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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1883

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.

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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 out to locate ambivalence or indeterminacy in a text, a procedure followed by William Empson, but neglects to develop this fruitful insight into its history. After lengthy exegesis of the works of Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller, Vickers examines and finds wanting the deconstructionist criticism of Miller, Gary Waller, John M. Kopper, Howard Felperin, Malcolm Evans, and others. Vickers concludes that the inevitable result of deconstruction is to reduce drama to the level of mere language and to manipulate the language until it validates a Derridean theory.

New Historicism, according to Stephen Greenblatt, moves away from the formalist isolation of New Criticism by attempting to contextualize literary works as products of the culture producing them. In fact, Greenblatt has affirmed that “Cultural Poetics” is a better descriptive label for his theory than New Historicism. Vickers justly warns that “the alternative to ’isolation’ can be irrelevant contextualisation.” To demonstrate that Greenblatt is culpable on precisely these grounds, he exhaustively examines Greenblatt’s studies of the love test in act 1 of King Lear, transvestism in Twelfth Night, devil lore in King Lear, and interpretations of The Tempest andHenry V as parables of colonialism. Many of Vickers’ objections are valid, but his highly contentious tone is likely to alienate even a sympathetic reader. Reprimanding Greenblatt for misreading Henry V, Vickers denounces him for assuming that any character who assumes an ethical position must be hypocritical:

This exemplary story of the emergence of a supremely successful and legitimate ruler can be of little interest to the avowedly politicised New Historicist, disillusioned after Vietnam, Watergate, the Gulf War, or any of a dozen episodes in contemporary history that reveal our governors in the worst possible light. The jaundiced idealist Greenblatt, preferring to side with “rotten opinion” and “base newsmongers, writes a sustained indictment of Hal.

Vickers’ sustained indictment of Stephen Greenblatt (and only incidentally his work) may have the reverse effect of what Vickers intends.

Vickers finds the psychocriticism inspired by Sigmund Freud monotonous, but he is particularly concerned that this movement ignores questions of genre, style, and historical context. He illustrates psychoanalytic critics’ distortion and omission by analysis of work by Ruth Nevo, Kay Stockholder, Marjorie Barber, and Stanley Cavell. Here Vickers seems less antagonistic to the theory than to the practice; he seems willing to concede a potential value to Freudian models as long as they are applied with scrupulous care.

In “Feminist Stereotypes: Misogyny, Patriarchy, Bombast” (which is likely to provoke more controversy in academic circles than it deserves), Vickers begins by differentiating feminism as a political movement designed to correct discrimination from feminist criticism, which he thinks too frequently politicizes literary works in ways that violate their integrity and individuality. Vickers endorses the goals of the political movement, but instead of squarely addressing the problems of conflating a long-overdue political movement with the promotion of women’s studies, he says that he is not hostile to women’s studies and merely wishes to correct the “injustice done to Shakespeare.”

Vickers’ history of feminist criticism begins with the publication of The Woman’s Part (1980) and traces admittedly uncritical notions of patriarchy to Lawrence Stone’s influential The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977). Vickers acknowledges that Stone has been corrected by historians, but concludes that “for the great majority of feminist Shakespeare critics, however, blissfully unaware of the weakness of Stone’s thesis, patriarchy continues to serve as a monolithic, reified bogey- man.” Since Vickers’ book appeared in 1993 and he had an opportunity to add notes citing articles appearing as late as 1992, this kind of charge ought to be supported by reference to works appearing after Stone’s work was reviewed. The lack of chronological rigor is troubling. Articles appearing in 1980, probably written a year or two earlier are treated as representative of “current” feminist criticism. Vickers works against his own argument by citing studies written before corrections of Stone’s theories had been fully absorbed. Returning toOthello, Vickers finds feminist criticism guilty of ignoring Iago. Again, the articles cited were published in 1980, 1981, 1986, 1981, and 1980, respectively; more recent feminist scholarship onOthello is ignored.

In conclusion, Vickers compliments the achievements of feminist history because the new social history draws upon a body of material not previously subjected to critical analysis. He is less sanguine about the addition of women writers to the canon, explaining that these women were amateurs and thus subject to the same difficulties experienced by amateur men writers, “cut off from the public arena which discourages so many of the untalented, and exposes those who do find a footing to the necessity of satisfying a reading or theatre-going public.” Vickers concludes that “the writings of most amateur writers, male or female, hardly repay prolonged study.” Helen Vendler, whom Vickers cites as agreeing with his conclusion, may be willing to overlook Emily Dickinson, but few Renaissance scholars will be willing to accept “professionalism” as an index of literary quality. Given a choice between including Mary Sidney Herbert and Thomas Tusser in an anthology of Renaissance literature, Vickers himself would be unlikely to choose the professional over the amateur.

Vickers concludes his discussion of feminist criticism with a tribute to the contributions of women scholars to current understanding of the Renaissance, but adds that their contributions “have been neglected of late as not fitting the current political paradigms.” His inference is clear—women scholars are not the problem, but feminist scholarship is. Vickers’ call for fresh interpretive models for feminist criticism is legitimate, but his polemical tone may obscure the valid issues he raises.

Linking Christian and Marxist approaches to Shakespeare, Vickers sees these ideologically based kinds of criticism as not only ignoring dramatic structure and experience but also turning the characters themselves into allegorical figures. He has a veritable field day with Christian allegorists, especially those who use psychoanalytic models. Marxism he finds much more restrained, though inclined to be as dull as naive Freudianism. The British equivalent to the American New Historicism is classified by Vickers as neo-Marxist.

On the charge frequently voiced by Alan Sinfield and others that requiring Shakespeare on examinations has accustomed schoolchildren to an unjust social order, Vickers is scathing. He points out that the alternative to rewarding a new petty bourgeoisie based on education would be to base social advancement on family connections. His opposition to these attacks on Shakespeare is fueled by his own experience: Stating that he grew up in a miner’s cottage in South Wales and owed his education to the 1944 Butler Education Act, he modestly declines to add that he later won the Harness Shakespeare Essay Prize at Cambridge.

Vickers’ epilogue, not unfairly, describes the academy as a battleground in which pugnacious theoretical cliques battle for ascendancy. Repeating his charges that Marxists, feminists, and other theoretical cliques have distorted Shakespeare’s works in order to promote their ideologies, he laments that literary criticism has been politicized by these theorists. Nevertheless, he concludes on a positive note by advocating objectivism, rationality, and pluralism—principles that he insists ought to inform discourse inside and outside the academy.

Sources for Further Study


Choice
. XXXI, November, 1993, p.458.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXIX, June 23, 1993, p. AlO.

The Observer. April 18, 1993, p.63.

The Sewanee Review. CI, Fall, 1993, p. cxvii.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 23, 1993, p.20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, June 6, 1993, p.13.

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