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Shakespeare After Theory.

By David Scott Kastan New York and London: Routledge, 1999

The nub of David Scott Kastan's latest book is to be found in the introduction and the opening chapter, from which the volume takes its title. "The great age of theory is over" (31), proclaims Kastan, so the million-dollar question is plainly, "What should Shakespeareans do next?" And the answer, according to Kastan, is equally plain: head for the past and go back to reading Shakespeare historically. Our aim henceforth should be to "restore Shakespeare's artistry to the earliest conditions of its realization and intelligibility: to the collaborations of the theater in which the plays were acted, to the practices of the book trade in which they were published, to the unstable political world of late Tudor and early Stuart England in which the plays were engaged by their various publics" (16).

But stay (I hear the reader cry), surely we have been here before, and more than once? The return to history Kastan recommends has already happened: the vogue for high theory surrendered to the sway of new historicism and cultural materialism back in the 1980s, and since then reading Shakespeare historically in one form or another has been the only game in town for upwardly mobile Bard-buffs. What Kastan seems to be touting as le dernier cri, moreover, is a one-way flight to the halcyon days before the advent of theory, when old-fangled scholarship still ruled the roost and hip historicists had yet to ride roughshod through the sleepy hollow of Shakespeare studies.

Kastan is too shrewd a cookie, of course, not to have anticipated these charges, and he makes a fair fist of defending himself against them. The new historicists clearly did steal his thunder some time ago by leading the retreat to the Rare Books Room, so it's crucial for Kastan to distance himself from his kissing cousins and justify the approach he advocates as a different kind of enterprise. Given his self-confessed debts to the wealth of work spawned by adepts of new historicism and cultural materialism, this proves no simple task. But in the end Kastan's quarrel with his corrivals boils down to the view that their thralldom to modernity makes them impervious to the strangeness of the past. Their readings turn out to be "too overtly self-interested, to be compelling as historical accounts, more significant as records of our present needs and anxieties than as reconstructions of those of Shakespeare's time" (17).

That does not mean, Kastan hasten to add, that salvation should be sought in the arthritic embrace of "an older, untheoretical histography" (40), the musty antiquarian positivism that helped start the stampede for theory first place. On the contrary: the history to which Kastan urges that Shakespeare studies be returned is, he insists, "a history that must itself be inflected by theoretical initiatives that I've been discussing, aware that the approach to the past can neither be value-free nor immediate" (28). Nor does this imply, we are assured, any desire on Kastan's part "to reject literature for history or to reduce literature to history" (39). If Shakespeare's plays are best served in the twenty-first century "not by producing more theory but more facts" (31), it behooves us nevertheless to treat them, Kastan maintains, "no less as social facts than as aesthetic form" (18).

At the level of theoretical assertion, in other words, the book affords few grounds for complaint. What every astute critic wants for Christmas is a way of tackling texts that brings their pastness into genuine dialogue with the dictates of the present, refusing to let either party hog the conversation; that strives to square a respect for historical fact with the vigilant understands mistrust of the method and motive that theory demands; and that understands the subtle synergies that link literature to history, tracing the imprint of an era in the turn of a phrase without sacrificing the poetry to the politics. The problem is that Kastan's practice fails to jibe with what his theory prescribes. What principally absorb him are the material conditions under which Shakespeare's plays were originally produced as theatrical events and as printed texts. What turn him on are not their aesthetic qualities as unique configurations of language and form, but the tales they have to tell about the extraneous circumstances of their emergence, the pretexts they provide to expatiate on aspects of cultural and political history that immure them in an alien world.

As a result, Shakespeare after Theory conveys the impression of good old-fashioned scholarship crouching behind a theoretical rationale that has little purchase on its true concerns and frequently proves redundant. Thus chapter 3, "The Mechanics of Culture: Editing Shakespeare Today," musters poststructuralist pieties about the impotence of the author and the infinite determinants of the indeterminate text in order to remind us of the impossibility of establishing a pristine edition of any of Shakespeare's plays. Nor would this ploy matter, were it not that it serves the turn of an argument that drives us back to the very spot where it picked us up. "For years," Kastan recalls, "we just read whatever edition we happened to have at hand, confident that the text was accurate and authoritative" (60). Then the seeds of epistemological doubt were sown by editors wedded to the "social conception of textuality," as a result of which "there are no longer grounds on which one version of a text might be thought superior to another" (67). So where does that leave us? Not bothering to edit it all, "since the unedited text, even in its manifest error, is the only and fully reliable witness to the complex process of the text's production" (67)? Or floundering in hypertextual cyberspace, struggling to make sense of something that is "less an edition than an infinitely expandable and promiscuous archive" (69)? No prize for guessing that it leaves us exactly as before, leafing through whatever modern edition we have to hand, because there's no reason to regard one construction of the text as more definitive than another, and because both the other options are intolerable. "In truth," Kastan winds up conceding, "most of us will for the foreseeable future continue to read Shakespeare's plays and teach them in edited versions, in book form rather than off a computer screen, with spelling and punctuation modernized" (69). Plus ca change.

