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No Exit?

Berry, Philippa. 1999. Shakespeare's Feminine

Endings: Disfiguring Death in the Tragedies. London: Routledge. $24.99 sc. xiv + 197 pp.

Burt, Richard. 1998. Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press. $17.95 sc. xxvi + 318 pp.

Charney, Maurice. 2000. Shakespeare on Love & Lust. NewYork: Columbia University Press. $27.95 hc. vii + 234 pp.

My mother always taught me that one of the crucial prerequisites for hosting a successful social gathering is variety. The greater the variety in terms of guests, refreshments, and entertainment, the greater the success of any party. Variety, according to my mother, makes a party. But then again, my mother never read Sartre's No Exit.

I have before me three books that represent three very different genres of scholarly discourse on Shakespeare. They embody in many ways the variety recommended in my mother's recipe for a successful social gathering, ranging from the psychoanalytic feminist scholarship of Philippa Berry and the puckish Queer Theory of Richard Burt to the traditional close readings offered by esteemed Shakespearean Maurice Charney. But the juxtaposition of these three books reminds me far more of Sartre's No Exit than of any of the stimulating parties that my mother hosted during her lifetime. Each of the three books has something to offer, but each also foregrounds fundamental problems with its particular genre of scholarly discourse, casting serious doubt in my mind on the value of pursuing the types of discourse that the three books represent. The least promising in concept (Charney's Shakespeare on Love & Lust) is the most useful within its own very narrowly defined niche. The most promising in concept (Burt's Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares) is also the least successful in execution. In the middle, Berry's Shakespeare's Feminine Endings alternates between intriguing, nuanced historical reconstruction and laughable Freudian free association.

Charney's book has the feel of lecture notes, fleshed out for publication. his thesis, repeated several times, is that "[t]here is no overall doctrine of love that emerges from reading Shakespeare" (4). Other than the nebulous theme of love, no "overall doctrine" holds Charney's book together. After an introduction and introductory chapter (which set up the book's thesis and provide background on Renaissance conventions of love), Charney offers three chapters that broadly survey Shakespeare's opus by genre--one chapter on the comedies, another on the problem plays, and a third on the "love tragedies." The remaining four chapters of Charney's book examine enemies of love (including Adonis, the young man of the sonnets, Valentine, Berowne, Bertram, Duke Vincentio, Malvolio, Mercutio, lago, and Richard III), definitions of masculinity and femininity (especially in Coriolanus, Macbeth, the Henry VI plays, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, 1 Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Comedy of Errors), homoer oticism (particularly in The Two Noble Kinsmen, A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Coriolanus, Venus and Adonis, Troilus and Cressida, and the sonnets), and lust and bawdy language (especially in The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis, Henry V, Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, and Timon of Athens).

As this summary of the book's contents no doubt indicates, Shakespeare on Love & Lust is a compendium of close readings of Shakespeare's works, loosely connected by the themes of love and sex. As such, the book serves an important but limited purpose. For anyone who never had a chance to take a graduate course in Shakespeare, Charney's book is a godsend. In a fairly short space (just over 200 pages), a respected and perceptive Shakespeare scholar surveys virtually all of Shakespeare in genteel detail and, in his notes, even provides a useful introduction to current Shakespeare scholarship. But for anyone already familiar with Shakespeare, the book will probably seem patronizing and glib. Like a graduate survey course, it provides essential information for the uninitiated but may prove disappointing and redundant to a more seasoned student of the Bard.

Like the photograph from the film Shakespeare in Love that graces the cover of Charney's book (suggesting that the book's intended audience may in fact be more popular than scholarly), the cover of Richard Burt Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares is quite revealing. It features an unplugged television set on whose screen stands a chubby, jovial-looking Shakespeare just outside the door of a pornographic peep show. At the top of the back cover, a promotional blurb hales Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares as "[t]he best book on the best wordsmith in history." Significantly, however, the author of this blurb, Lloyd Kaufman, is neither a scholarly authority on Shakespeare nor a likely reader of many books on "the best wordsmith in history." Kaufman is a director of pornographic films, The impish playfulness of these antics, irreverent and hovering on the verge of the obscene, is indicative of what a reader can expect to find inside the book's cover.

