The notion that Shakespeare speaks directly to us continues to colour the popular conception of the Bard. Each year, thousands of A-level candidates mime hopefully to the pearls apparently still tumbling from his lips. Meanwhile, the plays dwindle satisfactorily into boxes of Eternal Truths.
The texts are not to blame. Centuries of cultural and political processing make them hardly knowable as "themselves". Hugh Grady's powerful study cannily reminds us of the extent and substance of those accretions. Nowhere have the conceptual issues been more diligently sifted than in the case of Shakespeare: hardly surprising, since his plays represent the "high ground" of English studies. Grady's compelling analysis thus addresses a readership well beyond the specialist. For, as he argues, what confronts us here is less a set of permanent truths, than a matching ideological relationship. What we share with Shakespeare is a close encounter with "modernity": he at its beginning, we at its end; he from the point of view of the "early" modern, we from that of the "post".
The judgements made in the middle or at the end of the period we term "modern" by thinkers such as Marx, Horkheimer, Adorno and Foucault, often disconcertingly echo those made at the start, by Shakespeare. The sense of a culture stalked by a rapacious monster composed of reason, appetite, power and will, a "universal wolf" as Troilus and Cressida has it, is fundamental to both. Who would deny, 400 years on, that our own century has produced disasters which mimic, when they do not dwarf, those diagnosed by Shakespeare avant la lettre?
Their common source, Grady argues, lies in reification: that process in which the social systems invented by human beings begin, apparently, to operate autonomously, as if beyond human control. In short, whether in the form of "power", or of "commodity fetishism", or of those procedures aiming to turn the social and political into the "natural", they start to embody what might be called the central commitment of modern capitalism: to a seemingly independent, unrestricted, value-free rationality; a wantonly destructive juggernaut of "purposeless purposiveness".
Grady is committed to a view of the self, not as some eternal unchanging spiritual substance, but as "a complex, historically changing outcome of the development of humanity in society": the knock-down, drag-out case, in other words, against the sentimental bobbins about individual "character" still winning insouciant A-level applause. In short, this careful study magnificently completes the task Grady set himself in The Modernist Shakespeare (1991): to gain a substantial, liberating purchase on the ageing idealism that has largely governed approaches to Shakespeare in our century.
The result is a spirited and illuminating account of Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, and As You Like It which probes to the heart of the ruinous encounter with "modernisation" these texts record. This tells us not that Shakespeare dealt in particularly timeless truths, but that he focused on the truths of a particular time. It may not make him our contemporary, but it does make us a fit audience for his plays. In fact, as Grady implies, it may make us the best audience the Bard could ever have.
Terence Hawkes is professor of English, University of Wales, Cardiff.
Shakespeare's Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification
Author - Hugh Grady
ISBN - 0 19 813004 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 241