Phenomenal Shakespeare

November 25, 2010

Bruce Smith's twin targets in Phenomenal Shakespeare are theory and history, "closed systems of thought" that function as graven images, taking us away from the loving touch of Shakespeare.

Since the 1970s, literary theory has robbed us of such intimacy, so Smith traces the idea of phenomenology as far back as Francis Bacon's 1605 Advancement of Learning in order to argue for a closer engagement with the Shakespeare phenomenon. But before Bacon, Erasmus invokes an ancient Greek poet to make a point about seeing and believing: "Aratus says the same in his work called Phenomena, in halfe a verse, in this way: We all come of his lineage." Conceding that Aratus speaks of Jupiter, not God, Erasmus nonetheless maintains the moral that "seeing that we are of the lineage of God, by similitude of our mind...we have an evil opinion of our father, if that...we will think him to be like an image of gold, silver, wood or stone graven by wit of man". Sometimes it's better to believe in what you don't see than succumb to idolatry.

In these days of Bardolatry, with Shakespeare the new God on the block, acolytes compete for access to the sacred truth. Smith urges us to get back to "kinaesthetic knowledge", "felt experience" and the "pleasurable twinge of watching and hearing characters suffer on stage" - in short, a little touch of humanism in the night. His opening gambit on As You Like It sets the scene, with its claim that "many academic critics since the 1970s have refused the epilogue's kind offer. They don't like it. They won't clap, much less kiss...On the whole...academic critics since the 1970s have refused to be taken in by the sights and sounds of As You Like It in performance."

Smith wants to reconnect "imaginative joy and rational analysis". He sees three reasons for "sensations and feelings" being left out of critical readings: the regime of post-structuralism, their personal nature, and the fact that "they cannot be written". He wants regime change, and viewing Shakespeare's works as "rife with fantasies of touch", he uses three touchstone texts - Sonnet 29 ("When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes"), Venus and Adonis and King Lear - to meditate on "touch", which separates the clappers and kissers from those theory-bound critics who are, like Guantanamo detainees, "near-sighted, ear-plugged, and handcuffed".

"What's so touching about 'Shakespeare'?" For Smith, that is the question. His hands-on approach - complete with sonnets in American Sign Language - has its virtues, but as yet another theory-bashing exercise it is tiresome. We are told that the pleasurable playfulness of Shakespeare is beyond academic critics out of touch with their feeling side: "the witty speeches, the disguises, the gestures, the songs, the dancing, the playful epilogue - may not be repugnant to the phenomena, but they are repugnant to certain political preoccupations". And since "it is not just language that distinguishes humankind from other animals but an exquisite sense of touch", he says, it looks like those pesky theorists may not even qualify as human.

Following Bacon, Smith urges critics to embrace "those axioms 'not far from bare experience', that have been allowed to drop since the 1970s". In The Truth in Painting, Jacques Derrida deconstructed the opposition between close reading that becomes "police-like" and contextual reading that locks you outside the text in the name of "living speech, of bare hands, of living creation, of real history". But Smith's pleasure-seeking book, a useful corrective to the worst excesses of historicism, is police-like in its own way. Derrida, who has written more feelingly on Shakespeare than many alleged experts, calls Hamlet an "extraordinary zoology", where the Prince, that humanist paragon, upon brutally slaying Polonius, labels him a "rat". Very touching.

We all come of Shakespeare's lineage. Claiming superior proximity is mere power play, not the opening of a dialogue. Smith's efforts to get up close and personal are commendable, but I find his happy-clappy, touchy-feely approach less inspiring than the theoretically informed readings of the past 40 years, so in the end, no, I don't like it.

Phenomenal Shakespeare

By Bruce R. Smith. Wiley-Blackwell. 232pp, £50.00 and £17.99.ISBN 9780631235484 and 5491.Published 12 January 2010

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