illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Marxist Criticism: Cultural Materialism, and the History of the Subject

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

James Cunningham, Trinity College, Carmarthen, Wales

In his primer Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976), Terry Eagleton defines Marxism as "a scientific theory of human societies and of the practice of reforming them."1 Marxist criticism, he states, "analyses literature in terms of the historical conditions which produce it" (vi). The business of this criticism is "to understand ideologies—the ideas, values and feelings by which men experience their societies at various times," some of the ideologies of the past being accessible only in literature. An understanding of ideologies, it is argued, helps clarify the process of social control and "contributes to our liberation" (viii). Ideologies, as socially generated and historically relative ways of apprehending reality, are understood to reflect and underpin the status quo; or, as Eagleton puts it in a more sophisticated study, ideologies are "modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving, and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power."2 Not every Marxist critic would accept Eagleton's formulation, but his definition of ideology is consistent with the practice of most of the critics who have written on Shakespeare's tragedies from a Marxist viewpoint, and when the expression "the Marxist" is used in the following account it is in the restricted sense of those who have contributed significantly to the Shakespearean debate. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, for example, consider ideology to be "composed of those beliefs, practices, and institutions which work to legitimate the social order."3 In common with many Marxist theoreticians, Eagleton, Dollimore, and Sinfield conceive of ideologies not as "a set of false beliefs capable of correction by perceiving properly," but as "the very terms in which we perceive the world."4 Ideology works to maintain existing power relations and mitigate class conflict by providing a system of apparently natural forms of consciousness that actually interpret reality in particular ways and inhibit alternative interpretations.

The relationship between literature and ideology is a stress-point in Marxist theory, and only an outline can be given here. It would be theoretically consistent with Marxism to hold that literature merely reflects ideological distortions of reality and thereby helps to sustain the established order. A more fruitful approach for the literary critic, however, is exemplified by Ernst Fischer's Art Against Ideology (1969), which argues that art disrupts ideologies, yielding insights into social realities. This view has been given impetus by the theories of Louis Althusser, whose refinements to the concept of ideology have made possible the formulations of the Shakespearean critics cited above. Althusser's model of reading provides a theoretical defense of the view that literature is not merely a reflection of ideology. Althusser argues that the view of reality immanent in a text is always incomplete, because the conceptual apparatus of the writer cannot render a comprehensive account of the relations between the phenomena of which he writes. A competent reader will therefore approach a text as a psychoanalyst approaches a patient's symptoms, reading beyond what is stated, into the gaps and incongruities, and elucidating what the text evades in the light of a more coherent and exhaustive intellectual framework. Such a "symptomatic reading" will give access to "a different text, present as a necessary absence of the first."5 Althusser uses this model to explain Marx's superimposition of new theory on the silences and fissures in earlier economic theories. His analysis problematizes the relations between author and text, text and reality, and he tries, by operating in the textual interstices, to reconstruct the intellectual constraints within which the work was produced.

Althusser's version of the text is echoed in Pierre Macherey's influential study

(This entire section contains 11235 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Althusser's version of the text is echoed in Pierre Macherey's influential studyA Theory of Literary Production (1966; 1978 translation). Like Althusser, Macherey expounds an anti-unitary and anti-intentionalist view of the text. A literary work, he contends, is not "created by an intention" but "produced" under certain conditions.6 The writer cannot transcend his social consciousness, but the tensions in his society's apprehension of reality will be discernible in the work's "incompleteness" or "de-centredness" (79). This "formlessness and imperfection" must be recognized as the consequence of the work's presentation of ideology in literary form. Ideology processed in literature loses its normal invisibility; literature "constructs a determinate image of the ideological, revealing it as an object rather than living it from within." Ideology is "put to the test of the written word, the test of that watchful gaze in which all subjectivity is captured, crystallised in objective form" (131). The critic, in exploring the internal discontinuities of the text and their relation to the ideological material that has been used to produce it, "must go beyond the work and explain it, must say what it does not and could not say: just as the triangle remains silent on the sum of its angles" (77). The debt to psychoanalysis is evident in Macherey's reference to "the unconscious of the work" (92). With Macherey's notion of writing as production, a new agenda is set for the critic. Interpreting a text in the sense of extricating inherent truths that elude the nonspecialist reader becomes impossible if the text itself marks a problematic rendering of reality. The critic's task is to account for the pathology of the text by employing diagnostic tools not available to the writer. In Macherey's case, this means using Marxism.

The interface between Marxist and poststructuralist theory is a difficult area, raising questions about the compatibility of the two analytical systems, but mention should be made here of the influence of the poststructuralist historian Michel Foucault on Marxist criticism. In a series of studies, Foucault develops the argument that the complex of conventions governing what is thought, said, and written is a function of the power structure.7 Every culture, he maintains, has an "archive" of permissible discourse that reflects the distribution of power but is beyond the grasp of any individual; it is ideological in the sense that it codifies reality in terms consistent with the maintenance of the existing order, for example by binary oppositions such as "sanity" and "madness." In all our discursive practices, we are compelled to think and express thought by way of the governing codes specific to our social context. As a result, we can never achieve an Olympian understanding of history; in reading the past, we always read ourselves into the text. We can, however, perceive the ideological constraints of Renaissance writing better than the writers themselves because we no longer share their discursive archive.

If Macherey suggests a method for the Marxist critic—and it is one taken up in important critiques by Jonathan Dollimore and Catherine Belsey—liberal humanism provides a target. To the Marxist, liberal humanism denotes the keystone in the ideological arch of Western capitalism: the belief in the individual as a unique essence, autonomous, unified, and capable of knowledge and decision-making; and the accompanying assumption that this is man's natural state, liberated and fostered by capitalism. The Marxist objection to this view of man is that it obscures the social determinants of identity in the interests of a particular social formation, making what is contingent appear natural and inevitable. This suppression of social factors weakens the ethical and political force of humanism: it is merely "the impotent conscience of bourgeois society," trapped in a paradoxical relationship with a system that has "very little time for it at all." It is "a suburban moral ideology, limited in practice to largely interpersonal matters . . . and its valuable concern with freedom, democracy, and individual rights are simply not concrete enough."8

The received notion of the value of literature is seen by the Marxist as an arm of liberal humanism, in particular the propositions that literature is life-enhancing, that it reproduces the texture of experience, and that it cultivates the moral sense. The Marxist perceives literature in different terms. As Terry Eagleton puts it, "Literature, in the meaning of the word we have inherited, is an ideology. It has the most intimate relations to questions of social power."9 He goes on to argue that, from the time of Matthew Arnold onwards, and concurrently with the decline of established Christianity, English literature has served as an element of the power structure, providing "the social 'cement,' affective values and basic mythologies by which a socially turbulent class-society can be welded together."10 It achieves its quietisi effects, Eagleton submits, by perpetuating the myth that the individual is a unique self-regulating agent; by implying that there are universal human values that are more important than any restrictions imposed by social organization; by making possible a literary culture compatible with imperialism; and by allaying frustration through the provision of vicarious fulfilment. For Eagleton, English literature is a "non-subject," since it overlaps with other disciplines to the exclusion of a distinctive methodology and cannot define its subject matter except as the arbitrary selection of books taught. Its methods proliferate unsystematically and are often employed idiosyncratically. Yet, Eagleton contends, while it professes hostility to doctrinaire schools of criticism, orthodox literary criticism ensures self-preservation by an implicit but nonetheless firm regulation of its discourse. Only certain kinds of utterance are permissible as literary criticism, and this internal discipline is enforced throughout the educational system. The university English school, therefore, is, in Althusserian parlance, "part of the ideological apparatus of the modern capitalist state."11

Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield designate their Marxist approach "cultural materialism," a term derived from Raymond Williams. They offer "a combination of historical context, theoretical method, political commitment, and textual analysis." Their use of "cultural" draws on the evaluative and nonevaluative senses of the word, indicating their attitude to high culture as "one set of signifying practices among others."12 "Materialism" signals a desire to ground cultural artifacts such as Shakespeare's plays in the physical, economic, political, and social circumstances of their production and reception. Dollimore and Sinfield dedicate their critical activity to the transformation of a society that they regard as repressive and exploitative: they aim to elucidate "How Shakespeare has been used to sustain delusions of social unity and subjective freedom in what is in fact a divided, striferidden culture."13

In this context, the very idea of tragedy is itself ideological. The issue is raised vigorously by Dollimore in Radical Tragedy (1984), as he sets out to challenge humanist criticism of tragedy on the grounds that, in sanctifying the suffering of the individual and presenting it as an inevitable part of the human condition, it distracts our attention from the alterable social causes of human misery and therefore has a politically conservative effect. He contrasts this appropriation of the genre with what he sees as the subversive import of Renaissance tragedies. Radical Tragedy deals with English tragedies of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean period, including King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, viewing them as theatrical precursors of the political revolution in the seventeenth century. Building on Macherey's analysis of the relation of literature to ideology, Dollimore argues that his chosen tragedies subvert orthodox belief, not in a transcendent manner, but partially and fitfully. Macherey is cited three times and his theory of literary production juxtaposed suggestively to the Brechtian alienation effect, which, by encouraging in the audience a critical posture towards the representation, challenges the ontological basis of accepted realities and thereby intimates the ideological status of our commonsense view of things. Dollimore also takes his bearings from an analogy, found in Macherey and Eagleton, between the textual processing of ideology and the theatrical production of a play; the production "cannot transcend its text but it may nevertheless interrogate it with critical rigour."14 The interrogation of ideology may be partly the result of the author's intention, Dollimore adds, but intentional radicalism is less important than those "aspects of that historical process . . . already there in the language, forms, conventions, genres being used."15 Any conscious social critique by the writer, although not excluded from Dollimore's theory, is subordinated to the concretization of ideology in the linguistic and literary formulas of the day. It is in the theorizing of the articulation and disintegration of ideology that the Macherey model figures in Dollimore's argument, allowing him to speak of the "attempted coherence and actual incoherence" of Jacobean tragedy (68).

Dollimore's interest in the uses to which Shakespeare is put means that he is as much occupied by the critical reception of texts as by his own readings. He bases his political critique of humanism on generalizations about the criticism of the tragedies in what he terms the "recent years," prior to 1984 (189). An examination of his case in relation to King Lear will illustrate how Marxist criticism can work on the tragedies. It will also show that Dollimore's version of humanist criticism is overgeneralized and fails to take account of the variety of humanist exegesis that exists alongside the Bradleyan tradition.

Dollimore's readings of Jacobean tragedy bring him into planned confrontation with what he presents as a clear-cut critical orthodoxy. He contends that Christian interpretations of Jacobean tragedy, taking man as the pivot of a providential scheme, have been supplanted by "the humanist view" (188). This continues to place man in a central position, but in a world that balks his aspirations and fails to satisfy his needs. Redemption in such a situation is achieved when adversity seeks out the deepest resources of the human spirit. Tragic suffering is redemptive, not in a specifically Christian sense, but inasmuch as it reveals man's courage or his capacity for pity. Dollimore teases out two strands of humanism that, he claims, feature in the criticism of tragedy. "Existential" humanism celebrates man's inherent capacity to brave misfortune with dignity. "Ethical" humanism admires the inherent human impulse to pity others, seeing it as part of man's "essential humanity" (194). Dollimore maintains that the Christian residue in critiques based on these species of humanism is evident in their religiose diction, in their essentialism (man as a "quasi-transcendent identity," 190), and in the implied link they forge between suffering, growth, and affirmation of the value of human life. Their sustaining principle Dollimore defines as the "tragic paradox" (189) that in "individual extinction" lies man's "transcendence" (194). This assertion of the Christian infusion into tragic criticism deserves to be taken seriously. The idea of purgatorial suffering is an observable feature in Bradley, Brower, Honigmann, Mehl, and Wilson, who represent, as outlined above, the conservative wing in a broad church. It could not, however, be applied without careful qualification to Mack, Long, or even Lever. Undeterred, Dollimore refers confidently to a supposed consensus that he terms "the humanist theory of tragedy" (156). This version of the critical orthodoxy must, like any other, be premised on selection, exclusion, and the placing of emphasis; how tendentious these are affect the cogency of the case. Instead of accepting Dollimore's sketchmap of the humanist critical terrain, it will be useful to look once again at the landscape.

Philip Brockbank's British Academy Lecture of 1976, "Upon Such Sacrifices," is described by Dollimore as a "sensitive humanist reading" of King Lear.16Brock-bank is said by Dollimore to argue for the importance of Lear's pity in his redemption and renewal. Yet Lear's very empathy with the poor, Dollimore insists, is the product of an experience of dispossession denied most kings; it therefore merely accentuates the division between high and low that is inherent in hierarchical societies. The redemptive value of the King's newfound pity for his subjects must be qualified by our knowledge of the Lear society, which is "structured in such a way that to wait for shared experience to generate justice is to leave it too late."17 Moreover, the argument goes, Lear's pity is assimilated into the solipsism of his own grief and is soon ousted by a desire for vengeance. Dollimore goes on to expound a Marxist reading of the play in which the king is confronted with the social origins of his identity and the power structure on which it depends; dislocation rather than purification takes place. The play is "about power, property, and inheritance," and it demonstrates that human values and in particular the allegedly natural ties of kinship are actually functions of material conditions.18 Cordelia's frankness is a threat to Lear because it divests the existing order of its ideological niceties. In asking why Regan and Goneril have husbands if, as they claim, they love Lear absolutely, Cordelia applies a corrosive political realism to those filial relations that her sisters have mystified by rhetoric. The other antagonist to the status quo is Edmund, voicing in his "revolutionary scepticism" an understanding of the operation of power, yet ironically bound to assert himself through material advancement in the very regime that he demystifies. Lear and Gloucester, too, continue to measure human importance on a scale of money and possessions, Dollimore argues, and even at the end the survivors "attempt to recuperate their society in just those terms which the play has subjected to sceptical interrogation."19 The deaths of Cordelia and Lear, however, undermine the efforts to reinstate the discredited social framework.

