Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Bard among the Marxists

By M. L. Raina

Marxist Shakespeares
Edited by Jean Howard& Scot Cutler Shershow
Routledge, London & New York
Pages xii+304. $27.95


“Others abide our question/Thou art free”—Matthew Arnold.

Is he, really? Quite often, the bard has been wheeled around in the shopping trolleys of gossip and rumour-mongers, ideologues and sundry other interpreters, and, in our time, the peddlers of post-modern, post-structuralist, new historicist and feminist merchandise. He has been deglamourised and brought down from his pedestal by critics, stage directors and film makers. We are asked not to look up to him but to see beyond his myth.

As a student I read my Shakespeare in ignorance of Ernest Jones’s Freudian speculations and Laurence Olivier’s guilt-ridden rendering of Hamlet on film. We knew nothing of Sergei Bondarchuk’s film of Hamlet as a critique of the feudal age, nor did have access to John Gielgud, Paul Robeson, Ralph Richardson or Dame Sybil Thorndike renditions.
Suddenly, long after I passed out of university, Arnold Kettle and Deepak Nandy’s 400th anniversary tribute, Shakespeare in a Changing World appeared from Lawrence and Wishart in 1964. It is a measure of the acute historical myopia of the editors that this book does not find mention in the weighty bibliography of the book under discussion. The earlier book opened our eyes to new dimensions in the dramatist. It revealed Karl Marx’s own deep engagement with Shakespeare and his sensitivity to the social and political aspects of the plays. The same year the British National Theatre presented Laurence Olivier acting Othello in West Indian accents. Critics hailed the production as unique and crowds thronged to see the production in London. I and my family queued up a whole night outside Aldwych theatre’s box-office to buy tickets.

With Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary and Peter Brooks’s production of King Lear inspired by it, Marxist readings were combined with the perspective of the Theatre of the Absurd. A new generation of critics such as Kenneth Tynan in Britain, Boris Smirnov in the Soviet Union, C.L Barber in America and Robert Weimann in East Germany read the plays partly as folk theatre and partly as subversive texts indicting Elizabethan power structures. On the stage Edward Bond and Tom Stoppard derived their own political meanings from the plays. Bond’s Lear and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstein are Dead are political adaptations and reinventions of Shakespeare, the latter adding an existential seam to the social meaning.

Though there were many interpretations of the Shakespearean canon and many stage and film adaptations, notably by Kurosawa (Ran, Thrones of Blood) and Roland Polanski (Macbeth), all of these were agreed on one basic point. All believed that Shakespeare was the author of these plays and that he had a singular grasp of human nature and his own society with all their comprehensive reach and depth and, most importantly, that he could render his times with uncanny skill not matched by his contemporaries and since. They believed, as did early Marxist critics, Arnold Kettle, Tony Jackson (Old Friends to Keep) and most recently Victor Kiernan, that ultimately, as Hamlet put it, ‘the play is the thing’.
The very title of the present book, however, indicates a fundamental shift in the reading and production of Shakespeare’s plays. Post-structuralism and deconstruction spawned yet more radical approaches. The text-based approach has now been fragmented into approaches of difference and diversity. Shakespeare himself has ceased to be regarded as the author of his texts. He has been ‘interpellated’ (to use an Althusserianism) into the discourse of his contemporary culture (pace Stephen Greenblatt). Brian Vickers sums up the fragmentation of Shakespearean interpretation in these words: “surely there must be something wrong with the critical method that produces the same reading. It ‘reduces’ or dissolves its subject in the same way in which Dr. Crippen…dissolves his victim’s bodies.”(Appropriating Shakespeare). A pretty horrific way of reacting to the colonization of Shakespeare by literary theory’s latest ram-raiders.

I do not think all the essays in the present book are exercises in dissolution, though quite a few are. There are some new valuable readings of ‘Measure for Measure’ and of the conventions of production, particularly in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories. What are of considerable significance in this book are the two readings by Marx and Derrida of ‘Hamlet’. Of these more later.