Ostensibly, Burt's purpose in writing his book is to explore the following wide-ranging questions: Why is Shakespeare both invoked and disappeared in America? What does Shakespeare enable American popular culture to do and say that it couldn't otherwise do and say without him? ... How do extra-academic representations of Shakespeare and their reception conflict with the widespread academic desire to control and regulate how Shakespeare is received both inside and outside of academia? (Burt 1998, xxvii-xxviii)

Burt's true focus, however, seems to have much more to do with taking on his fellow critics than with taking up the question of Shakespeare's reception in contemporary America. Burt's stated goal is "to use Shakespeare to critique the American brand, as it were, of cultural studies. ... I am interested in examining what can't be recycled rather than in recycling cultural trash" (xxxi). At times, Burt plays the role of conservative intellectual snob deploring the way in which the intellectual community's study of popular culture has aided and abetted the "dumbing down" of high culture for popular consumption. He is particularly concerned with the popularization that occurs within what Burt calls "American kiddie culture," of the image of the "cool" loser (e.g., the character of Cher Hamilton in Clueless). At other times, Burt seems to criticize the intellectual community and its study of popular culture for not going far enough in upsetting the status quo, as when he suggests that a scholarly focus on segregat ed, self-identified gay Shakespeare films is less successful at disrupting heteronormative culture than would be a scholar's attention to queer moments in straight films associated with Shakespeare (even though these straight films themselves fail in Burt's judgment to overturn heteronormative culture entirely or even adequately). Burt suggests that scholarly study of popular culture has made too much of "dumb and dumber" cultural trash and has drawn far too optimistic a picture of the potential of such trash to effect liberal social and political change.

Burt offers us five stimulating chapters. The first chapter discusses queer moments in straight films with a loose connection to Shakespeare (e.g., Porky's 2, The Good-bye Girl, Dead Poets Society, So Fine, and In and Out), and the second chapter examines Shakespeare in pornography (in such films as Tromeo and Juliet, Playboy's Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Screw, Polanski's Macbeth, and Greenaway's Prospero's Books). The third chapter is an intriguing look at Skyscraper, Last Action Hero, Star Trek VI, The Naked Gun, Independence Day, and The Postman, six films whose allusions to Shakespeare (in conjunction with a parodic treatment of American popular culture) reveal, according to Burt, America's insecurity over its colonial ambitions and its lingering postcolonial ties to Britain. The fourth chapter focuses on transvestites and lip-synchers of Shakespeare (in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Kiss Me Kate, Nunn's Twelfth Night, an episode of Gilligan's Island, Prospero's Books, Jarman's Edward II, and Mrs. Doubtfire), and the book's final chapter looks specifically at changing images of Shakespeare teachers in such varied manifestations of popular culture as Ozzie and Harriet, The Cosby Show, Renaissance Man, Quiz Show, Last Action Hero, Animaniacs, and Wishbone.

There is much that is interesting in these five chapters, including the way in which Burt challenges the ludicrous practices by which some scholars have valorized pornography as a form of politically and socially subversive discourse. As Burt writes, "Who is more perverse, the nonacademic porn fan who fast-forwards past the Shakespeare narrative to get to the sex, or the academic Shakespeare fan who fast-forwards through the sex to get to the Shakespeare narrative?" (87). Burt's analysis of "The Producer," a 1964 episode of Gilligan's Island that was produced for television "when the hold male directors and producers had over the medium was just beginning to loosen" (182-83), is fascinating both as an account of a particular moment in television history and as a close reading of a television episode whose ostensibly progressive storyline in fact reaffirms the status quo. Burt's evaluation of children's programming suggests that liberal scholarly received opinion is off-base when it sees the juxtaposition in children's shows of Shakespearean parody with "sheer nonsense" as allegedly intended to give adults something to appreciate at the same time as children are allowed an "uncensored freedom ... against the educational agenda parents seek to impose on them." In fact, he concludes, "there really isn't nonsense here to which children might have access" (235-36).

But despite these adept and stimulating moments, Burt's book is finally disappointing because of its dogmatic tone and its failure to deliver a clear, comprehensive picture of Shakespeare's reception. Other than Burt's basic, uncritical assumption that "Shakespeare appears in American kiddie culture not as unmarked, universal, but as marked, colonial, British" (11), Burt offers little in the way of a coherent summary or appraisal of "Shakespeare's citation and resignification in contemporary American popular culture" (24). In addition, Burt's tone is at times insufferably doctrinaire, as when he concludes that "Few adolescents commit suicide because their fathers refuse to let them major in acting, but many do because they are gay" (53) or "Whereas in the 60s, youth culture was valued for being purer, more advanced, and wiser than the existing, corrupt adult culture, kiddie culture emerges as childish, regressive, immature, and infantile in the 1990s context of diminishing expectations" (9).The combination o f dogmatic tone and lack of coherent, panoramic perspective makes for an intriguing but frustrating book.

