Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage & Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period. (Reviews).
(Accents on Shakespeare.) London and New York: Routledge, 2000. xiii + 219 pp. $90 (cl), $29.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-415-20231-0 (cl), 0-415-20232-9 (pbk).
Imtiaz Habib, Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period
New York: University Press of America, 2000. xi + 298 pp. $57 (cl), $34 (pbk). ISBN: 0-7618-1545-7 (cl), 0-7618-1546-5 (pbk).
These two books bring Shakespeare directly into the realm of modern debate and controversy concerning race, gender and colonialism. Past greatness is questioned by present values and concerns, but while the rebuke of the author and his time is clear, so also is the admission of Shakespeare's breadth which allows views of humanity beyond the confines of time and place. Sixteenth-century Christian society becomes a symbol of order which, in postmodern criticism, is condemned as an excuse for misdeeds directed against those who vary from the proper model. Only those who fit the white male mold belong, thus making "others" of everyone else. Both studies provide insight into past formulations of modern problems and issues. In each, carefully selected encounters and characters, or their absence, in the plays serve to urge the reader to think anew about familiar texts. They also introduce modern interpretations of race, gender and colonialism through an impressive array of secondary sources and will excite debate by insisting on the use of contemporary formulations of problems in an historical context.
Dympna Callaghan makes extraordinary use of Shakespeare, using unique perceptions and representations of the past to reinforce present opinion. What Shakespeare did nor include becomes the subject, with representation substituting for presence as fact. She introduces a complicated pattern of thinking on modern concerns by recasting Shakespeare's motives, practices and characters. Attitudes toward women and the development of racism interconnect and her tightly woven text includes vast amounts of current scholarship. Callaghan opens the door to speculation and her views often take surprising turns and twists as she includes a wealth of additional sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources which touch on issues related to representation, such as castration, racism, the relationship between the Irish and the English, the New World and the nature of audiences. Using Shakespeare as a foundation, Callaghan addresses separate topics in each part of her work. Cleopatra serves as an introduction to the themes and meth ods of the remaining topics, for the character "...serves simultaneously as a symbol of woman, of female sovereignty, of racial difference, and of subjected nationhood..." (7) in which, as in all of the author's investigations, representation is far removed from reality. The women, the Africans and the Irish who were not present in Shakespeare's works but who/were actively represented, direct the course of the following chapters but they are not the only subjects. The discourse on women and the female body in Twelfth Night investigates male society. its desires and the issues raised by possible transvestism, but the essential concerns center on sexuality and the evidence of male control of the female body. In the following chapter on castration, Callaghan relies on Marsdon as well as Shakespeare in theatrical representation, but also introduces a variety of other seventeenth-century texts, which graphically describe sexual mutilation and male homosexuality. Othello is the natural starting point for the discus sion of race, although the chapter has a wealth of other documentation from the time to support the author's contentions about impersonations and social dynamics. This chapter highlights her investigation of the distinction between representation and imitation in the inclusion of blacks, women and "others" in early modern theater. The points she raises about race and gender are interesting and often controversial, and she includes a wealth of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources, which enlarge the subject to include cosmetics and impersonation. The latter are typical of her sudden turns into complex issues which are then elaborated by modern references and expressions, all of which results in an occasionally convoluted line of argument. On the other hand, the technique brings the reader directly into contact with recent and powerful studies on feminism and racism.
The text becomes more personal when Callaghan considers representation of the Irish in England. Colonialism emerges as a central part of The Tempest, which becomes an example of how cultural domination is supported by development of bad memory, the recasting of history and forced changes in culture. Characters assume greater dimensions as the relations between Prospero on one side and Ariel and Caliban on the other are interpreted to display the attack against Ireland's people, culture and law. There are substantial references to other English texts from the period as Callaghan discusses the grim, dreadful character of Ireland's subordination. The final part of the work is devoted to a wide-ranging discussion of women and the lower classes in general as Callaghan offers her own interpretation of theater audiences. Her aim is to highlight the peculiar role powerful men assigned to women and to all lower class people. Meager information does not prevent her from offering hypotheses about male-female relationshi ps, which, although emanating from the theater, themselves create an entire world view. Throughout this study there are assertions, particularly in gender issues, which are not completely satisfactory given the sources used, but they are always provocative. In general, her primary and secondary sources are wide-ranging and reveal the depth of research and the place of the work within the context of modern scholarship. This is an inventive and remarkable study.
Imitiaz Habib's study, Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period, follows a similar path in examining the plays and sonnets for evidence of the development of England's colonial policy and attitudes. Habib sticks close to the texts, offering close analysis, which he then supports with and impressive array of some additional primary and numerous secondary sources. To the historian's eye the analysis includes too much supposition, but the character of the debate, in general, is solid and within the context of modern assessments of European colonial behavior. The emphasis in this work is on new views of old works, and the actual examination emerges from complex references to evaluations, assumptions and attitudes relating to our own time.
The work is divided into an introduction, which establishes his essential argument, followed by four chapters. Habib attempts to occupy a unique position in the complex world of racial identity and therefore offers a summary of the views and attitudes of contemporary scholars concerned with the same difficult analysis. In each chapter Habib considers the situation of the Elizabethan stage in the context of what he calls "...the cultural politics of the contemporary postmodern moment" (22). These considerations come close to losing all sense of the past in present posturing. There is a firm insistence on the presence of a conscious colonial policy, even though it was embryonic in Shakespeare's time. Habib views The Tempest as a metaphor for England's cultural self-education, but the assertion that colonialism had already become public policy is difficult to sustain. His concern is with the problems associated with England's colonial practices and also with the responses elicited by contact with the African an d Oriental worlds. He is inspired by the images that these contacts evoked in England, thus giving his study the added view of considering England's image of itself as well as of "others." He is successful in establishing a relationship between the time of Shakespeare and the essence of the sociological analysis he adopts from the present, but his efforts to deal with the presence of Africans in sixteenth-century English life are less fruitful. Habib lumps together the few Africans at court and in London with the growing numbers already captives in the early stages of the slave trade. The style of the books tends toward exaggeration in wordy, sometimes awkward expositions in which there are many word games, such as if a black is in London his visibility makes him invisible because he is making the city and its intents visible. To the historian's eye, this elevates conjecture at the expense of analysis. However, when Habib considers the sources directly, he is clear and incisive, and, in general, the study enc ourages positive speculation about the life and literature of sixteenth century London.
Callaghan and Habib have thus offered texts which recast Shakespeare in an uncomfortable mold, making him a font of problems of gender, race and imperialism. They are sure to be controversial, once again affirming the capacity of Shakespeare to attract the admiration and wrath of generations of readers who find in him a forum for the exchange of ideas and concerns.
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|Author:||Steen, Charlie R.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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