In the light of this reading, Dollimore complains of Brockbank's "idea that man can redeem himself in and through an access of pity" and declares that "far from transcending in the name of an essential humanity the gulf which separates the privileged from the deprived, the play insists on it."20 This, coupled with his earlier remark that "Through kind-ness and shared vulnerability human kind redeems itself," makes clear the kind of redemption Dollimore has in mind: it is primarily a spiritual exaltation of Lear himself, his "transcendence" in "extinction."21 This is the brand of humanism that Dollimore associates with the Bradleyan metaphysic. Certainly the title of Brockbank's paper recalls Bradley's reading of King Lear, and in particular the suggestion that Lear's words "Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia / The gods themselves throw incense" (Folio text, 5.3.20-21)22 denote a redemptive "renunciation of the world, with its power and glory and resentments and revenges."23 But in other respects, Dollimore's account, even allowing for customary critical smash-and-grab, is a considerable distortion of Brockbank's argument.

"Upon Such Sacrifices" proposes common elements in sacrifice and tragedy. Brockbank's idea of the sacrificial is derived from Walter Burkert, who points out that sacrifice and tragedy formalize "Human existence face to face with death."24 In sacrificial ritual, Burkert goes on, the horror of death and of taking life in obedience to divine injunction is alleviated by a ritual emphasis on the fitness, even the willingness, of the victim. Examining the sacrificial resonances set up by King Lear, Brockbank contends that sacrifice, in Burkert's terms a ritual confrontation with death, "persists as an elemental if not inescapable process of human consciousness," and that this persistence sheds light on our response to tragedy.25 Thus, the renewal envisaged by Brockbank is radically different from the equable Christian-humanist version imputed to him by Dollimore. It is located in the audience rather than in the protagonist, is communal rather than individual, and proceeds from a collective encounter with death. Far from elevating Lear's pity to a redemptive emotion in Lear's case, Brockbank stresses the deconstruction of Lear's ego, the "dissolution of the senses and of the self (27) that attests to his "fitness for death" (26) as a sacrificial victim. Nor does Brockbank suggest that Lear's pity redeems his social order by mitigating it, and thereby justifying it in principle. He argues that with Lear perishes "the kind of authority once exercised but now played out" (26). The tragic process carries away both the king and the order that once sustained him. If Brockbank's reference to pity as "a condition for the renewal of human life" (27) is unclear, as Dollimore alleges, the point may be elucidated by considering the assertion elsewhere in the lecture that "It is an essential element in the sacrificial experience that life should be renewed, refreshed, reawakened, resurrected" (25). A confrontation with death brings the audience back with a reanimated appreciation of life; the crucial exercise of pity is not by Lear, but for Lear. The thrust of Brockbank's lecture, properly understood, suggests the partiality of Dollimore's representation of it. True, Brockbank occasionally gestures towards "existential humanism," in his admiration of Cordelia's "invincible independence of spirit" for example (5); equally, he is prepared to explore Christian doctrine and metaphor; but in other ways, his analysis proposes a Lear as challenging as anything in Radical Tragedy. To reduce Brockbank to a component of a humanist consensus is therefore unjustified, unless that consensus is more generously defined.

Another of Dollimore's candidates for the putative humanist orthodoxy is Clifford Leech. Dollimore reads Leech's observation in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Other Studies in Seventeenth Century Drama (1950) that tragic heroes have "the power to endure and the power to apprehend" as an indication of existential humanism, with its accent on a defiantly struggling humanity. In the work cited, there is a wealth of evidence to support Dollimore's view, including the statement that in admiring the hero we are "proud of our human nature because in such characters it comes to fine flower"; there is also, significantly, a Bradleyan reference to "doom-in-the-character."26 Yet the publication date of Leech's comments means that they hardly help to establish a modern orthodoxy in relation to Dollimore's publication date of 1984. A little more recent is Leech's brief survey of tragic theory, Tragedy (1969). This does have some common ground with the earlier work but has moved perceptibly away from essentialism and from Bradley. While the 1950 study argues the exercise of a degree of free will by the tragic protagonist, the 1969 survey describes as "too simple"27 the idea that an act of will by the hero triggers the tragic sequence of events. Instead, Leech accentuates "the encompassing process" itself (39), the "developing process of event" (38) in which the protagonist is caught. The concept of free will is described as "highly dubious" in relation to tragedy (41). This stress on circumambient conditions, together with Leech's remarks on the ideological nature of the sense of free choice, reflects a concession to the formative power of social process. A complementary shift takes place in Leech's revised account of the tragic effect. The balance of terror and pride, seen in the earlier study as producing stasis and a "quiet close," is now modified by the recognition that "balance does not mean equanimity. Rather it gives to our response its peculiar anguish, its basic sense of puzzlement."28 There is no facile affirmation here, but a clear acknowledgement that the experience of tragedy resists quietisi interpretations. To read Leech historically, then, reveals that his views are not static, not part of a consensual monolith, but subject to change and ready to absorb what appear to be materialist elements.

A similar lack of historical sense mars Dollimore's comments on G. K. Hunter's criticism. Dollimore notes wryly that Hunter, in Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (1978), describes the humanist approach as "the modern outlook which sees King Lear as the central Shakespearian statement," because it "not only strips and reduces and assaults human dignity" but also shows "the process of restoration by which humanity can recover from this degradation." The operation of essential and existential humanism is clearly visible in Hunter's critique, with its assertion that "the individual mind is seen here as the place from which a man's most important qualities and relationships draw the whole of their potential," and its claim that Lear seeks to "pursue the tenor of his own significance" by steadfastly affirming "his innermost perceptions."29 Dollimore's quotation of the word "modern" seems intended as an ironic glance at Hunter's remoteness from the real front line of critical endeavor; but the hit is poorly directed, since Hunter's essay "Shakespeare's Last Tragic Heroes," from which the comment in question comes, appeared in 1966 as "The Last Tragic Heroes" in The Later Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. Dollimore quotes from a reissue of the essay, with minor changes, in Hunter's 1978 collection of essays. Failure to clarify the genealogy of the piece would be allowable if Dollimore intended merely to establish some broad twentieth-century trends, but to prove Hunter is out of touch would require more scrupulous handling of the evidence. Even disregarding the chronology, we are not justified in extrapolating Hunter's approach to Shakespeare's tragedies in general from his observations on King Lear. Hunter contends in the same essay that later tragedies such as Timon of Athens, Macbeth, and Coriolanus insist on "the isolated individual's ultimate powerlessness" and show that the self-will of the tragic heroes evades its social consequences only by being fixed in death. Shakespeare's skeptical view of the protagonists presages the "loss of confidence in the heroic individual" to be found in the final plays.30 Hunter's interpretation of King Lear should be taken in conjunction with his readings of the later tragedies if oversimplification is to be avoided. Dollimore's humanist consensus again proves a misrepresentation.

