Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves, by Peter Erickson. University of California Press, 1991, 1994 edition. Read in July and August 2012.
The purpose of this book, Peter Erickson tells us, is to add feminist criticism into the psychoanalytical criticism, new historicism and cultural materialism that had made such important inroads into Shakespearean scholarship in the 1980’s. A worthy purpose and a very interesting book.
He starts by placing Shakespeare and his plays in Elizabethan society and shows how (then as now, one might add) “patriarchal control must constantly be renegotiated” (page 23). “Patriarchal conventions that promote male power...cannot, in Shakespeare’s work, be taken for granted as an automatic, settled norm” (page 23). He goes on to analyse gender, class and nation in All’s Well That Ends Well and Hamlet.
In Part Two Erickson explores how Shakespeare has been represented in the works of three major modern writers: Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor and Adrienne Rich. All three authors have serious issues with the Dead White Men aspect of the Shakespearean canon and they all object to the view that Shakespeare is all-encompassing and universal. Still, they cannot completely resist Shakespeare’s power and these three chapters offer a fascinating insight into how we as 20th, and now 21st, century readers can relate to this inescapable icon of literature. We all have to somehow.
Erickson concludes: “Revision of the literary canon is a legitimate space for the exploration and negotiation of cultural difference, but only if its potential is not overestimated and the link to larger social change strongly maintained” (page 175). He assures us that “Shakespeare criticism is not going out of business” but “has been re-established on a new basis, and this basis is constructive” (page 176).
Reading this now it might seem that his conclusion is obvious and that the whole discussion is much ado about nothing, or at least some ado about not much. But I think at the time the book was written this was a very big issue and there were a lot of scholars who firmly rejected all “new” analysis – psychoanalytical, new historicist, cultural materialist, feminist, post colonialist – of Shakespeare, and this kind of book was vital. Who knows? Maybe it still is. Or is again.
In any case, it’s a most thought provoking and interesting read.