. 264. $70.00 casebound, $19.95 paperbound . I Theory is dead—ifthe tide is the message of David Scott Kastan, English professor at Columbia University, distinguished critic and editor, anthologizer ofcontemporary criticism, and prominent proponent and practitioner ofNew Historicism. Ifso, this twenty-odd-year-old orthodoxy, which claims theory as its major achievement, is also dead, or so Kastan seems to pronounce it. Although the title purports to bury, not to praise, New Historicism, his book really offers apologies and its own example as a way of extending its life. Despite its moribund condition, it survives. Long live theory. Because New Historicists rule English departments and professional organizations , and not yet from the grave, Kastan's book is premature as obituary , but timely as resume. It is useful as a recapitulation of the fundamental principles and practices of New Historicism, and as a prompt for important questions about politics in literary criticism, and historyand theory in its work. Kastan's positions on these issues are far more interesting and, in their way, valuable, than anything that he has to say about Shakespeare's plays. Indeed, they are helpful because they so well reflect, even as they perpetuate, the difficulties that have beset this orthodoxy from its start. His book is better at disclosing the mortal symptoms ofNew Historicism than at diagnosing its ailments or prescribing remedies. Born ofparents in conflict with each other, New Historicism accepted and rejected features from both, but never established an integrated self-concept. 125 126Comparative Drama From structuralism, it accepted cultural relativism and its attack on the canon of Western literature, but rejected its value-corrosiveness; from deconstructionism, it accepted linguistic indeterminism and its attack on the aesthetic interpretations of New Criticism, but rejected its semantic nihilism. Finally, it repudiated in aU three—structuralism, deconstructionism, New Criticism —a lack ofcommitment to reformingcurrent social problems and thereby claimed "the moral authority ofa committed politics" (27). The resulting collection of differing, even diverging, impulses is New Historicism. What binds this unstable assortment of impulses together, apart from a dyspeptic response to imperfections in society, is an interest in, and a modicum ofpower to effect, reform. To New Historicists, the root ofall evil is the unequal distribution ofpower in society, and literature is one form ofits cultural expression, an expression often complicated by cross-currents of assertion or subversion. The only resources readily available to English professors committed to politics are literature and the opportunities provided in and by academe to study and teach it for political purposes. They use the concepts of power in itselfand in its various guises—the best known being gender, race, and class—as templates in analyzing and assessing literature; their purpose is to affect political thought and behavior. So these fundamental convictions— that literature is inherently political, and reflects or reinforces an unfair distribution of power; and that English professors properly must "do theory" by exposing works ofliterature as political and implicating writers in the political —constitute what New Historicism caUs "theory." Although New Historicists differ on agendas or priorities, they concur on one basic principle: only as people recognize and understand the pervasive presence and adverse effects of the unequal distribution of power within a given society can they work with any hope of making it an egalitarian and democratic one. To this end, New Historicism regards "theory itselfas a significant political practice, emancipatory and efficacious" (27). It presumes, not only to a better approach to literary criticism, but also to loftier morals and superior politics. So New Historicists adopted a view ofliterature, approved a "theory" and practice ofliterary criticism, and advocated a proselytizing role for scholars in their research and teachers in their pedagogy—each of which is political, whether avowedly or covertly. In thus breaking with the past, they challenged the long-standing assumptions ofliterary study and created a controversy that has lasted to this day. Those opposing New Historicism, for whatever reason, agree on one point: inserting a radical or systematic politics into the study and teaching ofliterature, and into the conduct ofcollege or university life, is detrimental to traditional—and most would argue, basic—values...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 125-138
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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