- Shakespeare in Hindsight: Counterfactual Thinking and Shakespearean Tragedy by Amir Khan
Contemporary critics of early-modern literature, especially historicist critics, often perceive themselves to be working to escape the sorts of conceptual impositions which threaten to contaminate their readings and mislead their students. In Shakespeare in Hindsight: Counterfactual Thinking and Shakespearean Tragedy, Amir Khan warns the contemporary historicist and materialist critical establishments that they are themselves failing to escape enervating assumptions about the meaning and impact of Shakespeare's plays. This bold and humane book offers a sequence of counterfactual thought experiments about Shakespeare's major tragedies, along with The Winter's Tale, which seek to reveal what we lose when post facto interpretive impositions diminish our phenomenological presence to the texts and their characters. Khan wants readers to have an opportunity to feel the helplessness of tragedy, a helplessness forestalled by imposition of a priori interpretation and historical context. In its critique of scholarly orthodoxy, Shakespeare in Hindsight is intentionally provocative; Shakespeare apparently needs to be "less boring," for example, and Cultural Materialism is likened to Othello (36, 136). Nonetheless, the book will reward patient readers not only with illuminating observations about Shakespeare's plays but also with a salutary skepticism about the [End Page 117] ability of conventional critical methods to induce the felt experience of Shakespearean tragedy.
The terminology and interests of Stanley Cavell echo throughout Shakespeare in Hindsight, which opens with a lengthy but engaging introductory chapter acknowledging its debt to Cavell's notion of "presentness." For Khan, presentness is "an immediate intimacy to the particular unfolding of the play, where we as readers are uncertain what comes next" (3). Counterfactual reading as the imaginative removal of key facts of action and character through use of "What if?" questions can distance readers from post facto perspectives, Khan argues. This should allow us to recapture "why we felt the play tragic in the first place" even before we learned its ending and well before learning about its historical context or conventional interpretations (4). Khan believes this method is more appropriate to reading than to viewing a play, largely because reading allows time to feel the subjunctive mood of tragedies and to recognize contingencies as contingencies. Khan prefers Northrop Frye's openness to "possibilities the play, at once, hints at and … denies" to A.C. Bradley's influential reliance on the tragic flaw to explain the "unfolding of the entire play" (4, 2). Khan also finds himself highly critical of both New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, which he suggests drive toward formalist unities and limit interests.
The second chapter asks us to consider how we would experience Hamlet if we were not allowed to overhear Claudius's confession. Khan hopes that this strategy will "keep our perceptions of events as close to Hamlet's as possible, for as long as possible" (53). The result, the chapter argues, is that we would continue to feel, with Hamlet, "the terror of a world of contingency and half-knowledge" even as Hamlet desperately seeks verification of the Ghost's story (56). We would become less demanding and critical of his procrastination and would gain a greater understanding of Hamlet's intuition. The next chapter opens with a counterfactual question regarding the death of Cordelia: What if she did not die? The strikingly contingent death of Cordelia, along with the fully unexpected and unmotivated conversion of Edmund, prompt us to retroactively revise our understanding of the play in favour of arbitrariness. If we did not engage in this revision we might be less eager to agree with Stephen Greenblatt's historicizing analysis of Lear's initial arbitrariness. In turn, we might be more willing to sustain our opening doubts about the relative moral stature of the various characters. The fourth chapter asks how we would feel if the witches' prophecies in Macbeth were not true. Their truth prompts us to think that Macbeth had no choice, that he was never free. But liberated [End Page 118] analysis shows that Macbeth actually feels he has too many possibilities, and that what...