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Shakespeare in French Theory: King of Shadows.

Shakespeare in French Theory: King of Shadows

By Richard Wilson

New York: Routledge, 2007

Richard Wilson's Shakespeare in French Theory: King of Shadows is not simply an application of French theory to Shakespeare's plays, although it does bring the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, Rene Girard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida to bear on the works in genuinely compelling ways. Wilson seeks instead to trace the forms of "mutual acculturation" between Shakespeare and French thought, the ways in which the plays have haunted the theory as much as the theory transformed the plays. And that dialectic is marked, Wilson notes, by a central irony. While French theory has underwritten the iconoclastic strain in Anglo-American criticism, a version of Bardolatry not entirely distinct from the Romantic tradition has been at the core of some of the most radical dimensions of French thought, particularly its political thought. Whether construed as Gothic threat or as embodiment of an anodyne cultural multiplicity, Shakespeare has been affiliated in the French intellectual tradition with possibilities of heterogeneity. That emphasis on the culturally and temporally disruptive arrivante has force, not just in relation to the outright monoculturalism of traditional Shakespeare criticism, but also in relation to New Historicism's tendency to discover in the works "power's ode to itself," as well as to the strain of Anglo-American critique that amounts, in Wilson's words, to "one long campaign to arraign the plays as guilty by association with the European colonialism, slavery, and pogroms they foretold" (244).

While the book thus explicitly sets itself against the political tenets or assumptions of New Historicism--sometimes agonistically so--one may be equally struck by its methodological commonalities with that critical mode, though Wilson might prefer to see this as an affiliation with cultural materialism. For a work zeroed-in on "high theory," the book is notable for its intensely topical character, whether that's a matter of finding the perilous circumstance of Catholics in King Lear's cliff scene, or an equivalency between Brutus and Lenten butchers "licensed to kill in March" (188). That cultural immersiveness is inflected by Wilson's attention to the temporally disjunct--anachronistic, anticipatory--status of the Shakespearean text; the book hears in the plays, for instance, the sacrificial foundations of the Roman city-state, as well as the charged political circumstances of post-Revolutionary England. And, while one can query the relation between the topical mode and the book's larger theoretical framework (I'll return to the issue), Wilson's mixed method produces for the most part a tremendous sense of critical possibility. Indeed, Shakespeare in French Theory is an intelligent, edgy, and impressively wide book, capacious in the range of critical voices it mobilizes often toward new ends, in the depth and sure-handedness of its theoretical reference, and in the sheer richness and inventiveness of its historical contextualizing.

The book is divided into two parts, the first tracing Shakespeare's effects within French critical thought, the second bringing the theory to bear on a handful of plays. The first chapter traces the intriguing story of Shakespeare's French reception, and especially the response to the Bard's "monstrous elasticity" (33). The account moves from the poet's status as "sordid affront to absolutist ideals of claret" during the Enlightenment, to the unstably valorized "gothic" Shakespeare of the Revolution, to the frisson of his ghostly returns among the French Romantics (Berlioz) and anti-Bourgeois modernists (Hugo), to his role in the psychic negotiation of the postwar era for figures like Gide, Lacan, and Girard, to his outright liberatory potential for Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida, and Cixous. Although the account affirms Shakespeare's Rorschach-like availability to varied interpretive and political ends, the emphasis falls on the play's demotic possibilities, and on Shakespeare's status as historical revenant; the point is not simply that Shakespeare is put to different uses, but that he inhabits French modernity like an alien and returning form. In that regard, Marx, and particularly the Marx of Eighteenth Brumaire, remains (paradoxically) the exemplary figure.

The second and third chapters consider Shakespeare in relation to two seminal theorists, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. In "Prince of Darkness," Wilson brings Foucault to bear on Measure for Measure by offering a corrective to Foucault's own account of the chronology of modes of power. Taking the "visual taxonomies" of Bridewell prison as his central historical exhibit, Wilson makes the case for an earlier transition from spectacular punishment to an internalizing disciplinarity based on voyeuristic authority, and thus to a power founded not on "the mere containment of opposition, but the positive production of resistance" (108). Although such an argument is anticipated by prior analyses of the "hidden monarch" motif in Shakespeare, Wilson's account is richer in its contextualizations and more theoretically comprehensive. And in its claims for the play's knowingness about such structures, the chapter offers a valuable corrective to the strain of Foucauldian critique (and not just of the New Historicist stripe) that sees the subject as nothing but a blindly inscribed effect of power.

The Bourdieu chapter--"The Management of Mirth"--is based, again, on a chronological corrective, a convincing transposition of Bourdieu's argument for the modern emergence of aesthetic autonomy to the early-modern context, in this case as a way of unraveling a significant sociological riddle. Why Shakespearean drama's strong alignment with aristocratic personages and values given the actual class profile of the London theater-going audience? Wilson argues that the symbolic transformation through which artists sought to free themselves from bourgeois demands by claiming the autonomy of the work begins with Shakespeare "as a strategy to exchange the economic capital earned in the public playhouse for the cultural capital awarded by the princely patron" (131). Wilson's argument here is important for the way it suggests a mode of political reading able to accommodate, unlike much cultural materialist analysis, Shakespeare's investment in disinterestedness and the complexity of his relation to the aesthetic status of the work.

