Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life

Dispensing the Bard to salve modern ills is a good idea but Jonathan Bate can't swallow all of it

June 16, 2011

In 1765, Samuel Johnson answered those critics who had complained that Shakespeare broke all the rules of art by his mingling of tragedy and comedy, high-born characters and low, verse and prose. "There is", wrote Johnson in the magnificent preface to his edition of the plays, "always an appeal open from criticism to nature." Shakespeare is true to life when he shows joy bumping up against sorrow and the sublime against the ridiculous.

Adapting Johnson, we might say that in literary studies, there is always an appeal open from criticism to Shakespeare. Every new technique of analysis - from the practical criticism of I.A. Richards to the theoretical ventures of the late 20th century (structuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, queer reading and so forth) - has been tested against Shakespeare. And the test nearly always works. Such is the suppleness of Shakespeare's movement of mind and word that he always proves to be an invaluable tool for thinking with.

The title of Julia Reinhard Lupton's book offers a big promise: by "thinking with Shakespeare", we will learn about both politics and life. The introduction, having made obligatory obeisance to a suite of modern intellectual gurus (notably Hannah Arendt and the highly fashionable Giorgio Agamben), assures us that Shakespeare will help us to sort out our contemporary crises in "emancipation, election, consent, friendship, minority, and hospitality".

Lupton seeks to deliver on her offer by producing a series of not fully integrated essays - half of them reprinted or revised from earlier publications - on animal husbandry in The Taming of the Shrew, election in Hamlet (the awkwardness caused by the introduction, late in the play, of the idea that Denmark is an elective monarchy), consent (especially the consent to have sex) in All's Well that Ends Well, the similarities between Timon of Athens and the Book of Job, hospitality in The Winter's Tale, and Caliban in The Tempest as a minor.

There are some genuinely interesting new angles here - how often do we think through the implications of the fact that although Caliban seems to be about 24 on the day of the play's action, he would once have been "a minor under the guardianship of Prospero. The parts do not, however, really add up to a whole. The order of the chapters seems arbitrary and the general principles could equally have been applied to half a dozen different plays. The best chapter is the last - a reflection on the importance for Shakespeare of the biblical St Paul, which derives its strength from the way it ranges across the plays instead of pinning a single drama to a single theme in political or cultural theory.

The introduction, portentously titled "Politics and Life", begins with Shylock's line, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" A sentence such as the following offers a representative sample of Lupton's prose style: "Shylock's image of pricked and bleeding skin pierces together in a single bright stigma the intimacy of flesh and verbalization, as if the fold in the sentence were also a fold in existence itself: the crease between body and language repeatedly reworked in drama as event." As Shakespeare's Touchstone almost said, "Much virtue in as if."

Lupton's "proclivities are conceptual and exegetical rather than historical". Sometimes she will begin from historical grounding, as in the opening of the Taming of the Shrew chapter, where we are reminded that in "his Cheape and Good Husbandry of 1614, agriculturalist Gervase Markham describes the role of the capon in the sociology of the poultry yard". But on other occasions, the absence of historical explanation causes Lupton to miss a trick. She seems unaware, for example, that in Shakespeare's time the pricking of a thumb was a test for witchcraft. Shylock is saying that a Jew should not be demonised as a witch, a thought that Arendt would have appreciated.

Again, some well-argued pages on how "the Hamlet-Horatio couple draws its energy from the classical discourse of friendship" would have benefited from contextualisation through reference to the pervasiveness of that discourse, and its mediation through Cicero, in late 16th-century culture. This said, the book's desire "to gently dislodge the plays from their historical confines in order to pursue their universal implications" is of a piece with a welcome return in recent Shakespearean criticism to the Johnsonian idea that the plays illuminate not just the mentalities of their own age but rather what Balzac and Arendt called "the human condition".

Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life

By Julia Reinhard

Lupton.University of Chicago Press.

312pp, £29.00.

ISBN 9780226496719.

Published 19 April 2011.

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