Barbara Everett's essay "The New King Lear" (1960) is cited by Dollimore as another product of the existential humanism that, he maintains, has superseded Christian exegeses of the play.31 Evidence to support Dollimore's view is found in Everett's admiration of the enormous, fate-defying passion with which Lear confronts "a hostile universe," and in her proposition that tragedy serves "to ennoble and illuminate the moment of death."32 Once more, however, Dollimore neglects the considerable qualification of humanism in the criticism under discussion. Everett is careful to dissociate her critique from any mystification of suffering, tartly defining Bradley's idea of Lear's redemption as a matter of "what happens to Lear's soul outweighing what happens to his body" (328). The suffering of Lear, she argues, is not mitigated by any redemptive learning on his part; learning in Lear's case means admitting the likelihood of future suffering, and Everett suggests that "No moralistic outline that blurs this can be fully satisfying" (335). Moreover, Everett modifies Lear's status as the hero. She points out that his demand for "absolutes of love, of power, and of truth itself is counterpoised by the play's emphasis on the tragic absolutes of "silence and cessation," which undercut "the idea of the overriding power of heroic and individual experience" (336). Nor does Everett substitute a humanist reconciliation (man with life, man with his own nature) for the Christian reconciliation she rejects. For her, part of the exhilaration of tragedy may be a question of form, the "gaiety of mastery inherent in the creative act," rather than the result of "any cheerful propositions made by tragedy itself (339). In her willingness to reckon with the negatives of King Lear and with a formalistic explanation of the tragic effect, Everett broadens her reading to encompass not only existential humanism but also its qualifiers. The richness of her critique is not captured by Dollimore's selective account.33

One of the most recent critical studies referred to by Dollimore, and therefore a particularly useful example of the alleged modern humanist consensus, is J. W. Lever's The Tragedy of State (1971), . . . . According to Dollimore, "existential humanism forms the basis" of Lever's analysis.34 Dollimore deprecates Lever's centering of the hero's response to events rather than the social milieu in which the characters operate. The comment may be taken as an extreme reaction to the Senecan element in Lever's critique. Lever does in fact take significant account of the social ground from which his chosen tragedies spring and of the social backdrop in each play. If Dollimore finds existential humanism in Lever's definition of certain tragedies as dramas of adversity and stance, it must be made clear that not all of the protagonists are said by Lever to achieve a stance of defiance or Stoical endurance. In his reading of Webster's The White Devil, it is Lever's similarity to Marxist criticism that stands out, not his humanism. The characters are seen as "victims of power": guilty or innocent, they stifle in the "suffocating ambience of power and oppression."35 Even the lavish spectacle of the play, often regarded as peripheral, embodies "the hollow pomps and splendours of greatness" with "calculated irony." This, Lever declares, is a "satirical tragedy," the theme of which is "the debasement of a whole civilization." The White Devil is "not Vittoria Corombona but Renaissance Europe" (86).

There are strong echoes of this analysis in Dollimore's own reading of The White Devil. He describes the play's "dominating power structure," which defines the characters as "either agents or victims of power, or both."36 His proposition that "The crimes of Flamineo and Vittoria reveal not their essential criminality but the operations of a criminal society" is not far removed from Lever's observations on the same theme.37 As Dollimore likens Flamineo to "the so-called 'alienated intellectuals of early Stuart England,'"38 he recalls Lever's reference to "a society where declassed intellectuals find the only alternative to the galleys, or gallows, in serving without scruple the desires of their rulers."39 While Dollimore acknowledges a debt to a 1965 essay by Mark H. Curtis, the other similarities to Lever suggest an additional obligation.40 Dollimore presses the social analysis further than Lever, but in the end the two are close. The influence of Lever is recognized belatedly by Dollimore in the introduction to the 1989 edition of Radical Tragedy. He states that Lever "largely broke with" the tradition articulated by such critics as Bradley, rejecting the principle that tragedy presents an inescapable human condition, and instead seeing "the causes of suffering and conflict in [these] tragedies as contingent rather than necessary, the effect of social and historical forces focussed [sic] in state power."41 The 1989 view is more balanced than that of 1984, and fairer to Lever. At the same time, in its revision of the 1984 verdict on The Tragedy of State, it invites us to question Dollimore's assertions about the humanist criticism of tragedy as a whole.

Dollimore's study has since 1984 become an important point of reference in discussions of Jacobean tragedies. If Radical Tragedy, in other respects cogent and well documented, is allowed to smuggle in the dubious notion of a narrow and rigid humanist orthodoxy in the post-1950 criticism of the plays in question, justice will not be done to the richness and openness of that criticism. Furthermore, since most of the critical works cited in Dollimore's humanist Establishment appeared before 1970, his construction of the critical orthodoxy must already have been out of date when Radical Tragedy was published. Dollimore's weakness is, above all, a failure to direct his attack precisely. Had he concentrated on neo-Bradleyans such as Brower and Honigmann, his case would have been more persuasive; as it is, it is compromised by being pressed beyond reasonable limits. A more temperate judgment is provided by Dollimore in Political Shakespeare (1985). He censures "idealist criticism," which he defines as "that preoccupied with supposedly universal truths which find their counterpart in 'man's' essential nature." While rejecting such criticism for its failure to address history, he does concede that "It would be wrong to represent idealist criticism as still confidently dominant in Shakespeare studies."42 The verdict here is much more consonant with the evidence, and suggests that the humanist monolith erected earlier may have been no more than a convenient target. The issue at stake here goes beyond good critical manners. If Dollimore's account of humanist criticism is flawed, his estimate of its ideological function is also called into question, and part of the political case of his book is disabled. What is left, however, is a stimulating oppositional reading of a number of tragedies. The theory of Althusser and Macherey enables Dollimore to play up the discordant elements in the dramatic texts, amplifying emergent ideologies in contrast to the dominant, and leaving us with an enhanced awareness of textual complexity and cultural process. This may not realize all the aims of Radical Tragedy, but it represents a considerable achievement.

Sharing some ground with Dollimore is Catherine Belsey. In the introduction to her book The Subject of Tragedy (1985), she is careful not to exalt the genre. Tragedy, she avers, is "no more . . . than a point of departure" for her Marxist reading of Renaissance literature, and she expresses a desire not to privilege the genre more than the humanist tradition has done already.43 Nor does she try to construct any tragic canon, preferring instead to range widely through plays not usually categorized as tragedies, and to take in nonfictional texts. Such a catholic approach need hardly wrestle with definitions of tragedy, but one element is singled out. According to Belsey's model of the "interrogative text," which has much in common with Macherey's production model, all fiction may be said to expose ideological flaws by drawing ideologies into narrative, which, as form, thrives on conflict and resistance. Belsey argues that tragedy is particularly telling in this regard because, unlike comedy, it is not impelled towards formal resolution of all conflict and may therefore interrogate the prevailing views of reality without reconciling contradictions. What Macherey provides for Belsey is a poetics of conflict, the laws of the text taking precedence over authorial intention and viewpoint. It is a powerful aesthetic that is elaborated by poststructuralism,.... Marxist and poststructuralist critics contrast the aesthetics of conflict with the aesthetics of unity, seen as central to humanism. This search for unity, they claim, has taken different forms in English studies. Leavis stressed the unity of healthy language and the experience to which it referred, while the New Critics tried to harmonize the ostensibly discordant elements in the text by postulating a tension of opposites. From a Marxist viewpoint, an aesthetic pursuing harmonious integration is seriously flawed because it suggests the organic unity of the word and the world.

