Godless Shakespeare (Shakespeare Now!) by Eric S. Mallin, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., New York, London and Harrisburg, Pa. 132 pp, $17.95 paper.
Looking for Hamlet by Marvin W. Hunt, Palgrave Macmillan, New York City. 256 pp, $21.80 cloth.
Shakespeare Thinking (Shakespeare Now!) by Philip Davis, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., New York, London and Harrisburg, Pa. 105 pp, $17.95 paper.
Thinking Shakespeare: A How-to Guide for Student Actors, Directors, and Anyone Else Who Wants to Feel More Comfortable with the Bard by Barry Edelstein, Sparknotes, New York City. 455 pp, $14.99 paper.
Shakespeare may not mean a lot to academic English departments these days—a recent report, entitled “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, tells us that 55 out of 70 leading universities no longer require English majors to take a Shakespeare course. But productions of Shakespeare have remained fairly constant over the past few years, and publications on Shakespeare have begun to take on the qualities of an assembly line. The four books under review here were all published within a short period of one another, and the heap is growing every day (I should admit, for the sake of full disclosure, that I will be piling my own contribution onto the stack next April).
If one were to judge by titles alone, the most recent commentators are largely concerned with exploring the contents of Shakespeare’s mind. Following A.D. Nuttall’s fine book, Shakespeare the Thinker (published posthumously last year), we now have Philip Davis’s Shakespeare Thinking and Barry Edelstein’s Thinking Shakespeare. There hasn’t been so much demonstrable interest in a single man’s intellect since the last CAT scan of Thomas Jefferson’s brain.
Thinking Shakespeare is actually more of an actor’s hand-book than an investigation of Shakespeare’s mind. But it is a valuable, intelligent study nevertheless, a considerable advance over your garden variety how-to manual. Edelstein nimbly combines two normally intransigent acting approaches—the internal Stanislavsky school’s devotion to objectives, obstacles and actions, and the external Stratford school’s commitment to prosody and scansion. Thus, he proves as comfortable discussing iambs, dactyls, spondees, trochees and anapests as he is exploring actor’s intentions. Indeed, it is Edelstein’s interesting heretical notion that the way Shakespeare placed his stresses tells us everything the actor needs to know about how the part should be played.
The former artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, now teaching Shakespeare acting at New York’s Public Theater, Edelstein is a rare combination of linguistic expert and working stiff who believes that Shakespeare leaves nothing to chance. For him, the central question of each character is “Why is he using these words now?” Determined to rescue Shakespearean elocution from what he calls the “grand, bombastic and British,” Edelstein sometimes feels compelled to drop such pop-culture names as “Star Trek” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” in order to show students how comfortably both he and Shakespeare inhabit their worlds. But he is equally at ease discussing the vagaries of corrupt Quartos and the cuts in the First Folio. Edelstein’s passion for language combined with his concern for truthful acting make this one of the most useful acting guides available.
Philip Davis’s Shakespeare Thinking is another flagon of Rhenish entirely. Part of a new series of “minigraphs” published under the collective rubric of “Shakespeare Now!”, it is a study more indebted to literary and scientific criticism than to actual Shakespeare production. I noticed only one reference in the book to a practical theatre artist, Peter Brook, and that is to his theoretical work, The Empty Space. Davis is perfectly capable of composing a coherent sentence; more often his prose is as clotted as cottage cheese. In a typical passage, he writes: “Shakespeare seems intuitively to love what these days we would call a Mandelbrot fractal: a generated self-symmetry working through varied recursion.” Feel wiser now? Alas, Shakespeare Thinking is drenched with such brainstorms. I think a semanticist would be better qualified than I am to interpret Davis’s allusions to “the brain-mind process” or his assertion that Shakespeare’s language “is quintessentially more like the work of a verb than a noun” (just when I had reached the conclusion it was more in the nature of a diphthong).
Davis is an intelligent man, but I would avoid his classroom at the University of Liverpool if I were you. There he is currently updating thoughts on “subliminal uprush” and “functional shift” by putting his students through various tests—MEG (Magnetoencephalography) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging)—while reading Shakespeare “with electrodes placed on different parts of the scalp.” William Shakespeare, Gent., meet Victor Frankenstein, M.D.
Eric S. Mallin’s Godless Shakespeare, another entrant in the “Shakespeare Now!” series, also has an eye on the ideas of Shakespeare, or, more accurately, on his religious beliefs. Convinced that Shakespeare was a lifelong atheist, Mallin asserts that there are three levels of “afterlife” for his characters: Hell, reserved for those who refuse “to consider a godless universe”; Purgatory, for those with a “skeptical but adaptive response to the chance of godlessness”; and Heaven, for those capable of a “triumphant, productive taking-in of unbelief.” If you take the time to forge your way through the author’s impenetrable prose and opaque inversions, you will discover where his own religious sympathies lie—not always, I fear, in the same pew as Shakespeare’s.
