Poetic Will: Shakespeare and the Play of Language.
Freudian psychoanalytic approaches to Shakespeare's plays have not always fared well. David Willbern's case in this book for the applicability of Freudian theory to the poems and plays is hedged with many defences. He himself is aware that Freud has been used bluntly and reductively. A typical Freudian approach in 1928 to the graveyard scene in Hamlet produced simple symbolic readings of objects: skulls were 'paternal testicles', and graves signified 'the mother's body'. Such literalism has been overshadowed by refined psychoanalytic approaches to literature by critics such as Jacques Lacan in The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller (1975), or D. W. Winnicott in The Maturational Processes (1965) and Playing and Reality (1970), two writers to whom Willbern is indebted. Moreover, he blends his own Freudianism with a close, seeking linguistic approach to Shakespeare's works.
Yet evidently there has been a price to pay. Though he refutes Stephen Greenblatt's view that Freudian criticism of Renaissance writers can be only 'marginal and belated', Willbern's method involves separating Shakespeare inadvertently from historical facts, and very deliberately from the theatre, past and present. One aim of this book is to 'rescue Shakespeare from the lamentable, albeit necessary, limitations and distortions of dramatic performance'. To stage a play, he admits, is to 'enable' it, but also to 'deprive' it; and the 'deprivations' are so severe that he excludes the stage from his ken. One difficulty is that the poet did not write for psychoanalysts, but for actors; if some aspects of his work are illuminated by productions, or by stage conditions and nothing else, criticism which wholly neglects the theatre is slightly disabled. (Those who totally neglect the arm of psychoanalysis, in turn, doubtless may 'see' less than they might in Shakespeare.) Also in this case, history tends to be distanced, and Willbern at times is careless, vague, or simply wrong as a result. He holds that Shakespeare 'manipulated dramatic categories, styles, and devices until they wore out under his handling' and that the poet not only 'exhausted previous genres' but 'used them up', as if no five-act tragedy or romantic comedy had been written after 1616. 'Much of his language', writes Willbern of Shakespeare, 'consists of magically transmuted passages from Holinshed or North into perfect iambic pentameter'. If 'much' means much, that statement is surely untrue, and what does 'perfect' mean in the context? Robert Greene's pamphlet is wrongly cited as ',4 Groats-Worth of Wit'. The poet's father is said to have been '70' at his death (though his age then is unknown). Almost unaccountably, Willbern, too, exhibits a narrow nationalism. Although a few British critics such as 'Professor' (for Dr) Hilda Hulme and 'Richard Willson' (for Richard Wilson) are quoted usefully in this text, Willbern favours 'rough and vulgar' US attitudes and insists on the strong goodness of American 'appropriations'. I find this very offensive. Hasn't the history of our century taught us about those who speak for the virtue of 'rough', 'vulgar' nationalistic appropriations? Willbern also insists upon 'the pre-eminence of Americans in Shakespeare criticism since mid-century', whatever that means. What I think it means is that Willbern feels that post-Freudian psychoanalytic comments on the poet have been favoured in America, but the statement is silly, divisive, and mentally insular.
'Shakespeare is in the details', he says. If so, why not be accurate about them? But Willbern's minor blunders and divisive claims, I think, only barely hamper his chief demonstrations. One is surprised that he is modest about himself, candid, and flexible with texts. Just as 'psychoanalysis provides theory', he says, so 'Shakespeare provides dramatic and linguistic enactments of theory', and if that turns the dramatist into a Freudian disciple the results are illuminating. Willbern posits that outside a drama's action there is a 'play of language', an area of intentions of which the characters may be unaware. Since the author has a profoundly sexualized imagination, a Freudian approach can illuminate the ambiguity of Othello's term 'occupation' (drawing on Dr Hulme's comments), or of Cordelia's 'nothing', or of the poet's inexhaustible play on the word 'will'. If Lucrece is taken to be not about a rape, but a fantasy of violation, a more complex and yet clearer picture of guilt (for example) in the work emerges, and Willbern is suggestive with Malvolio, Angelo, and Isabella, and the phantasmagoric aspects of Macbeth. He is most valuable of all, I think, on the nature of identity and modem debate on that topic in relation to I Henry IV.
I found his notes compelling enough to read two or three times for their picture of modem psychoanalytic approaches, and Willbern offers an inwardness of value to Shakespeare studies. This is a parochial book, yet a suggestive one. Still, he needs to lower his own defences, if only to correct his factual errors and enrich his criticism, and readers unfamiliar with Freudian and post-Freudian theories certainly need to have his message.
PARK HONAN University of Leeds
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|Publication:||Notes and Queries|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
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