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Shakespeare and Gender: A History.

Enemies of Feminism, take heart. Your opponent may exist only in your imagination. Increasingly, Feminism with a capital "F" is becoming a thing of the past, at least in American academia. Now it is "feminisms" in the plural, or even "postfeminism." Or, as the title of this critical anthology indicates, it is "gender" (not "women" and their "experience" under "patriarchy") that matters. But this transformation has in no way been a matter of simply moving from point A to point B. Rather, feminist criticism in the last two decades has followed a sinuous and convoluted course, adopting a panoply of modes of cultural analysis: psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, cultural materialism, New Historicism, queer theory, postcolonial theory; the beat goes on. Nowhere, perhaps, are the stakes involved in this process so clear as in Shakespeare studies. Shakespeare, after all, remains the linchpin of the canon, the icon of icons.

The seventeen essays collected here (almost all reprints) confirm that there is neither a single, progressive history of Shakespeare criticism nor any clear-cut correlation between critics' (often implicit) political agendas and their methodologies. The "first generation of feminist Shakespeareans" (represented here by Coppelia Kahn on Lucrece, 1976; Gayle Greene on Othello, 1979; Marianne Novy on marriage and the family, 1981) may have tended to treat literature and history in a Tillyardian reflectionist manner, valorized "image-of-women" criticism, and/or relied too heavily on Freudian notions of the family and its members. Still, as the editors argue, these early essays "continue to have considerable critical currency" (5) in their commitment to question the foundational assumption of the critical establishment to date that the human automatically means Man. Despite methodological differences between "generations," such feminist commitments run deeply in many of the essays here, most notably in Carol Cook (on femininity within a phallogocentric regime, 1986), and in three metacritical essays: Jacqueline Rose (on readings of Hamlet by male critics, 1986), Leah Marcus (on the Shakespearean editor as shrew-tamer, 1992), and Lisa Jardine ("Afterword").

Why, then, "Shakespeare and Gender," not "Shakespeare and Feminism"? This turn, the editors claim, provides a forum and conceptual focus for critics seeking to escape the constraints of feminist politics. Thus, albeit from varying theoretical positions, Valerie Traub (on female erotic power, 1988), Joseph Pequigney (on same-sex love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, 1992), and William Van Watson (on a trans-historical ambivalence toward homosexuality from Shakespeare to Zeffirelli, 1992) call for disengagement from the heterosexual bias permeating Shakespeare criticism, including feminist studies. In his analysis of linguistic transgressions (1994), William Carroll seems to suggest that not only "gender" but "sex" and "sexuality" themselves are signs that can only point to the absence of their referents. For their part, Catherine Belsey ("Love in Venice," 1992), Phyllis Rackin (on the engendering of Shakespeare's audiences, 1993), Gabriele Bernhard Jackson (on Shakespeare's Joan of Arc, 1988) assiduously attend to multiple uncertainties and indeterminacies in the historical/ideological conditions governing the production of gender identities; Ann Thompson (on reading The Tempest, 1991), and Carol Thomas Neely (in her essay on Othello prepared for this volume), both by way of mea culpa, situate questions of gender and sexual difference within the broader discourse of European imperialism.

Barker and Kamps are to be commended for offering markers to chart the treacherous critical currents and countercurrents that both reflect and stir our continuing passion for, and fascination with, Shakespeare. Yet a question remains. If we liken Shakespeare criticism to the history of a great empire, is the situation of critical tension and confusion this volume portrays a sign of healthy infusion of challenging ideas from the margin (as the editors claim) or is it the evidence of the Balkan-like collapse of a center and of self-cannibalization? Whatever the label under which criticism proceeds, this is the question of the hour.

KIMIKO NISHIMURA Hunter College, City University of New York
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Author:Nishimura, Kimiko
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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