Monday, October 29, 2012

Marxist Shakespeares

Marxist Shakespeares edited by Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, 2001.  Read in April 2010.

                      Marxism has been declared dead many times by liberals, conservatives and red-baiters alike, but somehow the old guy seems to keep popping up, as relevant as ever. And his connection to Shakespeare is considerable.  This volume of essays explores these connections including an analysis of Marx's own view on Shakespeare. According to essay author Peter Stallybrass, Marx read Shakespeare every day.
                      Other essays deal with the role the economy of the renaissance, especially that of trade and industry, play in Shakespeare's world and plays.  Women's positions are analyzed through the spectacles of gender and class. In an analysis of Measure for Measure Kiernan Ryan writes in his essay  “Marxism Before Marx” that through the Foucaultian power in the play Shakespeare has shown “that there can be no justice in a constitutionally unjust society, which is programmed to preserve its unequal distribution of status, wealth and power” (page 240).  Ryan makes the provocative (he uses the word himself) claim that “Shakespeare was a Marxist long before Marx” (page 230) and he concludes, “...Measure for Measure forges for us, from this bleak narrative of constraint, the prospect of an egalitarian community, on whose basis alone the true justice for which our own world still hungers might one day prove attainable” (page 243).
                      Several of the authors mention Harold Bloom - who presents Shakespeare as universal and who scoffs repeatedly at the notion that Shakespeare can be analyzed from a gender, ethnicity or cultural materialist perspective (readers of this blog will have noted that Bloom has often irritated me because of this!) - and gently suggest that his view is limited. To put it more bluntly, if altogether too simply, Bloom represents the school of thought advocating a Shakespearean analysis emphasizing the individual free from society and history while the essayists in this book show how much richer and more rewarding it is to place Shakespeare in the complex development of society and history.
                      In their introduction the two editors place the question of Marx and Shakespeare within the historical changes we have recently experienced and the consequences we are still experiencing by pointing out that not only has Marxism not agreed to die quietly now that the Soviet Union and other states have ceased to exist but that Marxist thought is being renewed: “Marxism continues to provide a compelling framework through which to understand both contemporary texts and events and those of prior periods. If many of us persist in questioning certain aspects of Marx's nineteenth-century project, all of us, in our separate ways, acknowledge that we have not finished thinking through the implications of his immense theoretical revolution.  As the essays in this volume suggest, the ghosts of Shakespeare and of Marx continue to work...deep in the soil of the twenty-first century: 'Remember me.' Of course” (page 15).
                      I recommend this book for serious Shakespeare scholars.

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