Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The fortunes of Shakespeare in a post-Theory world

David Womersley in Standpoint Magazine:
Although the fortunes of theory as a practice waned, its impact was lasting. In particular, critics who were not in thrall to theory nevertheless showed little appetite to revive the ethical criticism upon the rubble of which the theoreticians had erected their own, brief, period of authority. Post-theory, criticism of Shakespeare moved in three main directions. First, there was a turn to history, in the form of the "New Historicism". Historically-grounded readings of the plays might revive the flavour of the old ethical criticism, without being so vulnerable to the powerful corrosives which theory had used so destructively on that earlier school. Second, there was a revival of interest in theatre history, and in positioning Shakespeare within the dramatic archive. Third, there was a resurgence of interest in authorship studies, particularly in the phenomenon of collaborative composition. These developments all marked at once an advance and a retreat. They showed an impressive gain in various forms of technical power and accomplishment (historical contextualisation, early modern theatrical institutions, textual analysis of authorship). At the same time, however, they revealed the academy turning in on itself and retreating further from the possibility of addressing a general educated readership.

The contrasting social backdrop to these ultimately mandarin movements in Shakespeare criticism is the extraordinary phenomenon of worldwide attendance at performances of Shakespeare's plays. For theory, reliant as it was on a constructivist account of human nature and hostile to any idea of essence, the fact of Shakespeare's popularity was easily explained away as a simple consequence of the massive "Shakespeare Establishment". No doubt the entrenched position of Shakespeare in the school curriculum and the existence of so culturally potent an entity as the Royal Shakespeare Company both exert an influence, at least in Great Britain. But enthusiasm for Shakespeare is not confined to the West, and indeed flourishes in cultures where no "Shakespeare Establishment" exists. The recent critical preoccupations of the academy-historical explication, theatrical antiquarianism, and authorship studies — may of course yield important findings. But they will always be "second-order" findings. These critical modes cannot in their own terms find a way of addressing — let alone of explaining — the vast, primary fact of the enduring human appetite for Shakespeare's drama.

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