The following chapter, "Shakespeare in Print," pulls a similar superfluous stunt, rehearsing the familiar reasons ("All this is, of course, well known" [76]) for concluding that "the play that appeared in the bookstalls was always something other than the play Shakespeare wrote" (79)--which, in the absence of an authenticated manuscript, is naturally irretrievable. However intriguing one finds this indisputable fact, it's difficult to see what difference it makes to the only issue that matters: the sense we make of the modern edition selected for study. No one is going to suspend reading Shakespeare or ascribing the plays to him for want of cast-iron proof that he penned those very words in that very order.

Even when Kastan moves on to wrestle with the specific editorial problems posed by 1 Henry IV in chapter 5, it still feels like Groundhog Day for Shakespeareans. Kastan guides us expertly once more through the textual and historical arguments for restoring the name "Oldcastle" in place of "Falstaff," before arriving at the sensible conclusion that Shakespeare and his first editors, Heminges and Condell, were obviously happy to settle for the name that has stuck for four hundred years, so we would do well to do likewise. There's no doubting the quality of Kastan's scholarship or the range and depth of his historical knowledge; the question is why so much accomplishment should be deployed to so little purpose: to wit, taking the eccentric pedantries of the Oxford Shakespeare seriously.

Things perk up considerably when Kastan turns, in chapters 6 and 8, to the representation of authority and the impact of cross-dressing on the early modern stage. Kastan produces a splendid compendium of quotations from contemporary sources to prove that, whatever cynical modern critics may think, Shakespeare's fellow-citizens needed no persuading of the innately seditious drift of the drama. The playhouses, roundly denounced by Samuel Cox as "dangerous schools of licentious liberty," posed "a threat to the culture of degree" (154), claims Kastan, because they "unnervingly crossed class as well as gender lines; not only did boy actors play women but commoners played kings" (152). Indeed, Kastan mounts a plausible case for contending that the leveling impulse of the stage helped pave the way for the revolution and regicide that convulsed the nation a few decades after Shakespeare's death, and nowhere more effectively than in history plays that "placed the king on a scaffold before a judging public" (111). Unfortunately this contention is pitched into confusion in his final chapter on the closing of the theaters, where the historical evidence confirms that Parliament recognized "Publike Stage-plays" as crucibles of dissent, but theoretical correctness constrains Kastan to state, in baffling contradiction of his earlier assertions, "that the theater is itself constitutively ambivalent," that it is "never inherently either an agent of subversion or an apparatus of royal authority" (209).

Of course, the only way of settling the matter would be through a close reading of the plays, which is precisely what Kastan's sociological historicism steers him away from. Not the least objection to global statements about the Renaissance stage is that their remoteness from the verbal texture of the scripts performed upon it erases the distinction between one play and another. If the social and sexual cross-dressing intrinsic to the theater is a criterion of subversive intent, then Perkin Warbeck is as significant as King Lear, and Love's Metamorphosis as successful as Twelfth Night, a proposition to which only the most harebrained iconoclast would be apt to subscribe. What is the point of an approach to Shakespeare for which the poetry of the plays is beside the point? Why trawl the archives in search of secrets that can only be found in the form and phrasing of these startling masterpieces of dramatic art?

The problem with the contextual historicism Kastan commends is that its indifference to the formal grammar of the plays, to the way they are shaped and the way they are worded, blinds it to Shakespeare's most profound and arresting quality, and the reason why we remain enthralled by him today: his anachronism, his refusal to make complete sense in terms of his time, because his works are shaped as much by the pressure of futurity as they are by the world from which they sprang. To attend to the unpredictable twists of their diction and design is to discover their impatience with both the past in which they were penned and the present in which we encounter them. It is to recognize the futility of "restoring" Shakespeare's texts to contexts from which they have already looted all they need or which they have expressly ruled out as irrelevant to their purpose. It is to perceive those texts as history indeed--not in the retrospective, second-hand sense that Kastan intends, but in the sense that they are acts of historiography in their own right, rival imaginative versions of the past in which the prospect of transformation has been preserved.