Before we proceed to look at some of the essays it is worth asking what justification has been offered for the title. The editors lean on Stuart Hall’s well-known argument that since Marxism as a grand narrative no longer suffices as a programme of action, Marxists must come to terms with other critical discourses and try and work through them. “The complex relationship of power …is an easier term that exploitation”, Hall observes and goes on to add, “ these important central questions are what are meant by working within shouting distance of Marxism, working against Marxism, working with it, working to try to develop Marxism”. If we take Hall’s statement as a methodological resource to be used in understanding cultural artifacts such as Shakespeare’s plays, then we must speak of various Marxisms rather than of Marxist Shakespeares. As this book demonstrates, it is the same Shakespeare that the critics address, but different variations on Marxism provide the methodological tools.

The trouble with many essays in this book is their eclecticism, their forced marriage of various discourses other than Marxism that operate on one single historical entity, the Shakespeare play. The fragmentation of these discourses is transferred to Shakespeare himself whose work, in spite of diverse readings we bring to it, remains indivisible.

With these caveats in, it is time now to look at these essays more closely. As I said above, the really enlightening essays are by Peter Stallybrass and Richard Halperin. They are enlightening because they reflect on history through the vision of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Stallybrass throws light on Karl Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ by way of Marx’s invocation of ‘Hamlet’ ( a similar invocation is to be found in Clement Greenberg’s 1970 essay, also in the context of the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’). Stallybrass says, “Marx pursues a double strategy…through the first strategy history is represented as a catastrophic decline from Napolean to Louis Bonaparte…In the second strategy the effect of repetition is to unsettle the status of the origin”. Marx recalls both Hamlet’s advice to Yorrick’s skull and Robin Goodfellow to burrow into bourgeois hypocrisies and to prepare for revolution. Connecting literature with history offers a solid homology between the two without compromising the uniqueness of the Shakespearean text. Neither Marx nor Hamlet has been diminished in this mutual critique. Just as Hamlet’s father unsettles Denmark’s shaky order, Louis Bonaparte’s presence in France threatens the powers that be there. Stallybrass’s perceived connections make many references clear and shore up our faith in the genuine Marxist methodology of connecting the text and the world.

Richard Halpern makes a strategic manoeuvre through ‘Hamlet’ to deconstruct Derrida’s denigration of Marxism. In his controversial Spectres of Marx, Derrida turns largely on Hamlet’s line ‘time is out of joint’ and reads the play as a ghost story in which the self-sufficiency of the present is undone by the spectres of the past. As a lover of of verbal puns and pranks, Derrida celebrates the specters, the ghosts ‘as they survive the collapse of Communism’. But far from endorsing Marxism, Derrida denounces Marx’s own meta-narrative as a ‘totalistic’ programme. Halpern rightly sees the ruse and exposes it. Derrida reduces Marx to a hollow messiah even as harnesses these ‘specttres’ in the service of his anti-Communist ideology.

The other essays are instances of the old New Historicism yet again. They regard Shakespeare not as a representative writer of his age, but as another instance of the discourse energy ‘circulating’ in the period and present in all writers as well as in other social formations. Marxism is not the guiding principle here nor are class interests the motivating energies. But debunking Shakespeare is. Reducing the bard to a mere discourse is. These essays are more Foucaldian than Marxist, and to call them Marxist is to stand Marxism on its head.
The essay on ‘Othello’ shows the method with all its gains and forfeits. The author takes a hard look at Dedemona’s handkerchief and removes the veil of sentiment surrounding this object given as love-token by Othello to his wife. Laborious research by the author reveals the handkerchief to be a product of female labour which did not receive fair compensation from the contemporary patriarchal order.

By transferring a product of female labour to mere domesticity, Shakespeare is accused of participating in the patriarchal discourse. I call this a crude but ingenious way of yoking forcibly together Marxism and feminism with all the privileges reserved for the latter. It tells a lot about feminism’s agenda, but precious little about the play. But then such readings further expose feminism’s narrowness of critical range.

Similarly the essay on ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ uses the idea of the male gaze to supervise the male property, the wife. Here the author celebrates the ways in which the women bring down the male predator in the manner of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The essay on the management of mirth draws upon Bourdieu’s ideas of class and distinction to account for the status of players in the Elizabethan theatre. Ingenious and adroit, these essays yet skirt round the plays.

