Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics

January 7, 2010

Shakespeare has perennially been perceived as in need of rescue. In the 18th century, a squadron of editors, including Pope and Johnson, sought to rescue Shakespeare's drama from corruption on stage; in turn, 19th-century Romantics such as Schlegel and Coleridge strove to release his genius from such neoclassical garrotting. The 20th century saw his attempted liberation from close readers and character critics, uninspired schoolteachers and tenured radicals, among numerous other suspect gangs. Hostage not of an age but for all time, Shakespeare ritually stands for a culture in peril.

In Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics, Hugh Grady enlists the dramatist as a supporting player in an alternative rescue mission: "rescuing the aesthetic". To the general public, who might associate "the aesthetic" with notions of high culture or good taste, Shakespeare's enduring ascendancy as a literary icon could signal that the realm of aesthetics, while remote, is still secure. Within literary criticism, too, the return of formalism would seem to indicate a resurgence of art over ideology. Concerned with "rescuing the aesthetic from the denial which now prevails in regard to it in contemporary criticism", Grady distinguishes an idea of the aesthetic that isn't biased by haught judgments of beauty but instead forms the philosophical basis for political criticism. Calling on A Midsummer Night's Dream, Timon of Athens, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, he proposes a category of "impure aesthetics" that allows formal and ideological analyses, lately supposed antithetical, to form part of the same critical agenda.

Tracing the emergence of aesthetic theory to the Enlightenment, Grady's introduction guides the reader from Kant's seminal conceptualisation of the "pure aesthetic" through revisions furnished first by Schiller, Marx and Hegel, and then by Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Fredric Jameson. If Grady rescues anything of value here, it is clear, concrete prose, on material that could be murky and esoteric in another critic's hands.

His project, however, is to clarify how the Marxist theory thought inimical, if not hostile, to the aesthetic instead revises Kant's work to place the aesthetic at the foreground of consideration. For Grady, the aesthetic is a "social construct, a signifier whose signified derives from a series of intricate networks, within itself, and within the fragmented world of a complex new, 'modern' society". That the aesthetic stands for other aspects of culture renders it ontologically and ethically "impure". Yet its very impurities, its linkages to political forms, versus its subjective and social autonomy, also render it formally and ideologically viable for literary criticism.

Jameson pioneered such an idea with the novel, and Grady's debt to his work is substantial. His contribution, however, is to try out such analyses on Shakespeare, "proto-theorist of the aesthetic". It is less easy to see how A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet, having been worked over thoroughly in terms of meta-theatre, require rescuing in the terms that Grady proposes. With Timon of Athens and Romeo and Juliet, however, the book performs its most successful operations, recuperating the former play from public obscurity and the latter from critical inattention. It is in looking for plays, indeed other aesthetic forms, to rescue from neglect that this theory may find further sanctuary.

Grady is otherwise associated and indeed credited with the critical development known as "presentism", which proposes that the historical situatedness of the critic, indeed the radical alterity of the past, be viewed as enabling tools instead of critical deal-breakers. He may frame his contributions as theoretical, but the difference is largely one of attitude, a readiness to see problems in criticism in terms of "both/and" (versus either/or), indeed a willingness to embrace the mission. In attempting to reconcile aesthetic analysis and ideology critique, the die-hard formalists and the political critics, Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics attempts to rescue us from ourselves.

Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics

By Hugh Grady. Cambridge University Press. 2pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780521514750. Published 13 August 2009

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