Ewan Fernie. Shame in Shakespeare.
Ewan Fernie's book takes the concept of shame out of its tangential sphere in thematic Shakespeare scholarship and places it in the crosshairs of a wide-ranging inspection of the dramaturgical and philosophical import of shame in Shakespearean tragedy. The conceptual interest of this book is twofold. On the one hand, it provides a useful index to the cultural constituents of shame in relation to changing notions of self-mastery and ethical responsibility in the West over a broad terrain, from literary-philosophical cultures in Greco-Roman antiquity and the tributaries of biblical tradition, to the catastrophic upheavals of the twentieth century, the Holocaust and the now global reach of the AIDS crisis. On the other hand, the book provides a coherent, readable account of the centrality of the topos of shame in the constitution of character and plot in three of the four canonical tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
Because of the Scottish play's investment in "shamelessness" (95-99), which Fernie brackets as shame's negation or Other, Macbeth is given only marginal consideration, and in this regard is made kin to other prospective candidates for study, like Richard III, Measure for Measure, and the Roman plays, none of which, Fernie argues, probes into the early modern cultural heritage of shame as searchingly as the great tragedies. Fair enough. Fernie's selective criteria may seem arbitrary to some readers, but the consequent generic emphasis of the book is telling.
Early chapters on "Shame before Shakespeare" and "Shame in the Renaissance" speak to a fully intelligible species of intellectual and literary history, in which the central features of a western problematic on shame are well depicted, though the brushstrokes are broad. That said, Fernie deftly summons recent thinking in cultural anthropology in order to mount a viable critique of the "inaccurate and oversimple" division between so-called "shame cultures" and "guilt cultures" (15-23), and of that division's corresponding alignment of shame with external sanctions and guilt with internalized convictions. More decisive than the imagined partition between inside and outside, Fernie plausibly suggests, is the complex network of junctures where shame is understood, and felt, as an encroaching ontological crisis, and guilt as a subsidiary, specific juridical event. Fernie's corresponding move, however--banishing the topic of conscience to the periphery of his argument, on the basis of the topic's imputed confinement to primarily juridical (i.e., guilt-related) matters--short-circuits potentially powerful connections to a battery of concerns in Shakespeare's idiom: notably, the relation between the pain of conscience and ethical subjectivity, not to mention the double-voiced demarcations of self in Shakespeare's highly evolved mimicries of the examination of conscience, which defy generic categories. In any event, the merit of Fernie's critical template emerges from his application of his nuanced perception of the anthropology of shame to a more familiar division in intellectual history between classical and Christian codes of personal identity and behavior. In brief, Fernie argues that what gives Shakespeare's tragedies unprecedented stature in the history of shame is their penetrating and troubling insight into the undecidable effects of an agonistic struggle between rival legacies of shame: the classical prototype of Renaissance humanism, in which shame figures as a circumstantial degradation of exemplary (and visibly heroic) notions of self and world; and generalized Christian (i.e., Pauline as mediated by Augustinian) intuitions of shame as an aspect of selfhood that is at once ineluctable and desirable, insofar as the fundamental condition of abjection associated with shame in Christological devotional cultures introduces the possibility of a radical revision of the moorings of the humanist project per se.
The challenge, and continuing provocation, of Shakespeare's tragedies, in Fernie's view, is to signify the irreducible conflict of competing cultural constructions of shame as the crucible in which the "true perception of the other" can occur and be acknowledged as "the revolutionary move, the foundation of all ethical and political projects" (206). Fernie's intuition here is powerful, precisely because it does not identify the "other" with a particular social identity or historical location, but rather with a discrepancy or caesura in early modernity between contiguous modes of fascination with the bruising advent of shame in the lineaments of the self's employment in the world. But here Fernie's argument also falters, in the sense that the cumulative effect of Fernie's several conversations with other critical voices is to obscure rather than clarify his own critical moorings. The central chapters, devoted to readings of individual plays, scrupulously acknowledge debts to recent work on the ideological force of shame in the early modern period (e.g., W. L. Gundersheimer, Gail Kern Paster, Coppelia Kahn, Michael Neill). And there is an admirable catholicity to Fernie's receptiveness to earlier schools of Shakespeare criticism (e.g., A.C. Bradley, F. R. Leavis, et al.). But there is a ghost in the machine here. Fernie's understanding of shame in Shakespeare has a decidedly polemical edge--his aim is to recuperate as well as illumine Shakespeare's essentially positive evaluation of shame--yet the true genealogy of Fernie's critical orientation has little in common with those of the above-mentioned critics.
The stakes, and the startling originality, of Fernie's argument would be more imposing, I think, if the clues he discreetly drops in the book's opening and closing chapters were laid out and developed more forthrightly. For Fernie, Shakespeare's redemptive phenomenology of shame defines a site of mediation between an Augustinian perception of Christian abjection and a host of influential post-Heideggerian meditations on the therapeutic import of ethical subjectivity's essential relation to dispossession and lack (modalities of shame). The names of the relevant thinkers, followed by very brief assessments of their value to the project, literally frame the book's central chapters: Jacques Lacan and Emmanuel Levinas, together with philosophically suggestive novels of Salman Rushdie and Iris Murdoch. There is no denying the impressive inroads Fernie has made in refining critical appreciation of the centrality of shame in Shakespeare. But there's another, more ambitious project encoded in the book Fernie has written, and it is one in which Fernie's covert interlocutors--Lacan, Levinas, Rushdie, Murdoch--can be imagined in more direct and sustained conversation with Shakespeare than Fernie ventures here. I think it would be a real page-turner.
University of California, Los Angeles
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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