Belsey's one concession to the distinctiveness of tragedy is outweighed by the rest of her study. Her main concern is to contest the concept of the unified self. For Belsey, this idea, seminal to humanist ideology and criticism, is a fiction whose historical origins she seeks to expose by contributing to "a history of the subject in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (ix). Behind Belsey's formulations can be detected a number of prominent figures in twentieth-century literary and linguistic theory. The most immediate presence is Althusser, whose "symptomatic reading" has been discussed above. Belsey draws on further aspects of Althusserian theory. In his Lenin and Philosophy (English translation, 1971), Althusser explores the relation between ideology and the subject. The individual is seen as the product of social factors rather than a selfdetermining unified essence. Ideology, however, "centers" the subject, giving it an illusory impression of wholeness and autonomy. Althusser's definition of ideology would include not only the linguistic codification of reality but the whole array of social conventions conferring a spurious self-sufficiency upon the individual. Althusser leans on structuralist theory and therefore ultimately on Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916), . . . .44 A fundamental point in Saussure's thesis is that individual words can carry meaning only because they are part of a language system. Althusser's theory of the subject may be regarded, on one level, as an expression of social relationships in terms of Saussurean linguistics. It is an application anticipated by the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose work on the grammar of myths and other social phenomena locates meaning in the internal relations of the symbolizing system rather than in the individual consciousness. The result is the decentering of the subject, which is no longer seen as the producer of meaning.

Belsey indicates her theoretical position by citing, among others associated with Marxist criticism, Dollimore and Drakakis, Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Goldberg, and Foucault. She does not cite, but takes account of, Mikhail Bakhtin, to whom she refers in her Critical Practice (1980). The Bakhtin School comprises a group of Soviet scholars whose work is rooted in the Russian Formalism of the 1920s. Operating within a Marxist tradition, they propose that language is the material medium of social interaction and of ideology, thereby disputing the older Marxist view that ideology is an immaterial mental reflection of the socioeconomic base. They insist also on language as a social activity or discourse, which always presupposes some kind of dialogue, some speaker and audience. Their conclusion is that the literary work should be examined as a practice in language proceeding from a certain kind of speaker, in a certain context, with a certain kind of audience in mind. In addition, they stress the capacity of any utterance to mean different things; in a dialogue, the words used by a speaker may carry a different meaning for a listener, so to see language as "dialogic" entails recognizing that the meaning of words is not fixed. Literature highlights this linguistic ambiguity and the conflicting versions of the world that circulate as a result. Bakhtin's study of Dostoevsky, for instance, argues that Dostoevsky initiates a new genre, the "polyphonic novel," in which a number of characters express discrepant world-views not resolved into a unity by the author. Bakhtin does not dismiss the regulatory power of the author as a possibility but sees Dostoevsky adopting a permissive approach to his characters' voices. The genre is seen by Bakhtin as offering new perceptual schemata, for literary genres "enrich our inner speech with new devices for the conceptualization of reality."45 Special importance is attached to those kinds of literature that subvert or query authority; Bakhtin proposes the category of "carnival literature" to include works derived from popular festivity that play mischievously with social and linguistic convention. The value of this verbal sportiveness to a Marxist critic is to contest the meaning of linguistic signifiers as part of the resistance to institutional power. The ruling interests, the argument runs, attempt to foreclose radical questioning by limiting the meanings of the signifier, while the subversive voice of carnival proclaims the relativity of all perceptions and values. There are points of contact here with C. L. Barber's analysis of Shakespeare's comedy in terms of "the experience of moving to humorous understanding through Saturnalian release."46

Belsey's case, then, is the Marxist one that our sense of selfhood is a product of social conditions, not a natural and ineradicable essence that clarifies and fulfils itself in Western capitalist culture. She traces the tentative formation of the idea of selfhood from the medieval morality play through to Restoration drama. The morality, she suggests, is without a stable concept of the subject. Man is presented not as an essential entity but a passive "battleground" for the forces of good and evil (48); man has no ontological unity, but a soul and body in uneasy juxtaposition. There is, Belsey admits, a unified conspectus available to the audience, which, unlike the protagonist, can see human life in the context of heaven and hell, but the human character as depicted in this early antecedent of English tragedy is disjointed.

Belsey argues that the concept of the unified subject crystallizes into orthodox belief during the latter half of the seventeenth century, with "the bourgeoisie [is] installed as the ruling class" (33-34). The Restoration playhouse, with its employment of classic realism and perspective, enshrines the perception of the individual subject in dramaturgical technique and theater design. It is the end of a phase of psychosocial development. But during the period between 1576, when Burbage built the Theatre, and 1642, when the Puritans closed the playhouses, the emergence of the subject may be detected, Belsey maintains, in some of the most celebrated tragedies. Belsey sees the growth of illusionism in the theater as an early stage in the process, a haphazard verisimilitude being grafted onto the emblematic method of the morality play. The resultant hybrid of styles creates an uncertainty of technique that makes the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater profoundly interrogative of its characters' existential status. Thus, Belsey suggests, Hamlet's disquisition on man ("I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth . . . this quintessence of dust"; Hamlet, 2.2.297-310) uses the metaphor of the world as a theater and thereby invokes the hierarchical cosmology in which man acts out an allotted part. At the same time, however, Hamlet is given an identity in a specific place and time, which invites the audience to view him as a discrete self-determining entity, a sensitive man recoiling from the evil around him. The ambiguous presentation may be taken to endorse either the reassuring traditional order, in which man is "like an angel," or an almost nihilistic vision of man as the "quintessence of dust." No clear position, Belsey states, is offered to the audience, because the play enacts a "radical uncertainty" about the nature of the self (29). Given the diversity of response to Hamlet, Belsey's contention does little to trouble the play's critical tradition. Her interpretation does warn against imposing a false unity on a rebarbative text or character, but so too do much earlier studies, such as L. L. Schücking's Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays (tr. 1922) and E. E. Stoll's Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (1935).

Crucial to the evolution of the unified subject in drama, Belsey argues, is the soliloquy, its impression of interiority accentuated by the contemporaneous influence of the iambic pentameter, which, less foregrounded than earlier verse-forms, suggests an inner voice behind the speech. This suggestion is reinforced by a movement in the theater away from allegorical personifications and towards social types; and the clash of good and evil, rendered in soliloquy, creates the illusion of psychomachy within a single consciousness. But Belsey prefers to stress the instability of the subject in soliloquy, arguing that what may seem to represent internal conflict still recalls the morality abstractions rather than evincing a unified individual presence. She observes, familiarly enough, that Marlowe's Doctor Faustus echoes in some of his utterances the voices of the Virtue and the Vice. Similarly, Lady Macbeth's invocation of "spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts" (Macbeth, 1.5.39-53) anatomizes her body into crown, toe, blood, and breasts, much as the morality character Everyman acknowledges the separate dramatic figures representing his own Beauty, Strength, and Five Senses. In both cases, Belsey's conclusion is that the "precariously unified" protagonist points to "the contradictory nature of the subject" as then conceived (48, 47). Belsey proceeds to argue that, when such a character soliloquizes in the first person, the effect is to postulate a "true self," corroborated by the physical presence of the actor on stage, but not made fully intelligible in the character's words and behavior. The purpose of humanist criticism, in Belsey's view, is to fill the gap between the stage behavior and the anterior self that is only partly revealed. The assumed truth of self is for Belsey chimerical, the search for it misguided. The tragic hero is an effect of language and dramatic technique, not an embodiment of essential human nature.

