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Reviews Louis Montrose. The Purpose ofPlaying: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Pp. xiii + 227. $45.00 (casebound); $15.95 (paperback). "Thus, a generalized argument for the 'containment of subversion' reduced arguments for the agency of subjects to the illusory and delusive effects of a dominant order. The binary logic of subversion/ containment produces a closed conceptual structure; its terms are reciprocally defining and dependent, complementary and complicit." Those who like this sort of thing are in for a treat, for this is only page 9 and there are two hundred more to go. Others may demur. Reading Montrose is like doing the backstroke through an underheated Olympic pool filled with molasses. His subject is the politics of representation on the Elizabethan stage, and he conducts the reader through a general survey to a study focused on A Midsummer Night' s Dream. The first part is largely unexceptionable. Montrose's starting point is the major transformation in cultural life that took place during the early decades of Elizabeth's reign. This revolution entailed a complex interaction among religious, socio-economic, and political processes. Montrose sees a shift from a culture based on the dynamics of local community to one in which the local is subordinate to the national framework. Drama is conflict; and Shakespeare "generates dramatic action by combining conflicts grounded in such fundamental cultural categories as ethnicity, lineage, generation, gender, political faction, and social rank" (p. 33). Conflicts between people embody ideological contradictions . And there are subtler tensions at work: the social ideology was one of unchanging order and absolute obedience; the plays, as commercial entertainments, evidenced a mobile society of varied and vital human needs. The official view of drama was not monolithic. Montrose emphasizes the determination of the Privy Council to regulate the companies and their performances, a policy sometimes at odds with civic authorities and their distaste for the players. No overriding policy emerged. Even the locus classicus, the performance of Richard II by the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1601, suggests that the status of the Shakespearean stage was ambiguous. In accepting the conspirators' commission , the players "seem to have been motivated by a combination of social deference and commercial gain" (p. 75). The players' motives were not political, but might, thinks Montrose, have been "shaped by considerations of a distinctly ideological character" (p. 75). Montrose's continuing effort is to "resist arguments that bind the practices of the professional Elizabethan theatre to the practices of the 552 Reviews553 Elizabethan state and that bind Shakespearean theatricality to political absolutism" (p. 78). If kingship, in Greenblatt's terms, "always involves fictions, theatricalism, and the mystification of power," then it is as true that royal power is demystified through these same fictions. Montrose has some time for the recent critical notion "contained subversion," whose conceptual origin "may be located in the ambiguity of the Elizabethan term, license, which implied that heterodoxy might be effectively controlled precisely by allowing it a conspicuously authorized expression " (p. 104). The power of the stage was grounded in the theatrum mundi metaphor. And this power lay not in the advocacy of specific political positions but in the suggestion "that all such positions are rotationally located and circumstantially shaped and that they are motivated by the passions and interests of their advocates" (p. 105). So much for the generalities. The chosen case-history, A Midsummer Night' s Dream, sets up more problems than Montrose is able to resolve. To begin with, he takes delightedly to the notion of "a crisis in gender relations in the years around 1600" (David Underdown, quoted with approval, p. 118). A social historian is someone spectacularly good at inventing—and believing in—crises. At this time there was apparently "an intense preoccupation with women who are a visible threat to the patriarchal system," a portentous gloss on a category rendered more economically as "women." This is elucidated through the three categories of witch, scold (as feminists were then called), and domineering wife. It is not clear that contemporary concern was much more than journalistic. The archetypes were always around. The impetus of A Midsummer Night's Dream...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 552-555
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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