"The Kindly Ones," the first of the chapters of applied analysis, explores questions of power and censorship in Midsummer Night's Dream. Combining Bourdieu's account of aestheticization with Foucault's analysis of disciplinary self-management, the chapter explores the euphemization of the violence, or potential violence, at the origin of the work, a negation of grounds figured both in the ameliorative self-effacement of the author and the etherealization of the taboo and threatening figure of patron Queen. It's a dispersed chapter, but also one of the most evocative, with a beautiful extension of Foucault's account of the ghost presence of the royal patrons in Velasquez's Las Meninas to Elizabeth's ambivalently valorized lunar manifestations in the play. "A Bleeding Head Where They Begun," on Julius Caesar, is underwritten by Walter Benjamin's famous dictum that there is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism. Wilson focuses on the reiterative character of such foundational violence, the eternal recurrence manifest in the uncanny temporality of a play which at once hearkens back and prophetically anticipates, variously, the founding of Rome, the Revolution to come, Christ's sacrifice, and the equivocal returns of the Eucharistic act during Shakespeare's own ambiguous theological moment. The political valence of such reiterations arises from the loss of distinction they imply between the returns of theater and the returns of history as such.

The focus on cultural violence continues in "Bloody As the Hunter," a sustained reflection on the cultural meaning of the offstage duel scene in Twelfth Night, a scene evident only in what we might have taken to be its comic aftereffects. For Wilson, the scene figures "the bloody rites of passage" at the core of the play's cultural logic--its proximity to the operations of "blood sacrifice." According to Wilson, the scene alludes in precise ways to the Raleigh-Cecil-Essex feud (210). But the duel should also be read, as sociologists have suggested, in light of the larger conflict between an imperiled aristocracy and the emergent juridical class associated with state and monarchy, "the epochal battle between gown and sword ... in which an elite threatened by 'pen gents' ... vented its violence upon itself" (223). That self-violence in itself functioned as an affirmation of the logic of blood-sacrifice associated with a vanishing conception of the body politic.

"When the Cock Crows" reflects on the messianic turn in recent writing on Hamlet. If the play has a strong eschatological cast, it anticipates an end which nevertheless arrives, as Cixous formulates it, "too early, too late, and never at the right time" (239). And if it is the end of history that's at stake, that end nevertheless incessantly reinscribes itself within historical time. Such indeterminate immanence--the very condition of historicity--has, again, a notable topical specificity for Wilson: "something distressing has entered peripheral vision with the Jacobean Quarto that was not there in the Elizabethan text, and will be censored from the Folio" (237). That something is the accession of James, an event to which Wilson attaches the play's generalized foreboding. The epilogue--"Making Men of Monsters"--returns by way of Derrida to Shakespeare's heterogeneity, an openness to the European and non-European Other based not on tolerance but on radical hospitality, that condition, in Derrida's words, of being open in advance to "whomever arrives as an absolutely foreign visitor, as a new arrival, non-identifiable and unforeseeable, in short, wholly other." Wilson gives that prospect a local habitation and name by aligning Shakespeare, not with Carnival, a practice associated with enforcing solidarity against the stranger, but with Mumming, a custom "which symbolized the imperative of kindness to Strangers by enacting the right of even the uninvited to cross the threshold of the house" (247).

That recognition of Shakespeare's radical cultural and historical openness is in Wilson's account what French theory offers to our understanding of the playwright; it is certainly what distinguishes Shakespeare in French Theory from those modes of materialist history which find in the texts nothing but a reinscription of dominant ideologies. But what distinguishes Wilson's work in relation to prior engagements between Shakespeare and the French school? Although the book opens with reference to Joel Fineman's claim that it is Shakespeare's attentiveness to the "languageness of language" that gives the work its uncannily anticipatory relation to post-modernity, Wilson's own mode is less marked by linguistic or formal preoccupations than by its assumption of the possibility of a relatively unproblematic conjunction between theory and topicality, the assumption that Derrida and Chartier can occupy a common methodological ground.

That's the source of the book's extraordinary richness. It may also be where the most interesting theoretical questions arise, questions prompted by different moments in Wilson's own argument. What, for instance, is the relation between the autonomization of the work Wilson describes in the Bourdieu chapters--the (historical) process through which the Shakespearean work "retreats from the world of referentiality into the empty 'nothing' of its own aesthetic void"--and the often relatively direct referential character of Wilson's own claims? Is the aesthetic turn simply a refusal of the truth of the work's referential dimensions? Wilson's association between Shakespearean heterogeneity and "the play of the signifier" suggest the need for a more complex account of the relation between form and reference. Although the book assumes relative transparency between the two registers, the duel, for instance, may have a very different meaning as a literary construction than it does as a sociological phenomenon; indeed, the manner in which the exorbitancies of a play like Hamlet resolve themselves into the specular structure of the duel may suggest the degree to which the work's own mimetic status--its "semblable"ness--is bound up with such an encounter, a structure and function Lacan brings to the fore.

The problem of reference occurs with particular acuteness, I think, in relation to what may be the book's dominant preoccupation: the fact of cultural violence. One of Wilson's central claims is that the scene of culture's foundational violence is, in fact, reiterative and always already contested--no origin at all. At the same time, particularly when he reads the works as an expose of the unacknowledged barbarism at the heart of early modern civilization, Wilson understands such violence to convey something like a "face to face" encounter with the truth of culture (164). Thus, the fact that the Huguenots "disinterred, cooked, and ate the relics of saints"--a case of "sacred metaphor becom[ing] profane reality"--amounts to an instance of the "savage exception" "prov[ing] the revolutionary rule" (191). A certain violence may indeed lie at the foundation of culture, but the status of that violence remains a significant question. Does literature euphemize the brute if indeterminate fact of founding violence, a process the Shakespearean text demystifies? Or is the very luridness of such scenes in the plays and perhaps in the critical writing as well a sign of the role they play in the process by which texts seek to posit their own ground and thus secure their claims to reference? How one decides that uncertainty is intimately bound up with how one reads the political and theoretical dimensions of Shakespeare's work.
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Author:Pye, Christopher
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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