If Burt's book disappoints because of its failure to focus on Shakespeare's actual reception rather than on how scholars approach popular culture, and Charney's book disappoints because of its glib, uninspiring survey of Shakespeare's works, Philippa Berry's Shakespeare's Feminine Endings disappoints because of its basic methodology. Although I was greatly influenced as a young teacher by Bruno Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment (and still admire that book despite valid criticisms of it in recent years), I have never been a fan of Freudian criticism. Berry's book reminds me of all the reasons that I am unimpressed with this particular approach to reading literature. If Berry is to be believed, virtually every word in the English, French, and Latin languages was, in Shakespeare's day, a synonym or pun for prostitute, feces, flatulence, or genitalia. Berry makes absurd claims about puns that were, according to her, common in the Renaissance (e.g., "Shakespeare and his contemporaries frequently punned on the homo phonic association of 'grace' with the 'greasiness' of carnival pleasures . . . and the 'greasy' end of the genitalia in particular" [6]). Given the slightest foothold, she sees sexuality figured anywhere and everywhere (as in "[T]he figuration of Banquo's death as a sexual violation is further suggested in the 'gory locks' and 'blood-bolter'd' hair of the ghost. The paradoxical connection here, between murderous assault and a procreative sexuality (blood, hairs), is made explicit by the pun on hairs/heirs at the end of the play" [126]). Any meager excuse becomes a full-blown justification for connecting words in Shakespeare's plays with whatever sexual or historical image that interests Berry (e.g., "In this strange imagery of shelling [in Lear 1.4.184-90], there seem to be some highly covert jokes at James's expense: Randle Cotgrave notes ... that escosse is French for a shelled peascod, whose husk, hull or cod is escosse ... and in the next line lists its near-homonym, Escossois: a Scot" [160]). By far the most elaborate chain of absurd associations in Berry's book is her interpretation of Renaissance references to the "soul's perplexing conjunction of spirit with primal or unshaped matter" (138).As Berry puts it,

[t]he Renaissance fondness for quibbling on the near-homophony between the French words ame and ane/asne, the soul and the ass (an animal who provided a familiar metaphor for the backside, bottom or buttocks) ... well illustrates [Shakespeare's] sense of the strange affinity between this feminine activity of joining and the apparently unredeemable stuff of waste matter. (Berry 1999, 138)

In other words, according to Berry, the mere mention of the joining of body and soul is intended to remind us of "the apparently unredeemable stuff of waste matter," because French ame ('soul') = French ane/asne = English "ass" (the animal) = "backside, bottom or buttock."

This methodological excess is unfortunate, not least because Berry's book has some interesting things to say about such diverse subjects as Renaissance materialism, the influence of the Catholic calendar on Shakespeare, the image of Echo, and Lear's critique of James I's model of kingship as revealed in the course of the Union controversy. Like Burt, Berry does not seem to me to follow through (or to focus adequately) on her central claim that "Shakespeare's feminine dyings figure death repeatedly, not as an ending, but as a process: an interitus or passing between ... a highly material, bodily process that is mysteriously productive" (5). Significantly, for example, Berry's book lacks a conclusion at the end to draw all the book's thematic strands together into a coherent whole. But with chapters on Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear, Berry covers much fruitful ground, most especially in her chapter on Lear, if one can overlook Berry's frequent citation of "the hidden pun," "an unspok en play," "a homonymic affinity," "homophony," and "buried association" (127, 41, 42, 54, 95), the fruit of reading Berry's book is worth sifting through its methodological chaff.

So, Shakespeare on Love & Lust, Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares, and Shakespeare's Feminine Endings each contribute something to our understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare and his reception. But Charney, Burt, and Berry have little to say to one another. These three authors have so little in common as to be visibly out of dialogue with one another, too preoccupied perhaps with their own ideology, methodology, or narrow specialization to acknowledge other perspectives. Each author also seems to preach only to a choir of the converted, often, in the cases of Burt and Berry, speaking language that only those already initiated into Queer Theory and Lacanian feminism are likely to understand fully or, in the case of Charney, that only those who reject contemporary theory are likely to appreciate as valid.

Shakespeare on Love & Lust, Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares, and Shakespeare's Feminine Endings are by no means openly disrespectful of other schools of thought in contemporary Shakespeare studies, but they largely ignore them and make no visible effort to communicate. Certainly, the problem is not solely theirs. They engage in monologues that are symptomatic of a larger problem in our discipline, plagued, as it is, by overspecialization, politicized factionalism, and self-serving, cliquish interest groups. But as the experience of juxtaposing these three books on Shakespeare illustrates, our discipline could be moving toward a hell of its own creation, a place with no exit, no community, no communication, and no purpose.

Steinberg teaches at The College of New Jersey and has published on the early reception of Dante and Chaucer.
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Title Annotation:Review; Shakespeare on Love & Lust; Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture; Shakespeare's Feminine Endings: Disfiguring Death in the Tragedies
Author:Steinberg, Glenn A.
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Words:2608
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