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Shakespeare's Last Plays: Essays in Literature and Politics.

Stephen W. Smith and Travis Curtright, eds. Shakespeare's Last Plays: Essays in Literature and Politics.

Lanham, MD and Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. xii + 260 pp. index. $75. ISBN: 0-7391-0361-X.

The intentions of the editors of this collection of essays on Shakespeare's romances are clear--to challenge what they see as the dominant theoretical trends in current Shakespearean criticism. The keynote essay is the last, a combative attempt by R.V. Young to "bury all forms of materialist criticism" (236). His argument, essentially, is that "the essence of literature resides in the realm of imagination and intellect ... As long as the academic literary establishment despises the very notion of the universal and the essential, our criticism and scholarship will be no more than shrill political posturing and accumulations of historical trivia" (235). In the course of his diatribe he swipes at every form of "political correctness"; examples of cultural materialist, feminist, and psychoanalytic criticism are held up to derision for imposing modern preoccupations upon the plays. It has to be said that the series of potshots Young takes at selected critics, and the simplifications the brevity of his piece necessitates, do not cohere into the demolition job he clearly hopes to achieve.

One might well, for example, agree with Young (and I do) that the colonial reading of The Tempest has many limitations, without summarily (as he does) dismissing any colonial resonances in Shakespeare's play. Caliban's claim "This island's mine" raises questions that cannot but connect with seventeenth-century debates about the justification for colonization, debates that must have been part of the consciousness of some at least of the original audience. But then, Young wishes also to disqualify any attempt to read the texts in terms of the specific political preoccupations of the period in which they are written. Leah Marcus's "local reading" is misguided, presumably since, to him, timeless literary works transcend their historical particularity. Yet her claim for Cymbeline's concern with Britishness cannot but be justified by the fact that this was the hot political topic of the early years of James's reign, resounding, for example, throughout all Jonson's early court masques. But all this Young brushes aside; the only criticism of which he approves is that which examines the plays in terms of their "intellectual and imaginative connections to classical literature and to Scripture" (235).

But at least Young has read some of the recent criticism of the romances and is attempting to engage with it (even if many of his targets are now almost twenty years old). Many of the contributors to the volume seem simply to have ignored it, so that the book as a whole is less an exercise in supplanting "the academic literary establishment" than an act of collective denial of its existence. So too, though the basis of Young's critique is the imposition of inappropriate modern values on the Shakespearean text, we can find examples aplenty of the same vice--if vice it is--among the writers collected here. This is almost visibly the case in Peter Augustine Lawler's essay, which claims Shakespeare for "postmodernism rightly understood" as "Thomistic realism," so that "The Tempest is a criticism of both ancient and modern utopianism on behalf of something like my view of postmodern realism" (108). If postcolonial critics are to be condemned for their castigation of Shakespeare's complicity with imperialism, then John E. Alvis is surely no less to be indicted for visiting his own valorization of the "virtue and decency" of Roman republicanism on Cymbeline and finding Shakespeare coming up short. Right though it undoubtedly is to suggest that the religious dimensions of Shakespeare's plays have had less than proper attention in recent years, and though David N. Beauregard usefully points to aspects of The Winter's Tale that will sustain a Christian reading, his own personal investment in claiming Shakespeare as a Catholic is everywhere apparent in his essay, unnecessarily, to my mind, limiting and skewing his account.

Young berates modern theorists for basing readings on material imported to the text, rather than derived from it, yet Glenn C. Arbery founds his essay on "The Displaced Nativity in Cymbeline" upon the thesis that though the conjunction of Cymbeline's reign and the birth of Christ is nowhere mentioned in the text itself, it was well-enough known to support an allegorized reading of the play in which its events are "displacements" of Christian story (Iachimo's encounter with Imogen in her bedchamber is, improbably one might think, a version of the Annunciation, Cloten is the "old Adam," and so on). It is not, to me, self-evident from the arguments advanced here that Prospero in 1610-11 would have suggested to a Blackfriars audience a "philosophic hero" (Paul A. Cantor) or a Machiavellian (Nathan Schlueter). In both essays a good deal of what makes up the complexity of the stage figure--his potentially blasphemous magic, his authoritarianism, his sheer bad temper, let alone his exploitation of the Caliban he "cannot miss" or the Ariel he relies upon to execute his designs--is simply ignored in favor of bringing different "master-texts" into service to confine the play to a benign celebration of Prospero's moral triumph. It is useful to be reminded by Richard Harp of the late plays' concern with ideas of Providence, but his claim that Boethius helps us to understand that concern is no more, nor less, valid than claims that Shakespeare was influenced by the immediate social and political context in which he lived.

The point, the obvious point, is that this collection is underpinned by the fantasy that there is, somewhere, a neutral, disinterested, "scholarly" criticism which can stand against the personally and politically motivated horrors of cultural materialism and modern "theory." It just isn't so, and one might feel that this collection amply demonstrates that the extra-literary investments of critics inevitably--and to my mind perfectly properly--condition and color their work. This volume is less interesting for what it says about Shakespeare than for what it tells us of the internal politics of the (American) academic scene.

DAVID LINDLEY

University of Leeds
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Lindley, David (American science writer)
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:1003
Previous Article:Shakespeare and Machiavelli.
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