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Social Shakespeare: Aspects of Renaissance Dramaturgy and Contemporary Society.

The tide and introduction of Peter J. Smith's Social Shakespeare locate the book in the tradition of British cultural materialism, defined in 1985 by Jonathan Dollimore's and Alan Sinfield's Political Shakespeare. This approach has been developed by other critics and further sharpened by responses to its opponents, represented most visibly in the United States by Richard Levin. Quoting Dollimore and Sinfield, Smith affirms his "commitment to the transformation of a social order that exploits people on grounds of race, gender, and class" (4). He differentiates his readings with an awareness of the limited power of literary scholarship to alter society, a desire to write with a more enthusiastic tone, and the inclusion of many recent (1987-93) British performances to illustrate how politicized readings may and may not be realized on stage.

The core of the book is four chapters that focus on one or two plays in performance, but draw upon a range of contemporary dramatic and non-dramatic texts to describe linguistic and social practice. Of these the most satisfying deals with the extent to which performances interrogate rather than reproduce or ignore the anti-semitism of The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. The options include emphasizing Shylock and Barabas as victims (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987; Peter Hall, 1989), relocating Merchant in fascist Italy (English Shakespeare Company, 1990), or downplaying Shylock's Jewish identity (RSC, 1993). My impression of the last, however, is that Shylock increasingly affirms this identity by a series of costume changes during the play, beginning in an assimilated Venetian business suit and ending in yarmulke and collarless shirt (illustrated by Smith, plate I).

Equally stimulating is the chapter on Romeo and Juliet, emphasizing the responsibility of absolutist Prince Escalus for the feud and the contribution of Mercutio's sexual language to subverting the heterosexual patriarchy in state and family. The play's toying with Petrarchan conventions is explored as it helps contrast 1989 and 1991 RSC productions; this literary device also appears in Two Gentleman of Verona. The concept of complex, often contradictory significations from the same sign is introduced by a witty discussion of the familiar Stratford pub sign, The Black Swan/The Dirty Duck, contextualized as theatrical geography and theatrical art.

The chapters on dreams, leading to a reading of Cymbeline and homo-eroticism in As You Like It, offer less. That a few dreams are staged and many described has attracted much psychological and theatrical attention, to which Smith's brief catalogue adds little. He provides a substantial - if generally familiar - body of historical evidence, arguing the presence of homosexuality in the literature of early modern England. Not everyone, however, may agree with the unqualified assertion that "instances of homosexuality in Shakespeare's work include the relationship of Coriolanus and Aufidius, Antonio and Bassiano, Antonio and Sebastian, and Othello and Iago" (186). For instance, Joseph Pequigney's 1992 article carefully contrasts the same-sex love of the two Antonios.

The rest of the book deals with a variety of topics that revert more explicitly to the author's political agenda. A pair of chapters argues that the range and variety of Shakespeare cannot be fitted into any simple definition of comedy or tragedy, especially the notion of a "tragic flaw." The consensus represented by marriage at the end of comedy excludes outsiders and primarily benefits the males. A fatal flaw is politically unsound, because its assumption of individual responsibility "is a sociality required by the mechanisms of capitalism" (46). The final chapter takes on "Shakemyth," Smith's reading of Shakespeare's place in the contemporary British academic and theatrical establishment, which encourages disengagement from politics - especially revolutionary confrontation.

DAVID G. HALE State University of New York, Brockport
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Author:Hale, David G.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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