If there is no unified self behind the utterances of the tragic hero, then clearly the notion of that hero's advancement in self-knowledge, an important factor in Bradleyan criticism, is called into question. For Belsey, the concern with self-knowledge discloses the ideological nature of tragedy. She charts the growing emphasis during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on empirical knowledge gained through individual experience rather than discursive knowledge acquired by deduction from traditional propositions. She concludes that the important place assigned to self-knowledge in humanist criticism testifies to our cultural preoccupation with knowing as a manifestation of selfhood and a qualification for the proper engagement with capitalist consumer society, buying, voting, and exercising a supposedly free choice that is in fact largely illusory. The idea of self-knowledge is also ideologically potent in conferring a spurious freedom on the subject to transcend even its own perceived limits; as Belsey puts it, "The subject of liberal humanism literally knows no bounds" (56). The danger of this, she suggests, is that "In the subject's hopeless pursuit of self-presence politics can safely be left to take care of itself (54).

Again a case that is coherent on its own terms suffers when individual pieces of evidence are reexamined. Lady Macbeth's invocation of the evil spirits in the first act of Macbeth may be taken as an example:

Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,   Stop up th'access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between   Th'effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,   Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,   Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark   To cry 'Hold, hold!'


Belsey argues that although the figure of Lady Macbeth is indisputably present as a stage personage when she delivers these lines, the subject implied in the speech is elusive. She points out that "It is not the grammatical subject of the actions—the spirits are—and the moment it appears (as 'me') in the third line of the text, it is divided into crown, toe, cruelty, blood, remorse, nature, breasts, milk" (47). This interpretation underplays two linguistic features of the extract. It ignores the nine imperatives, from "Come" to "pall"; and although the understood grammatical subject of these verbs is "you" (spirits), the rhetorical agent of the imperatives is Lady Macbeth, who may therefore be said to reiterate her presence emphatically. In addition, Lady Macbeth's muster-roll of bodily parts could equally be taken as a triumphant affirmation of the controlling subject, harmonizing and bestowing meaning upon the separable but subordinate elements. And is it not special pleading to declare that the routine references to heaven and hell are "reproducing the morality pattern of the human being as a battleground between cosmic forces, autonomous only to the extent of choosing between them" (47-48)?

When assessed in this fashion, Belsey's argument can be seen to rest, at this key point as at others, on the assertion of one interpretation over others equally consistent with the text. It would be possible to subject any of Belsey's varied evidence to the same scrutiny as the above passage, and produce alternative readings. This means that her arguments may claim to be new, but not necessarily any truer than other readings. Her cultural analysis derives considerable impetus from its strenuous pursuit of a clear goal, but ultimately her individual judgments about the meaning of textual extracts are contestable hypotheses. The book distinguishes itself sharply from humanist exegetics by signaling its political concerns: Belsey contrasts her own "substantial political purposes" with "the mysterious aesthetic and moral pleasures" of traditional criticism (10). This self-conscious polemic, suffused with a Foucauldian sense that we construct the past only by reworking representations in the light of our own subject positions, lends vigor to the discourse of The Subject of Tragedy but does not in itself guarantee the book's conclusions.

Alan Sinfield, coeditor of Political Shakespeare, carries forward some of the concerns of Dollimore and Belsey in his Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (1992). Dissident reading is an interpretation that amplifies the ideologically subversive elements in a text, as do Dollimore's readings in Radical Tragedy. Sinfield claims that his procedures offer "a way of apprehending the strategic organizations of texts—both the modes by which they produce plausible stories and construct subjectivities, and the faultlines and breaking points through which they enable dissident reading." This critical activity is placed within an overall program of "relating English teaching and writing to left-wing political concerns."47

Sinfield offers a politicized reading of Othello, taking up the idea that the subject constructs itself, within ideology, by continuously fashioning and refashioning the story of its life. There are obvious affinities to Belsey here, and to Stephen Greenblatt's work on the idea of selfhood in the Renaissance.48 Sinfield postulates the ideological conditions within which the characters in Othello hammer out their self-defining stories. What he calls the "conditions of plausibility" for these stories are established by the dominant ideologies of Venetian culture, and they include, he suggests, "the notion that Blacks are inferior outsiders" (30). Sinfield argues that Othello is aware of the falsity of this stereotype, at least in the first act of the play. The hero's defense against Brabantio's charge of bewitchment and abduction is said to employ "two main strategies": first, Othello mirrors the Venetians' selfconcept by appearing rational and contained in the face of his accuser; secondly, however, in his account of his extraordinary adventures, he appeals to a stereo-type of the alien that is at odds with his Venetian sangfroid. Sinfield sees this appeal as conscious and artful: "shrewdly," he suggests, Othello "uses the racist idea of himself as exotic" (30), in order to convince the Senate that he captivated Desdemona by outlandish tales of adventure. In casting himself in this stereotypical role, Othello makes a knowing concession to Venetian racial prejudice. It is a calculated measure, the more finely judged because it involves "granting, in more benign form, part of Brabantio's case" (30).

In explaining Othello's exploitation of Venetian ideology, Sinfield stipulates that no discursively constructed subject can attain "a privileged vantage point outside the dominant" (45). Rather, it is the incongruities within ideology itself that enable it to be interrogated: in the case of Othello, it is paradoxical that the "inferior outsider" has been entrusted with a key military position in Venice. In effect, however, interrogation thus conceived amounts to a ventilation of the dominant structures of perception, and the subject, while thinking within ideology, can think critically about the conventional world-view. Ideology, then, permits a degree of dissident thinking. In fact, Sinfield's vocabulary implies that the subject can be conscious of its own position within ideology: "If ideology is so intricately 'layered,' with so many potential modes of relation to it, it cannot but allow awareness of its own operations." Such awareness is not confined to Othello himself, Sinfield argues, for Emilia, too, in her critique of the double standard in sexual morality, "takes notable steps towards a dissident perception" (46). Sinfield theorizes the workings of ideology in a manner that permits a degree of individual autonomy and self-consciousness. He cites in support Anthony Giddens's analogy between ideology and language: a grammatical sentence is framed within linguistic conventions, but "it is individual and, through its utterance, may both confirm and slightly modify language."49

The application of this theory to Othello, whose manipulation of the Senate's prejudice is presumably a kind of informed dissidence, is, however, inadequately documented from the play: the descent of the hero from manipulator of ideology to its victim is implausibly charted. The essay argues that Iago, in the course of deceiving Othello, trades in cultural stereotypes and therefore manufactures plausible lies about Desdemona, Cassio, and Othello himself. As a result, Sinfield observes, "Othello is persuaded of his inferiority and of Desdemona's inconstancy" (31). This is a measure of the extent to which Othello has internalized Venetian ideology, just as, in Stephen Greenblatt's reading of the play, it is an index of the Moor's enthusiastic espousal of Christian doctrine.50 It seems difficult to square this surrender to cultural norms with the sophisticated appropriation of senatorial expectations that Sinfield finds in 1.3. A convincing version of the case would need to resolve this difficulty by detailed reference to Iago's infiltration of Othello. As it is, the account jumps in the space of a paragraph from the Senate Scene (1.3) to Othello's final speech (5.2), in which he identifies himself with a "base Indian" (5.2.356) and "turbaned Turk" (5.3.362) before taking his own life. Sinfield sees the speech in predictable terms as an example of Althusserian "interpellation," the subject being defined as the juncture of numerous ideological discourses: "Venice hails Othello as a barbarian, and he acknowledges that it is he they mean" (31).

