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Shakespearean Performance as Interpretation.

In 1981, Sheldon P. Zitner greeted the BBC Shakespeare television series, which promised a ready supply of endlessly repeatable subfusc performances, with mild alarm. He could gloomily foresee "growing difficulties in the struggle to persuade students to read the text - a struggle that will unfortunately coincide with the current fashion for what is called 'teaching through performance'" - and the thousandth class paper on "the teabag Tempest."

Herbert Coursen sees the challenge otherwise. As a practitioner of the unfortunately fashionable art, his aim in his new book is to celebrate the increasing wealth of material now available to students on film and cassette, and to evoke some lively interpretations of the plays in performance through comparative analysis. For most readers the appeal of the book will be in the vivid recall of passages from stage or screen performances they have seen, or the sharply observed, informative detail of others they have not. They will be strenuously exercised in agreement or disagreement. There is no hiding the essentially subjective and endlessly debatable nature of the enterprise. Coursen does not believe in a "theoretics of performance criticism" itself, but, as Gary F. Waller writes, "if we want to find ways of moving beyond mere chit-chat about the BBC Shakespeare, we have to find some powerful theoretical models within which we can locate our experience." Coursen calls on feminist criticism in his discussion of Cordelia and The Taming of the Shrew; psychoanalysis in the discussion of Hermia's dream; more specifically, and not surprisingly, Jung's theories of the anima in the essay on Hamlet; neo-Marxist analysis in the history plays and King Lear; and Marshall McLuhan, among many other theorists, for his reading of the adaptation of Shakespeare to the media as (in Raymond Williams's words) a material process of cultural production.

The center of interest is not the text, but the "script," a somewhat metaphysical entity, realized only in performance, and completed only by the release of psychic energy in an audience. "We find in the external reality of a play," writes Norman Holland, "what is hidden in ourselves" - a point of view naturally attractive to the author of The Compensatory Psyche, but not easy for a critic who wants, as Coursen does, to make comparative value judgments of performances. Nothing here can be invalid, whether or not simpleness and duty tender it. It is not clear to me why this faculty of response is vigorously denied to readers, since it must be possessed by someone (directors and actors, for example) in order for the text to achieve performance at all, but the concept of script is perhaps useful in celebrating the endurance of the plays in the modern theater and the media - not as historical artifacts to be meticulously reconstructed, but as vehicles uniquely responsive to the zeitgeist of our, as of every, age. For all the arguable propositions of Coursen's book, and they are many, and the apparent inconsistencies - partly the result of having taken in much material from earlier publications and reviews - that celebration is the genial leading thread.

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Author:Bradley, David
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Previous Article:Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England.
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