Monday, January 28, 2013

Egan Shakespeare and Marx

Shakespeare and Marx by Gabriel Egan, 2004.  Read in July 2010.

                      This is a compact and very useful little book and in fact I’ve used in several of my texts on this blog. Into four chapters Egan packs a wealth of analysis.
In the first chapter, “Shakespeare, Marx, Production and the World of Ideas”, Egan shows how two Marxist approaches can be applied to Shakespeare. One is to look at the working class characters in the plays and the other is to look at how Shakespeare’s plays depict historical change. Egan points out that the “genius of Marx is how he relates the individual to historical change and insists that, working together, individuals make their own history even though the conditions under which they make it are not of their own choosing. Shakespeare too is concerned with historical changes and many of his plays depict how large effects result from the actions of individuals“ (page 17).
One of the book’s emphases is to show how Marxist analysis has influenced our interpretation of Shakespeare.  Chapter Two shows this influence on authors before 1968, including George Bernhard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare scholar E.M.W. Tillyard and various liberal attacks against the Marxist approach.
Chapter Three offers views on Marxist influence on Shakespeare critics since 1968, dealing quite thoroughly with our friend Stephen Greenblatt and his emerging New Historicism through his groundbreaking Shakespearean Negotiations from 1988, and the British version of New Historicism, Cultural Materialism.  Pointing out the problems contemporary scholars have in finding new angles of literature to analyze, Egan ends the chapter with the words, “…this above all makes Shakespeare the primary place where a Marxist sense of the tension between inevitability and the human powers of intervention can be expressed in art” (page 97).
Chapter Four, “Shakespeare and Marx Today”, deals with various new takes on some of the plays in which the rising bourgeois class of Shakespeare’s time is now seen as part of the historical process rather than just a group of individuals in a static society.
And finally, in his short conclusion, “Marx and Genetics”, Egan makes an interesting parallel between the “meme” invented by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene: “One class of memes has proved exceedingly well suited to getting itself copied by generations of speakers, first in English and subsequently in all the major world languages: the Shakespeare plays” (page 141).
He concludes this thought-provoking and enjoyable book by intertwining Shakespeare’s and Marx’s shared humanism thus: “Representing two ways of expressing essentially the same phenomenon, we can read Shakespeare via Marx and Marx via Shakespeare with an optimist eye to the future not the past” (page149).
Highly recommended!

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