Sinfield's attempt to disengage the play from what he sees as the "reactionary politics" underlying "traditional critical activity" is also unconvincing. On the one hand, he has it that "The easiest way to make Othello plausible in Britain is to rely on the lurking racism, sexism, and superstition in British culture . . . We can make [Othello's] gullibility plausible by suggesting that black people are generally of a rather simple disposition" (50). Yet, to explain Othello in this way is to ignore the ostentatious villainy of Iago, the Vice and Machiavel whose deception extends beyond Othello and the gull Roderigo to Cassio, Desdemona, Montano, Lodovico, and Emilia, thereby making Othello's susceptibility less egregious. Sinfield recognizes the malignity of Iago, but not the degree to which it qualifies any impression of Othello's gullibility; to give due weight to the villain of the piece would be to weaken Sinfield's wider cultural argument; in making a point about modern British culture, he simplifies the play.

Sinfield also examines tragedy as a locus of tension between Calvinist and Stoic ideas. He contends that "The reformed English church, centrally and generally, was Calvinist" rather than Lutheran (143), while "the principal model of tragedy" was Seneca (214). Attempts were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to accommodate Seneca's tragedies to Christian doctrine, notably by applying a providential overlay to the plays, but some of Seneca's ideas were difficult to reconcile with Calvinism, above all his tendency "to validate Stoic ethics entirely on rationalist grounds, and to show humankind and the universe to be devoid of transcendent purpose" (215). Sinfield concludes that Senecan tragedy "facilitated engagements with religious unorthodoxy" (217).

A raw nerve in Calvinist doctrine, Sinfield suggests, was the predestination of the elect. Theologians debated how far it was compatible with divine mercy and justice; how apparent inconsistencies in the Bible could be resolved; how a distinction could be made between the operation of Providence, in which Calvinists urged believers to rejoice, and the arbitrary strokes of a pagan Fortune or Fate, which invited a Senecan Stoicism as the apt response. Hamlet is discussed as a site of this ideological conflict. Sinfield reminds us that the play alludes to Stoicism in Hamlet's praise of Horatio as "A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards / Hast ta'en with equal thanks" (3.2.65-66). The hero himself, however, fails to attain the Stoic ideals of emotional control and dedication to duty, and his development in the play, as Sinfield reads it, is marked by a number of debates on aspects of Stoic philosophy. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy, for example (3.1.58-90), is seen as focusing the Stoic issue of the proper attitude to suicide: it is exalted as a dignified end in extreme circumstances, but condemned if it is a precipitate and cowardly retreat from endurable adversity. In the same vein, Sinfield relates Hamlet's words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the second act ("What a piece of work is a man . . . quintessence of dust," 2.2.304-10) not only to what he calls "optimistic humanism" and Neoplatonic notions of the soul's perfectibility, but to Hamlet's disillusion "at the failure of the Stoic ideal in others and himself (224).

Sinfield finds the ideological complexities to be most strongly marked in Hamlet's own acknowledgement of divine Providence in the last two acts of the play. At this stage, it is argued, Hamlet "seems to have abandoned his Stoic aspirations" (226), and there is a vivid sense of events bearing the hero along: his impulse to read the orders given to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and his speedy revision of the death warrant; his boarding of the pirate ship and subsequent separation from his own vessel; his good treatment by the pirates; his references to "a divinity that shapes our ends" and the "special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (5.2.10, 165). There is an intensive deployment of dramaturgical resources here to negotiate what Sinfield calls "a particularly awkward ideological moment" (227), in which Hamlet's endorsement of Christian Providentialism as opposed to pagan Stoicism must be rendered plausibly. Accepting the governing role of divine Providence in human affairs means, in a Calvinist context, accepting that both good and bad, elect and reprobate, may suffer at God's hands as part of the divine scheme of things. The action of Hamlet at this point, therefore, moves towards an aesthetic rather than a philosophical resolution of this intricate theological issue.

Yet Sinfield holds that Hamlet's conversion remains problematic. The hero does not embrace Providence with a good heart, as recommended by those Calvinist divines who "urged . . . that the believer should show his or her delight in God's will by cooperating as far and as eagerly as possible" (228). After his exhilaration at his evasion of Claudius's death sentence and his reunion with Horatio, Hamlet lapses into a weary submission to forces beyond his control, including, preeminently, death, upon whose grisly ironies he dwells in the Graveyard Scene. Sinfield suggests that the "readiness" of which Hamlet speaks at 5.2.168 is a preparedness for death that makes purposeful action impossible. This readiness manifests itself above all in Hamlet's incaution, as he sweeps aside Horatio's misgivings about the fencing match and "competes recklessly with Laertes"; even the killing of Claudius is accomplished "in a burst of passionate inspiration" (228). Stoicism is reinstated as Hamlet's philosophical reference point, Sinfield suggests; but it is an enervated Stoicism that responds to divine determinism with jaundiced passivity. Hamlet, in short, "sees no point, now, in bothering" (229), neglecting even to exercise the rudimentary caution that Calvinist authorities recommended. Sinfield concludes that Hamlet's "slide into Senecan fatalism" (230) embodies precisely the tendency against which Calvin inveighs as he expounds Providentialist doctrine in his Institutes of the Christian Religion; the play, therefore, accentuates this theological crux rather than resolving it.

Sinfield's dissident reading, centering on Hamlet's rashness, is suspect because it ignores the connection made in the play between unpremeditated behavior and the hand of God. In 5.2, Hamlet offers rather more than the "sermon tags" noted by Sinfield (226). He reflects that rashness attunes him to divine Providence in a way that considered action does not:

Rashly— And praised be rashness for it: let us know Our indiscretion sometime serves us well When our dear plots do pall, and that should teach us   There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.


Hamlet refers here to his impromptu visit to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin, where he found the sealed commission from Claudius importing his death. When he describes how he rewrote the document, he stresses again the spontaneity of his behavior:

Being thus benetted round with villainies— Ere I could make a prologue to my brains They had begun the play—I sat me down; Devised a new commission, wrote it fair.


The haste with which he proceeds is seen by Hamlet as a means of aligning himself with Providence, circumventing conscious calculation and thereby swimming with the Providential current. There is certainly no need to see his behavior here as a disillusioned Stoicism. In the same way, his acquiescence in the duel with apparent disregard for his safety represents precisely that alacrity in complying with the divine will that Sinfield claims is absent from the hero. Providentialist discourse may well be queried in the play, but the faultline is by no means as clear as Sinfield suggests.