Mallin’s often perverse thesis encourages him to treat Macbeth as Shakespeare’s “funniest play,” in which Banquo’s ghost functions as “a laugh riot” with the capacity to make Macbeth “freak.” Macbeth’s servant, Seyton, is actually Satan and “likely kills Lady Macbeth.” The young and innocent Malcolm, who confesses to sins he never committed in order to test Macduff, nevertheless strikes Mallin as “a truly vile scrap of humanity.” The author’s topsy-turvy view of these characters may explain his conviction that the entire play is more a comedy than a tragedy. “Come to think of it,” he gravely adds, ‘Fawlty Towers’ could be a fairly effective adaptation of Macbeth.” And come to think of it, Charley’s Aunt would make a great modern version of Hamlet’s Uncle. Next time you feel inclined to stage the Scottish play, make sure you have the prop closet stuffed with clown noses, and keep baggy pants on the costume rack.
Notions of this kind fall hard as rain throughout the book. Mallin says Titus Andronicus resembles a Catholic priest and associates the Bloody Banquet with Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. He identifies Troilus with Jesus Christ because of some resemblance he detects in the way they both speak. Hamlet’s “The readiness is all,” says Mallin, is “bullshit,” and The Winter’s Tale “a confidence game.” Bottom’s dream “forecloses religion.” “Happy endings” have “an atheism about them,” and so forth. This entire “minigraph,” in fact, is a cheerful map of misreading by a writer resolutely determined to force Shakespeare to share his own atheist views. (It is also occasionally a map of misquoting, as when Mallin has Juliet say “When I shall die,” instead of “When he shall die,” or has Bottom prepare to use his dream as a “ballet” rather than a “ballad.”)
There is a perfectly sound book to be written about Shakespeare’s changing religious views, from his early Creationism and endorsement of the Great Chain of Being to his reluctantly evolving, horrified sense (stimulated by such conscienceless villains as Iago and Edmund) that there may be nothing transcendent in the universe beyond Nature. But Godless Shakespeare is not that book. In a vain effort to enlist Shakespeare into the legions of contemporary atheists, not to mention his compulsion to say something, anything, original about the plays, the author often falls into stylistic contortions and strained anachronisms.
The final Shakespearean book under discussion, Marvin W. Hunt’s Looking for Hamlet, is a genuine contribution to the massive scholarship regarding this enigmatic figure, a deeply felt and beautifully crafted book. Hunt believes that Hamlet is the greatest play ever written, and that the title character is “the collective dead son of Western history, the lost child that haunts our culture.” His book is a search for this child, both through literature and through history.
Hunt sees Hamlet as poised between a religious past and a secular future, and his pursuit of the character through succeeding ages provides a penetrating analysis, not just of the play but of poetry itself. Beginning with a valuable comparison between Hamlet and its source materials, Hunt goes on to make a close comparison of the two Quartos and the First Folio, demonstrating how the different versions change our sense of the character. He then goes on to pursue his quarry through the Restoration age, which generally disapproved of the play because it was “unreasonable” and regarded Shakespeare as a great genius deaf to the rules; to such Romantics as Goethe, who embraced Hamlet as a brother; to such 19th-century English critics as Hazlitt, who treated him as Everyman; to such French artists as Berlioz, who were inspired by Hamlet’s delirium; to such Russian novelists as Dostoyevsky, who regarded him as a black hole of grief; to the modern Freudian critics and psychologists, preeminently Ernest Jones, who analyzed his complexes.
Hunt is perhaps most cogent on the subject of the postmodern critics, and how Hamlet has become a battleground featuring such old-guard types as Allan Bloom and young Turks like Stanley Fish. He recounts the theories of such feminist critics as Elaine Showalter, who sees the play as a study of intimidation by patriarchal males. And he keeps a perfectly straight face while describing the theories of Jacques Lacan, who interprets Hamlet as being driven by his powerful desire for Ophelia. According to this deconstructionist, Ophelia’s unattainability makes him feel castrated (Ophelia being a homonym for “O phallus”), creating a hole that nothing can fill “except the totality of the signifier.”
Joyce once described Shakespeare as a happy hunting ground where men have lost their reason. Poker-facedly diagnosing the lunacy of others, Hunt beautifully sustains his own reason, and reasonableness, throughout the course of this fascinating if occasionally rough journey. Hunt’s own opinion is that Hamlet is deeply clinically depressed, bipolar, “brilliantly deranged,” hating women, but hating himself even more, a privileged fool who functions as the pattern for Shakespeare’s later wise clowns. But he also understands that Hamlet is much more than the sum of all the theories about him, and ultimately unknowable.
One senses a little disappointment in the author, after his long search for Hamlet, to end up where we find ourselves now, in the swamps of postmodernism. Hunt clearly believes, and I do too, that the curricular changes of a post-literate age are “speeding Hamlet on his way to oblivion,” and Shakespeare along with him. If the play is a dream we may be forgetting, it is not just curricular changes but even some of these books about Shakespeare that are contributing to the amnesia. Nevertheless, cogent studies such as this one demonstrate that Shakespeare still retains the power to animate good minds, and break through the vapors of academic fashion.
Robert Brustein is currently distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk University. His new paly about Shakespeare. The English Channel, debuts in September at the Abinndon Theatre Company in New York City.
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