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Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism.

Those interested in or working with cultural materialist or new historicist approaches to Shakespeare or to Renaissance literature more generally will be quite familiar with the first edition (1985) of this landmark collection of essays. The second edition includes all the essays from the first edition and two new essays penned by each of the two editors.

Central to the book is a drive to challenge "idealist" literary criticism by attending to the "implication of literary texts in history" (viii), thus overturning the notion that literature can transcend its historical circumstances to voice universal human truths. The essayists tend to investigate Shakespeare's texts for the historically based means by which a dominant order seeks to entrench itself or a subversive element attempts to overturn that order. Usually, the essays also advance concepts of how authority and subversion themselves interrelate, as in Stephen Greenblatt's now very famous and seminal essay on the Henry plays, where the argument is that - both in the state and in Shakespearean theater - subversive pressure is an illusion because it is actually produced by the dominant order as a means of containing subversion. Other contributors, offering various angles on what Dollimore calls the "subversion-containment debate" (12), credit the plays' subversive elements with more actual - or at least potentially actual - resistance to authority. This is especially the case with the second part of the book, where the essays often consider how reproductions of Shakespeare's texts could complicate more conservative, ostensibly transhistorical renderings.

The authors contributing to Part I, "Recovering history," draw upon material ranging from ideologically problematic colonialist discourse - which Greenblatt examines alongside the Henry plays and Paul Brown alongside The Tempest - to seventeenth-century accounts of generational conflicts over wills and personal autonomy, conflicts which Kathleen McLuskie finds patterned in King Lear. Jonathan Dollimore looks at Measure for Measure in light of Puritan writings on and Jacobean London's suppressions of "deviant" sexual practices, and Leonard Termenhouse aligns Tudor-Stuart political strategies with rhetorical strategies employed in Shakespeare's romantic comedies and histories. One of the enduring strengths of this book is that the essays comprising the first part - never reductive or perfunctory - without exception offer highly sophisticated, nuanced ways of engaging Shakespeare's texts historically.

A counterpart to the book's first half, Part II ("Reproductions, interventions") opens with Alan Sinfield assessing both the British educational system, which he convincingly faults for reproducing conservative ideology by "alleg[ing] coherence and self-containedness" of Shakespeare's texts (162), and the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose politically charged productions over the decades Sinfield argues have entered into a misdirected struggle over an essentialist Shakespeare. If the argument grows somewhat predictable by the time one reaches Graham Holderness's essay - which charges that the BBC film series "operates to confirm the cultural authority" of conservatism, of the BBC itself, and of capitalist corporations which back it (223) - that predictability is overturned by Margot Heinemann's very fine piece on Brecht's understanding and uses of the "dialectics" in Shakespeare.

The two essays new with this edition warrant special comment. Both essays overview and attempt to synthesize some of the past decade's work on and debates surrounding cultural materialist and new historicist approaches. Dollimore's new essay lays out, among other things, emergent critical dilemmas facing gay-identified critics and urges a coming together of psychoanalytical and materialist perspectives. Sinfield's new essay revisits the theme of Shakespeare as cultural icon of the right wing and mainly chronicles and rebuts charges made by Dollimore and Sinfield's detractors - journalists, politicians, and scholars alike. The new elements of the second edition thus provide a useful update on the debate over a political Shakespeare but perhaps will be of interest mainly to those wanting to track the first edition's own position as a document of strong political influence.

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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Haslem, Lori Schroeder
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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