Battle of Will for the Bard's soul 2

December 24, 2004

Shakespeare's work should be appreciated as complex art as well as marketable entertainment, says Kate McLuskie. Whereas Tom McAlindon believes that theory-driven radicals are sapping the joy from the Bard's vision

In an article in The Independent on Sunday in 1991, Stanley Wells, director of "the dispassionate Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon", acknowledged that a battle was being fought over the Bard's soul. The battle was between the politicised, theory-driven radicals (known in the US as "new historicists" and in Britain as "cultural materialists") and those critics whom the radicals have dubbed liberal humanist, conventional or traditional.

But it could be said that even in 1991 the battle had already been won by the radicals. A measure of their success is the popularity of Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (1985), a manifesto collection edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield.

Since 1990, discreet control of the programme at the Stratford Institute's biennial International Shakespeare Conference has served to obscure this conflict, the issues involved and the professional triumph of the radicals.

But the announcement of Kate McLuskie's appointment as director of the institute means that there can no longer be any doubt as to where the power in the Shakespeare establishment resides and which mode of criticism can claim supremacy.

McLuskie has never published a book on Shakespeare, nor edited one of his plays, but her attitude to his work, as well as her preferred method of literary analysis, are fully apparent in her combative essay in Political Shakespeare on Measure for Measure and King Lear .

The essay is a critique of Shakespeare's alleged misogyny, and conforms perfectly to the radical aim of using analysis in such a way as to effect "the transformation of a social order that exploits people on grounds of race, gender and class" (to quote the foreword of Political Shakespeare ).

In pursuit of this aim, some radicals contend that Shakespeare's plays subtly indict the injustices of the prevailing social order. More typically, they either present him as a Machiavellian conservative who used his art to seduce his audience into passive acceptance of an oppressive status quo, or exclude him from discussion and treat "the Shakespearean texts" as robotic vehicles of a Tudor-Jacobean ideology whose contradictions invite deconstructive analysis.

McLuskie is a critic of the latter kind. For her, those female critics who detect in the plays an emergent feminism are simply peddling the old liberal-humanist version of Shakespeare that obstructs the "project for fundamental social change" in the present. In her view, a comedy such as Measure for Measure "blames women for their sexual oppression", while King Lear excludes them from its definition of human nature and traces its vision of chaos primarily to female insubordination and lust.

She advocates renouncing the regulative ideal of objectivity in interpretation as "spurious" and abstracting from the alleged contradictions of the text evidence which allows us to "resist the (ideological) position the play offers". Subversive readings of this kind, she suggests, could be projected on stage by means of appropriately slanted acting, costume and directorial style. In a production of King Lear , for example, "comic recognition of the material facts of existence" (for instance, patriarchal oppression of women) could be achieved by means of added comic effects designed to undermine "the emotional impact (of the tragedy) which is its principal power in modern productions", but that unfortunately "endorses the ideological position at every stage".

McCluskie acknowledges that subjecting Shakespeare's plays to "dispassionate analysis" and "demystification" is done at a cost: it involves "pleasure denied... the pleasure of comedy" and "the emotional, moral and aesthetic satisfaction afforded by tragedy". But she has no doubt that this self-denying discipline is necessary in the pursuit of "new forms of social organisation and affective relationships". Shakespearean criticism, she concludes, must "assert the power of resistance, subverting rather than coopting the domination of the patriarchal bard".

It should be emphasised that, although McLuskie's concern is with sexual identity and female oppression, her antagonistic attitude to Shakespeare, as well as her methodological procedures, are representative of radical criticism and, as such, her appointment gives cause to reconsider the pedagogical and disciplinary impact of such criticism.

Criticism of this kind is joyless and impoverishing, a denial of the right to that full, imaginative entry into an author's vision that is the chief reason for becoming a student of literature in the first place. By exaggerating and focusing obsessively on Shakespeare's failure to transcend completely the sociopolitical attitudes of his time, it ignores that fidelity to the workings of human nature and the patterns of human experience that every generation and diverse culture instantly recognise in his plays; indeed, it dogmatically denies their universality. The art of the plays is either ignored or treated as a dangerous distraction, being viewed as another ploy to conceal their ideological defects. Thus the reasons for Shakespeare's greatness are never addressed, and what should be a basic critical inquiry in the classroom never begins.

By failing to promote an intelligent appreciation of literary art, which heightens awareness of the complexities of language, and by directing attention only to those aspects of the text that fit the political purpose and the theorised interpretive model, radical criticism effectively diminishes the capacity to read any text well. Careful examination of the leading radicals' published work has frequently shown an astonishing disregard for the basic principles of scholarly inquiry and textual analysis. Theirs is a kind of criticism that cannot inculcate in students a genuine respect for the text as a whole and for accuracy, logical coherence and evidential justification in the development of a critical argument.

In a 2002 interview in The Independent , Philip Roth spoke about the nature and long-term effects of "all these ideological methods" on the teaching of English literature in the US. They have resulted, said America's greatest living novelist, in "the total absence of intellectual rigour. Students have no idea what it is to think. It's scandalous. An intellectual tragedy."

Tom McAlindon is a professor in the department of English at Hull University and has written the introduction for Othello in the new Penguin Shakespeare, to be published in 2005.

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