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Reviewed by:
  • Love as Human Freedom by Paul A. Kottman
  • Ewan Fernie (bio)
Love as Human Freedom. By Paul A. Kottman. Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press, 2017. Pp. xii + 242. $85.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Paul kottman's Love as Human Freedom isn't exactly a Shakespeare book, nor does it pretend to be. or perhaps it's fairer to say that it isn't just a Shakespeare book; it's more than that—which is one reason why it should be of great interest to Shakespeareans. new historicism is still the dominant influence in contemporary Shakespeare studies, though it has become more routine and less intellectually self-conscious. it seeks synchronic connections between Shakespeare texts and all sorts of other things in their own circumambient culture; kottman, by contrast, finds connections between Shakespeare's plays and previous and later culture, zipping back to antiquity as well as forward to our present, even leaning into the future. in that sense, he is more historical; he takes more history on. But he is also a remarkably engaged thinker, with something important to say to life now. the new historicist view, reinforced in the humanities by increasingly walled-in and specialist periodization, tends to be static, its technique of "thick description" reifying. it speaks—sometimes powerfully—to the perdurable resistance of culture; it's less good at accounting for the fact that things have changed, and can do so again. kottman discerns more dynamic connections. he is as scrupulous as any new historicist in showing that life is conditioned by history, but his interpretations of Shakespeare and other texts—from The Symposium to Brokeback Mountain—pit that inheritance against an active power to modify it in favor of a fuller and better life. as that last phrase and, indeed, his own title indicates, kottman's project breaks away from postmodern "incredulity towards grand narratives." it is unabashedly evaluative, but kottman is strict in maintaining that value emerges only in history. in fact, value only emerges as history. We have no access to metaphysical, transcendent truth; truth is historical practice. the exhilarating corollary is that history is a great creative process of thinking, a thought kottman derives from hegel. But given the historical nature of truth, kottman goes beyond the German thinker's nineteenth-century mentalité and experience, reclaiming and reinterpreting the always open-ended story of truth from the perspective of new times, where so much has changed and is changing. his specific interest here is in love as a progressively realized form of freedom, which, he demonstrates, is always much more than a private matter, since "there are no 'pure' subjective acts of love or commitment which are not expressive of a social world and its possibilities" (184). kottman offers original and provocative interpretations of sexual difference as our culture's primordial way of thinking about reproduction, and of patriarchy and other forms of sexual oppression as a similarly preliminary and damaging but nonetheless creative stab at realizing sexual agency. turning round the modern prejudice against homosexuality, he argues that since "sexual reproduction remained the unrivalled matrix through which it was made [End Page 302] culturally intelligible and governable," sex between men and women was fundamentally "unfree" (107). he proposes that the medieval tradition of courtly love started to open the door for the distinct world-historical achievement of free, reciprocal lovemaking between men and women, the dawning possibilities of which are subsequently explored and developed by Shakespeare. kottman excitingly affirms romeo and Juliet's challenge to (1) mortality, and (2) family love and loyalty in the name of the free mutuality they have discovered and dramatize. Particularly subtle is his argument that, as it were, inside their love Shakespeare's lovers are negotiating their own solitary apartness—owning it, exploring it as something other than an external obstacle. i don't entirely buy the related assertion that othello strikes Desdemona in order to provoke her into demonstrating independence from him, nor that in assaulting her sexual honor he is trying to make sense of her innocence "as something other than obedience and fidelity to command" (147). and unlike kottman, i do believe that dark, tormented, and ambivalent disgust is...


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pp. 302-303
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