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HUMANlTIES 453 Paul Yachnin. Stage-WTigl1ls: Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and the Making ojTlleatrica/ Value University of Pennsylvania Press. xviii, 210. $58.so Paul Yachnin adopts BenJonson's disparaging term }Stage-wrights' (similar to the 'Play-wright, Cart-wright' jibe made at John Webster by a contemporary satirist) in order to emphasize the 'social degradation' of making plays for commercial theatre companies in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. Yachnin's thesis is that a desire for social and cultural esteem was a dominant motivation for his three representative playwrights, leading to a 'project of institutional legitimation' on behalf of theatre. In his first chapter, 'Powerless Theater,' Yachn.in makes a strong case against current critical fashions - old historicism, cultural materialism, and new historicism - which see theatre and literature as politically and culturally powerful agents in early modern society. Yachnin believes the reverse is true. He contrasts the suppression of religious theatre, and the punishment of subversive poets and pamphleteers, with the commercial theatres and playwrights escaping almost scot-free from even such potentially seditious acts as the Essex performance of Richard II. Far from fearing the theatre, the authorities regarded it as outside the discourse of politics, and therefore harmless. Having challenged current views of the operation of power, Yachnin goes on in his second chapter to argue that we must take account of the operation of individual minds as well as the operation of cultural and political power. 'How is it/ he asks in the course of a significant critique of Foucault 'that materialist critics can routinely attribute intention to their own writings ... yet they are able to argue that historical texts have discursive effects but neither meanings nor intentions nor authors?' If individuals had some (though not complete) understanding of the1r own situation, it follows that renewed prominence can be given 'to the part individual subjects play in the social order.' Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton, according to Yaclmin, 'were obliged to negotiate in what might be called the "knowledge marketplace" of Renaissance culhue.' 'The Knowledge Marketplace' is the last of the three general chapters in which Yachnin explains his thesis that all three playwrights must be assumed to have felt a need to legitimate and valorize their craft. He discusses both the relationships between playwrights and companies, and the particular social milieux of his chosen playwrights. Jonson is of course easy to place in terms of social aspiration, but Yachnin's case for Shakespeare and Middleton is more presumptive than proven. This is where a wider range of playwrights needs to be considered in order to test Yachnin's thesis further. Whereas the polarities between Shakespeare and Jonson are usually sharp and instructive, a triumvirate of these two plus Middleton as 'the most important makers of emerging value of theater' will not be universally accepted as sufficient. In particular, one suspects that 454 LEITERS IN CANADA 1997 more attention to Marlowe, Fletcher, Webster, Massinger, Dekker, and Heywood might complicate neat binary oppositions considerably. The remaining three chapters discuss comedy, tragedy, and gender issues in selected plays to make the case for Shakespeare moving towards the private, inward, and unknowable, Jonson more obviously trying to reclaim the public and political for the stage, and Middleton adopting a parodic and self-critical theatrical stance. While all of the analysis is astute and perceptive, some readers may find that, despite his disclaim.ers, Yachnin pushes his thesis a bit too hard. How persuaded will we be that the main explanation for the darkness of Shakespeare's Jacobean comedies lies in Shakespeare's having felt degraded by the corrunercial success of his earlier plays? Is a personal 'project of legitimation' the only explanation for Middleton's different approach to female c.haracter nearly twenty years later? Should not a discussion of the meaning of Jaques's 'seven ages of man' speech include its ironic undercutting in performance by, for example, the entry of Orlando and Adam as counter-examples of the third and seventh ages? Nevertheless, this book presents a powerful and persuasive argument for the significance of theatre without political power, and the resultant need to take account of the institutional politics and cultural agenda of theatre itself, and of the self...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 453-454
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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