The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre.
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. xiii + 227 pp. ISBN: 0-226-53483-9.
Montrose investigates the "discourse in which the relationship between state and subject was constructed and contested," particularly the relationship between the Elizabethan state and the theatre of Shakespeare's company. The author divides his study into two parts: the first begins with Montrose "considering the role of the professional theatre and theatricality... in the cultural transformation" of the time and ends with his converging on the "formal means by which Shakespeare's Elizabethan plays... called into question the absolutist assertions of the Elizabethan state" (xi); the second part explores A Midsummer Night's Dream in light of these "formal means," and specifically discusses the "play's reworkings of the gendered political mythology of the monarch, Queen Elizabeth" (xii).
Readers will recognize part two of the study as a recasting of Montrose's 1983 article, "Shaping Fantasies: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture." He has shifted the focus from discourses of erotic desire to discourses of gender, thereby making the earlier study mesh with his current interest in sites of contention between state and subject. This practical application of part one's themes produces the most persuasive section of the book, for the earlier section suffers from a fundamental problem: Montrose does not tell us why these "formal means" of contestation are specific to the Elizabethan theatre. When the author describes how "in the shifting gaps between the theory and practice of state regulation, the players and playwrights of the Elizabethan theatre discovered a conceptual space for the exercise of their own authority" (65), we could be almost anywhere, at nearly any time -- Moliere's France, Pirandello's Italy, Anna Deveare Smith's America.
The degree to which Montrose's argument will impact his audience depends on the reader's willingness to set aside these concerns and to appreciate the author's contemporary style. For instance, he concludes a chapter with the following sentence: "It is precisely by appropriating the authoritative Elizabethan principles of 'orthodoxy, providentialism, and hierarchy,' and then (in Yachnin's phrase) arraying them indeterminately along an axis of interpretive positions, that Shakespeare's history plays decenter those principles and demystify their claim to the status of divine and immutable truth" (98). Some readers will be inspired and challenged by this phrasing, appropriating Montrose's ideas into their own approach to Elizabethan theatre. Others will wish that all books that frequently use terms like "authority," "axis," and "decenter" could be relegated to a separate section of the library, far from impressionable graduate students who would imitate them.
Montrose tells his readers at the outset that this book is "part of a larger project addressing the politics of representation in the discursive and performative culture of later Elizabethan England" (xi). It would be impossible to present evidence for every aspect of these politics, "for the manifold mediations involved in the production, reproduction, and appropriation of an ideological dominance: for the collective, sectional, and individual agency of the state's subjects; and for the specific resources, conventions, and modes of production and distribution of the representational forms that they employ" (13). Yet at least some of these facets yield exciting results when applied to A Midsummer Night's Dream; hopefully Montrose's future work will flourish with such comprehensible examples.
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|Author:||PEDERSON, NADINE D.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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