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What Was Shakespeare: Renaissance Plays and Changing Critical Practice.

Pechter does not offer a historical explanation for the changes in Shakespeare criticism, but an account of such changes' consequences, namely in the opposition between materialists and humanists. Shakespeare was representable through a few critical anthologies until the 1980s, when Political, Alternative and Woman's Part Shakespeares (edited by Dollimore and Sinfield, Drakakis and Green et al. respectively) appeared along with The Question of Theory (ed. Parker and Hartman). Now that "theories" and "ideologies" inform (and increase) critical practice, other commentators decry the chaos threatening academia, but Pechter concedes that "there is no way any of us can avoid the problems of . . . irreconcilable differences" (10). "Crisis"? Pechter instead sees an "enabling" situation (11).

Observing that "the old consensus ha[s] disappeared," Pechter claims to "perform an anatomy" on its corpse (16), but the physician pours old formaldehyde into new test tubes. Though many books gather previously published essays with fresh impact, Pechter's collection loses verve in the translation. Detached from their original polemical contexts, the pieces are no longer timely, and the book does not supply enough information for a reliable history of recent critical practice.

Still, the introduction, "After 'After the Carnival,'" poses necessary questions. "How is it possible for us to talk to each other, and what should be the terms of the academic conversation?" (xi). Pechter defends criticism as a "social practice," refutes the complaints about too much or too little theory, and insists that "writing useful critical commentary about Shakespeare" is possible (xi). His critique accommodates the conservative's lament that "theory" abandons thematic concerns and humanistic values for nihilism and radical skepticism, but it also represents the left's concern with history and the material base.

Chapter one, "What Was Shakespeare?", presents one perspective against which to judge the past twenty years of criticism, through Pechter's analysis of developments in the number of "critical companions" to Shakespeare since 1967, interrogating incisively philosophical and pedagogical assumptions (24). Assessing the persistence of humanism against the "triumphant innovation" of recent criticism, he challenges claims of newness (30).

Five main chapters address assaults on humanism, saying little about feminism, queer or post-colonial theory omissions stemming from the reprint impulse. "The Rise and Fall of the New Historicism" combines "The New Historicism and Its Discontents" (originally printed in PMLA 1987, immediately following R. Hillis Miller's Presidential Address defending deconstruction against "history") and Pechter's review of Greenblatt's Learning to Curse (MLQ, 1992), where he reveals coincidences between the Stephens Greenblatt and Daedalus. Pechter faults new historicism with ignoring theatrical conventions and with pretending that there exists an "absolute parity between literary and social texts" (59). "Of Ants and Grasshoppers" argues as it did in 1988 (Poetics Today) that one can accept the "assumptions about the political nature of interpretative activity" and still have fun (100). While his position against binarism holds merit, the chapter chirps along so glibly at times that it detracts from the point (see 99). "Teaching Differences" (from SQ 1990) is a mostly personal, anecdotal discussion of the contingencies of criticism in the classroom, with sketches of C.L. Barber and Terry Eagleton's readings of Dream. "In Defense of Jargon" (Textual Practice, 1991) and "Against 'Ideology'" (Shakespeare Left and Right, ed. Kamps) discuss institutional conditions calling us to analyze rhetorically the texts we read (132), while criticizing both the left and right for hanging onto the concept of ideology (159-60).

Having listened to his colleagues fret "what is to be done?" (144), Pechter begins and ends with an acceptance, even an assertion, of "business as usual" within Shakespeare studies. In urging us to accept the impossibility of textual autonomy, the "messy pedagogical inconveniences" of choosing plays and criticism (165), and, finally, to maintain our labor of teaching, reading, and writing, Pechter reminds us of our own commitments.

ANN C. CHRISTENSEN University of Houston
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Christensin, Ann C.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
Words:632
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