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Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State.

Anxious Pleasures appears thirty-six years after the publication of C.L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom, a landmark that Jonathan Hall calls "still indispensable" (270, n. 2). Like Barber, Hall frames his study of the comedies with a strategic chapter on the Henry IV plays. Hall's argument that "Shakespeare's version of history registers a serious loss within the triumph" (223) runs parallel to Barber's critical view of Henry IV, Pt. 2. When it comes to comedy, however, a substantial divergence is immediately signaled by the sharp contrast in the respective titles' leading adjectives: "festive" versus "anxious." Not only is Hall's treatment of comedy more inclusive - he discusses All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, problem plays that Barber placed, in the words of his final section, "Outside the Garden Gate." Hall's approach also dissolves Barber's distinction between festive and nonfestive comedy.

Situating all comedy on the same continuum, Hall replaces Barber's stress on a positive clarification with his own counter-emphasis on a more negatively toned recontainment performed by comic endings. His criticism of Barber in this regard is direct: "The ultimately conservative argument that Shakespearean comic plots in particular move 'through release to clarification' (Barber) rests upon a hermeneutic desire for stabilized meaning . . . . The very word 'clarification' is therefore a misnomer which collaborates with the desire for closure by denying its own retroactive and simplifying process" (22).

This departure from the interpretive tradition best exemplified by Barber marks a huge and ongoing shift in the history of Shakespeare criticism. Hall's bibliography is incomplete and his work is thus part of a much larger process within Shakespeare studies than he acknowledges. Yet the particular value of Hall's contribution to the overall effort lies in his project to extend the issue of nationalism into the field of comedy. Here again the contrast with Barber's title is significant: for Barber the context is "social custom," but for Hall the context is the more conceptually demanding terrain of "the nation-state." It is Hall's success in delineating traces of the historical move toward centralized political authority in the comedies that I think justifies his application to Barber of the term "conservative" in the quotation above.

Hall pursues two major themes - "the crisis of patriarchy" and "absolutist theatricality" - though he does not sufficiently relate the two. Patriarchal structures are explored in analyses of Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Two Gentlemen of Verona, All's Well That Ends Well, and The Taming of the Shrew. The chief point and great strength of this section are Hall's emphasis on two versions of patriarchy and on the dramatic process of negotiating the transition from an earlier image to a historically new mode of patriarchy. The less convincing aspect is his repeated recourse to "the paradox . . .that it is the women who rescue the patriarchy" (116). While not necessarily untrue, this contention becomes overstatement in the absence of close attention to variations in women's roles from play to play.

In a second sequence involving Much Ado about Nothing, the Henry IV plays, and Measure for Measure, Hall turns to the link between absolutism and theatrical display and cogently demonstrates how the standard features of metadrama can and must be taken beyond the limited sphere of artistic reflexiveness and into the external realm of political culture. Hall is excellent and exciting (though not alone) when he focuses on the functions of manipulative staging and plotting and of visual symbolism, what Hall calls "the scoptic drive."

In critical method, Hall's goal is to combine psychological and historical dimensions, and here his handling of the former may be judged more successful than the latter. His historical account of the nation-state, though well articulated and useful, is conducted in large part at a general, abstract level, with the result that specificity about the particularities of British nation formation is lacking. The main exception, the consideration of Elizabeth I's implication in A Midsummer Night's Dream, follows already established lines, though the discussion of Bottom is finely formulated. Another aspect of historical abstraction is Hall's formulaic reading in the afterword of the three-part sequence of early modern, modern, and postmodern, which we are asked to take on faith, without considering whether other relations among these terms might be possible. Early modern and postmodern are said to converge "with all due allowances made for the specific differences" (269), but these differences are not indicated.

One final element in the historical picture is announced on the jacket: the book "also arose from the author's experience of teaching a multicultural history of comic drama to largely non-Western graduate students. Their probing questions make them the coauthors of this book." This information about Hall's geographical location in Hong Kong is relevant to an understanding of ethnicity and the British empire; but there is nothing in the book corresponding to this claim, which is hence reduced to empty marketing language. Hall's primary frame of reference is rather European, as seen especially in the opposition to fascism expressed in his initial statement that "joy can be fascist joy" (17) and in the reference to "the Hitler myth" (82) in the examination of anti-Semitism. Although a reading of Othello (179-86) might have provided the opportunity, there is no significant discussion of other "racisms" (76). I imagine two conversations following from Hall's book. First, the empty space in Anxious Pleasures concerning Britain's relation to Asia in the Renaissance will be filled by the critical dialogue among such writers as Michael Neill (in "Putting History to the Question" in the Winter 1995 ELR) and Ania Loomba. Second, Hall's penultimate chapter on Measure for Measure can be referred to Harry Berger, Jr.'s final chapter on the play in his Redistributing Complicities (Stanford University Press).

PETER ERICKSON Clark Art Institute
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Author:Erickson, Peter
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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