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Peter J. Smith, Social Shakespeare: Aspects of Renaissance Dramaturgy and Contemporary Society (Houndmills, Basingstoke, and London: Macmillan, 1995). ISBN 0-333-63217-6.
Recent years have seen an ever-increasing number of publications concerned with political aspects of Shakespeare's works, both in the context of their production and in that of their modern-day reception. In its deliberate ambiguity of "contemporary society," Peter Smith's subtitle refers to both these contexts, signalling that his objective is to combine both approaches in a single volume. The juxtaposition between the two kinds of contemporaneity is not always an easy one, however. On the basis of his/her reading of texts written by Shakespeare's contemporaries, canonical or otherwise, the historically-oriented critic will tend to reconstruct, if not a single meaning, then at least a relevant discussion, concern, or anxiety characteristic of the early-modern period. In other words, such critics are concerned with meanings supposedly inherent in the text. On the other hand, critics investigating the reception of the Shakespearean canon, whether it be in the theatre, education, or in critical discourse, are more interested in ways in which the text can be appropriated, so in the ways contemporary meanings are constructed on the basis of a text that is, in itself, polysemous, open to any number of interpretations.
Peter Smith's project of bringing these two approaches together in a single book is a risky one, therefore, and occasionally leads him into seeming contradictions. On the one hand, he claims to "embrac[e] dramatic production as a site for interpretation rather than prioritising a fixed literary document" (1), and states that "[t]here is frankly no way we can ever be sure what the playwright intended" (152), so that the concept of a distortion of the text becomes meaningless; "nowhere is the death of the author more apparent than in drama" (224). On the other hand, Shakespeare's canon is termed "misogynist" (203), be it with some qualifications. Besides, not only do plays like The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta "contain the most vehement kinds of racial abuse" (156), which seems a pretty undeniable fact, but Smith actually speaks of their "prejudice" (177) and of the "anti-Semitism of the script" (157), which has to be read "against [its] own anti-semitic grain" (160). If on the basis of the text we cannot tell "what the playwright intended," then how can we tell what is the grain and what is against the grain? Surely there would be ways out of this paradox, such as Michael Dobson's notion in The Making of the National Poet that, although Shakespeare's works lend themselves to many readings, they actually do resist some; only, one would like Smith to state his position more clearly.
Likewise, in the final chapter, Smith draws a distinction between "Shakespeare, the Renaissance dramatist and theatre entrepreneur," and "Shakemyth," the conservative myth of the man of genius, the embodiment of all the great English values (219). On the one hand, we are told that "[e]very version of Shakespeare is a version; neither closer to nor further from the ever-elusive truth than another" (231). The very next sentence, however, protests against the "ideological and cultural fraud of Shakemyth" (italics mine). If the truth really is so elusive, the reader may well ask, then how can Smith be so sure that Shakemyth is actually a "fraud?" Would it not be more consistent to speak of a conservative construction, which is objectionable not so much for what it asserts about a particular individual, which for all we know may well be true, but for the iniquitous political uses this construction is made to serve?
In his eagerness to convince us of his own political correctness, Smith engages in some polemical writing, accusing others of either depoliticising Shakespeare or of appropriating him for the purposes of Shakemyth. In doing so, he brings together some strange bedfellows. Charles Marowitz, of all people, is taken to task for playing into the hands of "an ideology which seeks to depoliticise Shakespeare both academically and theatrically" by daring to portray the academic establishment as people who have no knowledge of the theatre (221). Yet it is an abiding "reluctance to consider the political efficacy of modern Shakespearean production" among that same establishment that Smith himself seeks to remedy (6); and Marowitz's own work can hardly be termed apolitical. Jan Kott, too, is included among those whose lack of a historical perspective led him to proclaim that Shakespeare was our contemporary, thus depoliticizing the Bard into a prophet of the universal emptiness of existence (219-21). Whoever has read Kott's analysis of Hamlet in the light of his experience of Eastern European totalitarianism can hardly have missed its political relevance; and it takes only a little awareness of the historical context of Kott's own critical works to realize that, in the light of an official state-sponsored doctrine that demands that everything be seen as determined by material circumstances, the very assertion that some things are truly universal may, in fact, be a political statement in itself. It is the more surprising that Smith should praise Michael Bogdanov's 1990 production of Coriolanus, which was inspired by recent events in Eastern Europe, as a remarkable exercise in "dramatising an issue from contemporary politics" (227).
My criticism of Peter Smith's political premises may have given the impression that Social Shakespeare is a deeply flawed study. However, this would be to overlook its virtues in laying bare some of the deeper meanings as well as theatrical potential of Shakespeare's works. Smith discusses a wide range of plays and productions, and often has some challenging new things to say about them. Among the most interesting essays is that on gender-symbolism in Antony and Cleopatra. Whereas the association between ever-changing Cleopatra and the instability of water is an obvious feature of the play, Smith notes that this in fact amounts to an inversion of the more usual equation between male and sea, female and earth. The symbolism of the elements in Antony and Cleopatra, therefore, foregrounds the inversion of gender roles of the protagonists. Apart from the water of the Nile, Cleopatra is also associated with the phallic serpents that live near the river, and she robs Antony of his sword as well as of his masculine power. Sometimes Smith's ingenuity outruns Shakespeare's text, as when he suggests that the play turns on the anagrammatical permutation of Latin "ROMA" and "AMOR" (63). This is a clever pun indeed, but as there is no textual basis for it, Smith himself rather than Shakespeare should be credited with inventing it.
Other highlights include a discussion of the comedies as the genre that celebrates consensus, amongst others by insisting on the observance of fashion in Much Ado about Nothing and in Twelfth Night. Characters like Malvolio, Jacques and Conrade, Smith observes, are marked by their inability or unwillingness to recognize the dress codes of their society; and as sartorial conventions had social and political implications in the period (dressing above one's station being regarded as offensive), this also marks them as the outsiders, who refuse or are unable to fit into the social structure.
In the chapter entitled "Playing with Boys," Smith reminds us how the current mainstream practice of casting actresses as the women characters will erase some of the gender-bending implicit in the early-modern use of boy actors for these parts. In particular in the comedies, where many a boy actor represented a Viola or a Rosalind who again disguised herself as a male, the original practice would have resulted in a confused sense of same-sex attraction which, Smith implies, may have a liberating potential for gays. In an analysis of a 1991 all-male production of As You Like It, he shows how some of the original frisson may be recreated for modern audiences.
Indeed, throughout the book we are reminded of ways in which successful productions have managed to convey some of their political or social concerns to modern audiences. Smith is by no means a purist where Shakespeare's text is concerned, and welcomes inventive interpolations and cuts, in so far as these contribute to sharpening the audience's awareness of the political issues involved. This makes the book a treasure trove of information, not only for academics, but also for theatre directors who wish to learn from the successes (and failures) of their predecessors.
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