The essay on the Globe theatre is a text-book account of the theatre house and its hierarchical seating arrangements reflecting the hierarchical order of the contemporary society. The essay on ‘Shakespeare and Film’ reveals the homogenizing trends of the American popular culture which pays lip service to multiculturalism but is moved by the profit motive alone. In other words it shows how Hollywood appropriates the dramatist to its own commercial purposes.

By far the most appealing essay for me is the one on ‘Measure for Measure’. It respects the utopian elements in Marxist thought by recalling Herbert Marcuse’s statement in his Aesthetic Dimension to the effect that art embodies futuristic traits in its critique of the present. It also emphasizes Shakespeare’s prophetic qualities in that it exposes the cant inherent in the contemporary notions of justice. ‘Measure for Measure’ comes clean about its implication in the structure of subjection it depicts, inciting us ‘to be wary of art’s complicity with power’. This statement is understood in relation with Shakespeare’s grasp of the intricacies of domination practiced by the Duke behind the mask of mercy. It is the mask that reveals the reality, a paradox Shakespeare revels in.

Marxism, as Perry Anderson reminds us, is the best method of relating Capitalism to culture in our time and its utopian element is still valid in spite of recent setbacks in Russia and Eastern Europe. Oscar Wilde believes that ‘the map of the world without utopia is not worth looking at’. Marxist theory and practice, despite current failures, keep us orientated towards the future. Perhaps this is why Marx set such great store by Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians.

Shakespeare’s myriad-mindedness calls forth equal resources of knowledge from his readers and Marx himself was a prodigious reader. So, ironically, are the new historicists (see Stephen Greenblatt’s recent Hamlet in Purgatory). But unfortunately they read beyond Shakespeare into a different territory, the bard being incidental to their extra-literal project. That, as the wheedling, incorrigible but always lovable Falstaff would have said, is a thousand pities!


M. L. Raina

1 comment:

Badri Raina said...

ah! bad retina and doctor's orders notwithstanding, i have revelled in the reading of this most intelligent review of a patently tendentious volume that i still haven't read;
although, what is said here abot Halperin makes me want to see that essay pronto;
what the reviewer, more than, i suspect, the author of the essay on M&M sees in and of that play delights, and is heartily suggestive of what i have always thought of how shakespeare is best approached by an intelligent marxian, namely, in unraveling shakespeares' searing awareness of the sentient contradictions that reveal both past histories and point, in conflict, to new ones;
often as paradigms shift, as they were shifting in his time from an older social order to a newer one, individual identities and self-hoods are shown to become dysfunctiional untruths and abstractions; ergo, Antonio's sudden discovery that he is not the man he is thought to be as he sets his eyes on good flesh!
it is in those disconcerting suddennesses that the essence of the so-called "problem plays" resides, methinks; in that sense in Sh individuals become fascinating sites where ideologies and aestheitcs cross swords;
i see what the reviewer means by pointing to the 'indivisibility' of the shakespeare product/text, and i do not think he would quarrel with the perception that it is an indivisibility which is most trenchantly expressive of the ruptures/disjunctures etc., in historical formation of which Foucault is to talk four centuries later in Archaeology! A more immediate predecessor being Marx, since he it was who, in setting out "relations of production" and showing how when those conflict with new "forces of production" make the past shaky and unviable; there is the Macbeth who adheres to the notion of kinship, hospitality, rank, and then the other who believes the new order ought to be based on "merit"--a truly bourgeois persuasion;

in foregrounding the 1964 volume ed., by Kettle,, and then Jan Kott, the reviewer suggests a framework that ought truly to inform all subsequent engagement with the conjunction between Sh/Marx;
the review shows why it is only when Sh and Marx are both read with equal insight and with close attentiveness to the dynamics of ideological formations thru histories of class societies confronted by class struggle in myriad ways that we learn anything worthwhile about either/both; and i know of few readers/critics who do so;
i therefore am most enthused by the quality of critique this review offers.
as to feminism(s) i wholeheartedly endorse merely profession-driven apropriations of a trivial kind, but refer the reviewer to the plural that he does use when he speaks of 'feminisms"; there are other kinds that have more substance and teach us in important ways.