- Shakespeare’s Curse: The Aporias of Ritual Exclusion in Early Modern Royal Drama by Björn Quiring
In his new book, Björn Quiring examines early modern stage representations of juridicial performance: curses, oaths, prophecy, and other performative acts that in offstage legal and religious contexts would pronounce, promise, or predict some kind of judgment or punishment. Positioning itself as an interdisciplinary study that reveals “surprising links between the history of theology, of theatre, and of law” (17), Shakespeare’s Curse offers close readings of Richard III, King John, and King Lear relevant to interests ranging from historical studies like Richard Dutton’s Mastering the Revels to more theoretical enterprises, such as Andrew Sofer’s Dark Matter. Quiring argues that Shakespeare’s royal dramas simultaneously demonstrate that such bursts of juridical performance lack any true legitimacy while ironically lending them “mythic latencies” that have extended into modernity (ibid.). Shakespeare’s Curse ultimately asserts that the plays deconstruct, in escalating ways, early modern notions of divine and natural law while also preserving a record of secularization in which juridical authority was transferred from the Church to the court and ultimately to the free market as oaths became contracts and curses became legal consequences. Shakespeare’s Curse is well-written and delivers an exciting argument that makes possible a wide range of subsequent studies. Ultimately, however, the book does a better job of theorizing legal history and offering persuasive readings of individual plays than it does of positioning those observations in the historical context of Shakespeare’s professional theatre.
Quiring’s methodology is largely new historicist, examining what truly is a surprising number of links among theological, theatrical, and legal history though the theoretical lenses of Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Benjamin, Agamben, and Blumberg. In the book’s first chapter, Quiring investigates textual [End Page 148] instances of curses, oaths, and prophecy in Richard III, positing that Richard’s rise is made possible by an understanding of such performance as performance, and that, conversely, his fall is hastened by succumbing to the illusions of legitimacy afforded by his coronation. In chapter 2, “King John and the Ordeal of the Bastard Commodity,” Quiring suggests that Shakespeare’s deconstruction extends to the Crown itself, rendering a schema in which sovereignty is inseparable from power and, more destabilizing, from capital. The book’s final chapter depicts King Lear as a deconstruction of natural law in which “the struggle for legitimacy that defines Shakespeare’s Histories assumes the form of a grotesque quarrel about natural rightfulness in which all parties ruin themselves without reaching a final verdict” (204).
Despite the overtly theoretical methodology, Quiring’s argument is immediate and exacting, with genuine stakes rendered in dynamic and clear prose. The book does much to satisfy its interdisciplinary objectives, offering a persuasive history of the secularization of legal thinking. Although the highly selective treatment of Shakespeare’s corpus raises questions about claims to a clearly chronological narrative of escalating deconstruction, the book’s painstakingly close readings of Richard III and King Lear are themselves quite convincing, providing much fodder for scholars of those individual plays. Perhaps most importantly, Shakespeare’s Curse promises to function as a vital complement to theories of early modern performance, particularly in regard to the performance of speech actions that, when uttered offstage, carried symbolic or ritualized political significance. Because the book’s close readings are so centralized around textual moments of performativity, these individual chapters promise to be the rare scholarly artifact immediately useful to modern theatre practitioners.
Despite the book’s obvious value as early modern performance theory, Quiring’s argument is limited in its scope; the book makes very little effort to situate “performance” in professional early modern staging practices, making, for example, only a single glancing reference to the 1606 Act to Restrict the Abuses of Players, while failing to mention or contemplate the implications of the act’s ban of oaths onstage. As such, the performative and literary aspects of the plays lack the historical context provided to...