(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As editor of a six-volume work entitled Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage (1974-1981), surveying all Shakespearean criticism from 1623 through 1801, Brian Vickers is in an excellent position to assess the state of Shakespearean criticism. Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels, however, is not a considered work of literary history; Vickers intended this highly polemical work to provoke controversy in academic circles. He sets out to demonstrate the fallacies of recent schools of literary theory and criticism, which he charges have willfully appropriated the texts of Shakespeare to fit their critical theories or ideologies. The book is organized into two parts, part 1 analyzing critical theory and part 2 describing critical practice. In part 1, Vickers’ methods involve critically commenting on the theories of his opposition and then countering them with the views of scholars with whom he concurs. Each of his two long theoretical chapters concludes with a reading of Othello.

In the first chapter of part 1, “The Diminution of Language: Saussure to Derrida,” Vickers traces damaging developments in modern literary theory to French theorists whose works were regarded as avant-garde in the 1960’s. He claims that Ferdinand de Saussure, widely recognized as the father of modern linguistics, was also the founder of structuralism, a methodology that was later applied to anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss and to semiology by Roland Barthes. Labeling Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan neostructuralists, Vickers accuses these thinkers of ignoring language as it is used in everyday life for communication. He concludes his survey of structuralism with an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello, entitled “A Test Case fdr Language Theory.” Vickers contends that any theory of language serviceable for interpreting literature must illuminate meaning and respect the “context of utterance,” defined as who is speaking, to whom, under what circumstances, and for what purpose. Denying that a “play” can have agency independent of its author; Vickers insists that intentionality should be attributed to the characters in a drama rather than to the “play,” which is an aesthetic whole that organizes meaning. In fact, what Vickers offers is a close reading of Othello that pays particular attention to words and imagery relating to language.

By the title Appropriating Shakespeare, Vickers means “the interested, self aggrandizing, social possession of systems of discourse,” a definition taken from Frank Lentricchia’s After the New Criticism (1980). Vickers’ second chapter, entitled “Creator and Interpreters,” maintains that the theoretical schools deriving from Barthes and Foucault are destructive, attacking the concept of the author as a creative intelligence shaping a literary work. Vickers is particularly concerned with their attempts to suggest that we misread works of literature if we look for a coherent meaning.

In response to these theories, Vickers offers a brief essay on convention and the way it dominates representation, citing as examples the tendency to believe a slanderer in Renaissance drama and the existence of character types such as “the melancholic lover, the quarrelsome braggart, the dignified king.” He concludes with an overview of Shakespeare’s adaptation of major English sources, Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland(1577) and Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans. To show that Shakespeare had a sense of organic unity he offers a detailed study of how he adapted Othello from Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565; one hundred tales).

Part 2 contains five chapters, each of which concerns the critical practices of a theoretical school that Vickers finds either biased or harmful to Shakespearean criticism. He takes to task “deconstruction,” “New Historicism,” “psychocriticism,” and “feminist stereotypes,” and then devotes his final chapter to Christians and Marxists, concluding with an epilogue entitled “Masters and Demons.”

Tracing the theoretical underpinning of deconstruction to Jacques Derrida, he characterizes it as a largely American phenomenon, suggesting that American theorists have been far too willing to espouse a theory already regarded by Europeans as suspect. Quite interestingly, Vickers obliquely acknowledges the debt of deconstruction to the New Criticism of the 1940’s and 1950’s by mentioning that it sets...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)