The Canon: Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism

November 4, 2010

Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism

Edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield

Political Shakespeare

appeared in 1985, alongside a similarly focused collection of essays, Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis. Both volumes represent early but still influential efforts to reconfigure Shakespeare studies in the light of "theory", or, as Alan Sinfield puts it in his foreword, "the new and challenging discourses of Marxism, feminism, structuralism, psycho-analysis and post-structuralism".

Shakespeare studies would never be the same. Until the mid-1980s, most people could still think of Shakespeare as a universal genius, dispensing universal insights into the human condition by way of eternally moving works of art. It was possible to think that plays such as Hamlet and King Lear had said it all, for all time. But now it was clear that everything that Shakespeare did was accomplished through partialities - particular inflections of such matters as gender, class and race.

Political Shakespeare collected essays by Stephen Greenblatt, Paul Brown, Kathleen McLuskie, Leonard Tennenhouse, Graham Holderness, Margot Heinemann and the editors, along with an afterword by Raymond Williams. There was not a dud in the bunch. Greenblatt's "Invisible bullets" would canonise the subversion-containment model of literary studies; Brown's essay would establish for a generation of scholars the relationship between "The Tempest and the discourse of colonialism"; McLuskie would re-baptise the playwright as "the patriarchal Bard"; Dollimore and Sinfield would show how political engagement in the present could be translated into an engagement with the classic texts of the past.

I first came to this volume while I was re-entering the university after a career in business, wondering what I would do with the rest of my life. I was going through a painful divorce. I was broke. I was lonely. I loved literature, always had, but now I found that almost the only thing I could read for pleasure was Shakespeare. Only Shakespeare's works seemed complex enough to me to match the terrible complexities of my own confusions and anxieties. But I did not think that Shakespeare had "said it all". Even as I thrilled to Prospero's melancholy, or Hamlet's, I felt that something else needed to be said, that Shakespeare's connection to the world - ours and his - still needed articulation, and that the worship of the Bard that traditional critical essays invariably treated me to were exercises in self-deception.

Political Shakespeare helped show me the way out of the impasse. It helped set me on a career path as a Renaissance scholar. I could now, I believed, be not only an expert in a body of texts I loved, but also a human being, or at least a political being. (For Aristotle, it will be recalled, the two are pretty much the same.)

The arguments of Political Shakespeare have all been absorbed into the profession of Shakespeare studies; they are taken for granted. But it almost seems a shame. "Cultural materialism" was supposed to be an extension of Marxism, and Marxism a project for the emancipation of humanity. Nowadays we get plenty of historicisation in Shakespeare studies, but little of it seems emancipatory. It just seems comme il faut.

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