The absence of this understanding mars what are otherwise the two best essays in the book, where Kastan offers readings of Henry IV and Macbeth that do undertake to engage with the texts. In chapter 7, "`The King

hath many marching in his coats,' or, What did you do in the War, Daddy?," Kastan rightly rejects accounts of 1 and 2 Henry IV as ideologically orthodox, highlighting the way the plays unmask the manufactured origins of sovereignty. But the chief burden of proving their transgressive thrust falls implausibly, if unsurprisingly, upon Falstaff, whose "exuberance and excess will not be incorporated into the stabilizing hierarchies of the body politic" (136). The trouble with taking this tack is that in Falstaff those who rule behold their inverted mirror image, their alter ego, not their nemesis; the values he embodies are identical, not antithetical, to theirs, and to champion the cause of Falstaff against the dour disciplines of authority is merely to reverse the poles of the orthodox reading, leaving the plays' commitment to hierarchy uncontested. It is precisely through their structural and stylistic obsession with doubling, however, that 1 and 2 Henry IV enact their endorsement of equality and demolish the foundation of difference upon which hierarchy is built.

Oddly enough, Kastan is admirably alert to the key role played by twinning and mirroring in Shakespeare's Scottish play. Chapter 9, "Macbeth and the `Name of King'," takes its cue from Jonathan Goldberg's detection of "secular contamination" in the text and the confusion of heroes and villains discerned in the play by Harry Berger, and demonstrates how Macbeth confounds the moral authority of sovereignty itself. En route, moreover, Kastan makes acute points about Macbeth's habitual resort to euphemism and pronominal evasions, revealing how sharp a reader of Shakespeare he can be when he gives history books the elbow and fastens his mind on the work. But the past-bound gaze of historicism hobbles him here too, blocking out not only the democratic implications of doubling but also the egalitarian imagery of babies, blood, and "human kindness" that marks the tragedy's estrangement from its era, its contract with a dispensation whose advent we still await.

This has turned into a longer, more disgruntled review than I originally set out to write. I have no particular axe to grind with David Scott Kastan, who writes with elegance, lucidity, and wit, and whose plea for even more historicism than we've had already will doubtless be music to the ears of many Shakespearean scholars. It's simply that Shakespeare after Theory has brought home to me, by the patent belatedness of its appeal, how misguided the whole turn to history has been, how played-out its trademark routines now appear, and how urgent it is that Shakespeare studies move on and find new things to say about the plays as works of art.

In fact, I have a hunch that Kastan himself has cottoned on to this too, and that deep down his heart is not in the enterprise he endorses. In the title chapter he worries commendably, and justifiably, "that the approach urged here returns the study of literature to an elitism it has struggle to escape, demanding access to rare book collections and scholarly training"; and that "the focus on history, even the enabling conditions of literary activity, still deflects attention from the literary text itself" (41). In chapter 2, "Are We Being Interdisciplinary Yet?," he blows the gaff on the incompatibility of the literary and historical disciplines, which "often seem to belong to entirely different, if dependent, realms of being" (44)--as indeed they do, which is why it's such a waste of time trying to straddle them. "The commitment to interdisciplinarity," Kastan disarmingly admits, "has now become as reflexive and sentimental as was the commitment to disciplinary integrity. There may be something still to be said for traditional disciplinary interests and procedures" (47). Amen to that. Perhaps most telling of all, though, is what Kastan lets slip in the quip he enlists to distinguish his brand of scholarship from new historicism. "I have always understood my work as involved in a somewhat different, though clearly related, project," he writes, "something that Peter Stallybrass and I, usually gleefully, have come to think of as `The New Boredom'" (18). I couldn't have put it better myself.

KIERNAN RYAN is Professor of English Language and Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a Fellow of New Hall, University of Cambridge. The third revised and enlarged edition of his book Shakespeare was published in 2002. He is currently completing a study of Shakespearean comedy and romance.
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Author:Ryan, Kiernan
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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