Reinventing Shakespeare

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History, from the Restoration to the Present is tripartite. The first five chapters trace the fortunes of popular and critical response to William Shakespeare, from the Restoration in 1660 until the mid-twentieth century; chapter 6, “Present Tense,” attempts to delineate what author Gary Taylor calls a “turmoil” in Shakespeare criticism; the seventh and concluding chapter, “Singularity,” is Taylor’s own appraisal of Shakespeare’s place in the literary firmament.

Taylor himself is a partisan, a fomenter of turmoil and a self-confessed young Turk; feisty, sharp-tongued, at times contradictory, his study of “Shakesperotics” (Taylor’s neologism for the study of how a culture imparts meaning to Shakespeare and in turn is shaped by Shakespeare) is far from objective. At the conclusion of Reinventing Shakespeare, Taylor cautions his readers not to trust him; notes are provided, he writes, so skeptics can check his interpretations of literary history. Yet the general reader, for whom the book is intended, would be unlikely to know in advance what Taylor has “overlooked or suppressed.” This disingenuousness is precisely illustrative of one of Taylor’s main concerns: that those who have a stake in the modern Shakespeare industry-academic critics and critics of critics, those who owe their livelihood to the cultural icon they themselves have fashioned—have been less than candid with themselves and with the larger public. Shakespeare has been interpreted and reinterpreted so often that he has become a “singularity”—not in the sense of “one of surpassing greatness” but in the astronomical sense of “black hole.” “Shakespeare himself no longer transmits visible light; his stellar energies have been trapped within the gravity well of his own reputation. We find in Shakespeare only what we bring to him or what others have left behind; he gives us back our own values.” Thus, since Taylor is part of the industry he criticizes, Reinventing Shakespeare must be taken not as an attempt at dispassionate literary history, but as a decidedly political reading of Shakespeare’s reputation, which in the end says little about Shakespeare and much about Gary Taylor.

Taylor in turn would enjoy the irony, for his purpose in the book is to show forth the mutability of Shakespeare, and to banish forever the notion that the text of King Lear, for example, sprang whole from the master’s pen. Indeed, as general editor with Stanley Wells of The Complete Oxford Shakespeare (1987), Taylor offers two texts of the play. One, which he calls The History of King Lear, is based on a quarto text of 1608; the other, The Tragedy of King Lear, is substantially the text printed in the Folio of 1623. (Quarto texts were of individual plays; the Folio gathered most of the plays together in one volume.) Modern editions of King Lear present a conflated text as editors sought to bring unity to what Taylor claims are two separate plays, the second, with its substantial cuts in dialogue, the version most suited to the theater.

The very words of Shakespeare, as a result of the textual criticism of the 1970’s and 1980’s, are newly debatable. And that, according to Taylor, is only appropriate. Shakespeare’s plays were first intended to be played, not shut up in a book. In the Elizabethan theater, as in all theater, there was a constant tinkering with the text to suit the audience, the actors, the time and materials available. As Shakespeare rewrote and collaborated with others, notably John Fletcher for The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634) and Thomas Middleton for The Life of Timon of Athens (first printed 1623), and given the vagaries of Elizabethan spelling and printing, it is apparent to Taylor that no definitive text of Shakespeare’s work is possible, or desirable:Drama, as an art form, cannot be produced by a single individual; like the building of a medieval cathedral, it requires a community. This community produces a “socialized text” compounded of contributions from many sources. The playwright’s contribution may dominate, but it can no longer be disentangled from all the others.

An author whose very words cannot be pinned down with absolute assurance must necessarily belie any “definitive” reading, any attempt to bludgeon the masses with “what Shakespeare thought.” Shakespeare’s malleability both fits the renewed...

(The entire section is 1833 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, September 17, 1989, p.28.

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