Politics and the puns

Reading Shakespeare's Dramatic Language - Shakespeare and the Arts of Language. First Edition - Shakespeare Criticism in the Twentieth Century. First Edition
June 1, 2001

Question: what do you get if you cross a post-structuralist with a mafioso? Answer: an offer you can't understand. If arcane academic fashions have any sort of demotic afterlife, perhaps it is in the comedy always inherent in it but only belatedly permissible.

In the past few decades the fragmentation of literary critical practice into distinct, card-carrying gangs has seemed like the internecine feuds of la cosa nostra , each ideological family dealing in its "thing", each with its own easily parodied code words and expressions. In Shakespeare studies those families are either textual, theatrical, rhetorical and formal, mostly interested in the linguistic, literary, learned, and folkloric culture from which the plays arose; or they are part of the enormous cousinage of the neohistorical "isms" that are usually concerned with power relations between individuals and institutions under headings such as gender, commerce, law enforcement, patriarchy and material culture itself.

The end of the 20th century was a ceremonial occasion on which to mark and reassess all these Shakespeares of the past hundred years, and possibly to refocus the interpretive enterprise in certain ways. Michael Taylor is a shrewd and lively chronicler of this eventful history. Apparently a conscientious objector in the intellectual struggle, the pleasantly chatty Taylor leads us from the age of A. C. Bradley and the character criticism of the early part of the century, through formalist and "new criticism", through the material theatre and theatricality, and into the knotty territory of "marginal", political Shakespeare.

This balanced and relatively informal account is remote from the skirmishes of the competing "isms" it describes. But it is also a gripping account of how we got here, how we ceased to believe in the inferability of Shakespeare's mind and the interiority of his characters, and how at least some of us have come to believe in character itself as no more than a node in the intersecting strands of the power-nexus. Taylor's aim, he says, is partly "to bring the reader's attention to the plus ça change aspect of the history of Shakespeare criticism in the 20th century". But while some old wine is being decanted into new bottles, a new-fangled tipple on offer for the last several decades is what Graham Bradshaw has called "the hermeneutics of suspicion", an intellectual disposition whose primary analytical task is to ransack and reconfigure areas of Shakespeare until now woefully under-theorised and "unproblematised".

Although Taylor himself is not fundamentally sceptical or suspicious, he has the delicacy to refrain from approval or disdain, letting the better and the sillier voices alike speak for themselves. The neurotic problematisers and vaunting theorists of recent years, the triumphantly unbewildered avuncularity of the Bradley era and the "gelded Elizabethanism" of E. M. W. Tillyard, are left to be hoist with their own petard.

But this account, however evenminded, also broadcasts a bracing handful of salutary advisos. "If the world needs to be changed," Taylor writes in connection with social and political criticism, "then literary critics who want to change it should seek some other means than literary criticism to make themselves more useful in the coming struggle". In an era when much criticism seems to have been written by members of the Laputan Academy, and critical intelligence can sometimes feel anaerobic, house-bound and decadently self-absorbed, such reality checks are as medicinal as true.

If the lesson of Taylor's excellent story is plus ça change , with, for example, Alan Sinfield doing a turn at Bradleian character-study, and critics in general stealing the auteur role from theatre directors and from Shakespeare himself, we are in the midst of a good couple of years for the well-oxygenated Shakespearean language study. This used to be the stock-in-trade of the new criticism, a style of analysis that flourished between the wars, but has been languishing in the academic old-folks' home since the 1970s.

New critics rigorously discredited the impressionistic excesses of the "old historicism", preferring to attend to the textual artefact as a purely verbal and technical (rather than political, social, psychoanalytical or biographical) one. Frank Kermode's bestseller Shakespeare's Language helped inaugurate its rehabilitation, but like Kermode, Reading Shakespeare's Dramatic Language and Shakespeare and the Arts of Language resurrect that often-cloistered and unbreathed style of close reading, yoking it with the vigour of all that has come since.

Reading Shakespeare's Dramatic Language is a collection of essays by many hands. The essays have been synthesised to make a truly joined-up argument: each contributor alludes fruitfully to other essays in the volume, and the concise simplicity of each element makes for a consistent and coherent account of Shakespearean linguistic variety.

The first of the three sections contains discussions of major linguistic features such as metre, dialogue, puns and heightened and grand styles. The second section consists of fewer, more technical subjects (varieties of Shakespearean English, Shakespeare's grammar, his neologisms and his aural effects). The final section is billed as an A-to-Z of rhetorical terms that are defined and illustrated from the plays. The pleasure of reading such a well-conceived and designed collection cannot be overstated. The contributors hand over to one another like a relay team, with the Shakespearean baton floating easily and generously from one to the next. It will make this volume an essential introduction to Shakespearean basics (say, for GCSE and A-level students), and a back-to-basics handbook for the more advanced.

The timeliness of re-establishing language criticism at this moment is expressed nicely by Russ McDonald in Shakespeare and the Arts of Language . Critical fascination with Renaissance material culture, as rewarding as it has been, has sometimes seemed to forget the materiality of the language in which that culture is transmitted. McDonald wishes to "reassert the physical contribution of the signifier", especially its slighted non-referential qualities - its aural and rhetorical pleasures. He prefaces his later chapters on prose, verse, metre, the use of figures, and silence by situating all these Shakespearean practices within the linguistic and rhetorical culture of the 16th century, especially in the humanist-led grammar-school curriculum.

He reckons Shakespeare to be "the ideal student of Renaissance rhetoric", and the book is a historically careful and analytically imaginative picture of Shakespeare's attitude to and use of the rhetorical tools at his disposal. The argument is especially interesting and helpful as it follows what McDonald judges to be a kind of rhetorical progress. The neophyte playwright's enthusiasm for figurative virtuosity is balanced with a keen sense of the perils of rhetorical indiscipline in the early plays up to Richard II ; the "middle" Shakespeare of Julius Caesar and Hamlet distrusts "the harlotry of words", a Shakespeare actually "problematising" his own inherited medium; the late Shakespeare from Macbeth onward returns to the pleasure of linguistic artifice.

In historicising Shakespeare's language within the rich critical traditions of the recent past, these books by Adamson and her collaborators and by McDonald cross-pollinate to offer a re-illuminated Shakespeare for the next century of criticism.

Claire Preston is a fellow, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Reading Shakespeare's Dramatic Language: A Guide. First Edition

ISBN - 1 903436 29
Publisher - Arden Shakespeare
Price - £12.99
Pages - 321

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