Even if one accepts Sinfield's argument in relation to Hamlet, it is not necessary to endorse his thesis on the centrality of Calvinism to the English Reformation. His declaration that "The reformed English church, centrally and generally, was Calvinist" (143), a "Reformation orthodoxy hardly disputed in the English church before 1600" (153) is supported by a number of primary and secondary sources, but it underestimates the complexity of the reforming process in an uncentralized church organization. Elizabeth, for example, was unreformed in her liturgical tastes, evincing a fondness for Latin and for Catholic harmonics in church music, as well as retaining the notorious silver crucifix in the Chapel Royal. More importantly, she could not impose a settlement uniformly on the English church, but had to accept a series of local compromises negotiated between radical and conservative elements. In any event, the Calvinist discourse cited in the essay is prescriptive, not descriptive of people's actual belief, as Sinfield admits (152).

Sinfield's insistence on the Calvinist orthodoxy is part of his critique of what he terms the "Christian humanism" supposedly dominant in literary studies until the 1970s and characterized by "a genial, moderate (except when under threat), gentlemanly/ladylike attachment to something not too specific, but involving a loose respect for Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and an assumption that 'redemption' will come to people of goodwill" (144-45). Such bland Christianity, Sinfield suggests, reworks Renaissance religion in its own softfocus image, denying the "violently polarized kind of Christianity" and the "rigors of protestant experience" that are "very likely uncongenial to modern readers" (145). Any attempt to recover Renaissance viewpoints alien to us is commendable, but Sinfield's "Christian humanism" is not exemplified in detail, only Kenneth Muir and Theodore Spencer on Shakespeare being adduced, together with Louis L. Martz on Donne. In view of the difficulties attendant on Dollimore's proposed humanist consensus, it seems reasonable to suspend judgment on Sinfield's until more supporting evidence is provided.

It is also possible to recognize Senecan allusions in Hamlet without adopting Sinfield's view that "Seneca was the principal model for tragedy" (214). In aligning himself with T. S. Eliot and John W. Cunliffe on this issue, Sinfield notes that G. K. Hunter "disputes Seneca's importance on thematic grounds—because he believes that early modern drama is distinguished by a strong assertion of 'the redeeming feature of a tragic existence: the gratuitous loyalties, the constancy under pressure, the renewed faith'" (215). Sinfield refers here to Hunter's essay "Seneca and English Tragedy" (1974) but simplifies Hunter's argument considerably.51 Hunter warns against overestimating Seneca's influence on English tragedy. He argues that it is hard to separate Senecan elements from those derived from the native English tradition. He underlines the permeability of generic boundaries in the Renaissance and the consequent presence of cross-generic influences, in particular that of Ovid. His conclusion is that Seneca must be seen as one factor among others in the intellectual milieu of the Renaissance. The point is not the superiority of one judgment or the other, but that Sinfield does not represent his opponent's thesis accurately. The thematic argument features in Hunter as one of a number of propositions constituting a much larger case. Sinfield, like Dollimore in his account of the humanist criticism of tragedy, seems impelled by his own argumentative momentum to reduce or distort an opposing point of view.

Marxist criticism like that of Dollimore, Belsey, and Sinfield uses texts as points of location for a broader social analysis. The procedure is legitimate when the readings are demonstrably consistent with the textual evidence, but the capacity of texts to sustain multiple interpretations means that any reading is open to dispute. The Marxist theorists Althusser and Macherey themselves enhance our sense of the complexity of texts through their aesthetic of discordance, which brings out the disunity of the literary work. In this context, it is impossible for Marxist criticism to claim absolute validity for its readings or a privileged status for its intellectual apparatus. It commands a place as one more way of talking about texts, and its concern, however laudable, for the oppressed and dispossessed in the modern world does not compel assent to any of its individual exegeses.

Recent history has itself demanded a response from Marxist critics. In his review of Shakespeare Reproduced, John Drakakis notes "the paradoxical rise of Marxism as an intellectual position at a time when it is faring badly in the West as a political paradigm."52 The comment, published in Autumn 1989, predates the collapse of East European communist regimes from 1989 onwards. These events scarcely lend impetus to Marxist intellectual activity, though it is important to distinguish between Marxism as a system of ideas or a means of analysis on the one hand, and the practice of states that purport to embody Marxist principles on the other; between the theory and the practice there is ample room for criticism to operate on the contextualization, reception, and use of Shakespeare. Nonetheless, the political shift in Eastern Europe highlights the need to historicize Marxism, too; as a conceptual framework it is as historically contingent as any other. Dollimore seems aware of this need in his introduction to the 1989 edition of Radical Tragedy; he reflects that "contemporary Marxist criticism has as complex and dynamic a relation to the writings of Marx as does contemporary psychoanalysis to Freud, or Christianity to the Old and New Testaments."53 The relationship is likely to become more complex, and Marxism, including Marxist criticism, more self-qualificatory.


1 Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London, 1976), vii; subsequent page references follow quotations in the text.

2 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford, 1983), 15.

3 Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, "History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V," in Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis (London and New York, 1985), 210-11.

4 Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Brighton, 1984), 9.

5 Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (English translation, London, 1971), 28.

6 Pierre Macherey, Pour Une Théorie de la Production Littéraire (Paris, 1966), translated by Geoffrey Wall (London, 1978), 78; subsequent references in the text.

7 See, for example, the following works by Foucault (in translation): Madness and Civilization (London, 1967); The Order of Things (London, 1970); The Archaeology of Knowledge (London, 1972); Discipline and Punish (London, 1977).

8 Eagleton, Literary Theory (1983), 199, 207.

9 Ibid., 22.

10 Ibid., 23-24.

11 Ibid., 197, 200.

12Political Shakespeare (1985), vii, viii.

13Radical Tragedy (1989 ed.), xlviii.

14 Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (1976), 68.

15 Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (1984), 277, note 12; subsequent references in the text.

16Radical Tragedy, 191.

17 Ibid., 192. Dollimore here builds on L. L. Schücking, Character-Problems in Shakespeare's Plays (tr. London, 1922), 168.

18 Ibid., 197.

19 Ibid., 198, 202.

20 Ibid., 191, 192.

21 Ibid., 188, 194.

22 Quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, General Editors Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986), compact edition (Oxford, 1988). I am grateful to Oxford University Press for permission to reproduce this material.

23 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1904), 289.

24 Walter Burkert, "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual," Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 7 (1966), 121.

25 Philip Brockbank, "Upon Such Sacrifices," 66th British Academy Shakespeare Lecture (Oxford, 1976), 23; subsequent references in the text.

26 Clifford Leech, Shakespeare's Tragedies and Other Studies in Seventeenth Century Drama (London, 1950), 15, 16, 17.

27 Clifford Leech, Tragedy, in the Critical Idiom series (London, 1969), 40; subsequent references in the text.

28Shakespeare's Tragedies, 18; Tragedy, 60.

29 Hunter, Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Liverpool, 1978), 251-52.

30 Ibid., 269.

31Radical Tragedy, 193.

32 Barbara Everett, "The New King Lear," Critical Quarterly, 2, 4 (1960), 333, 334; subsequent references in the text.

33 A similar argument could be mounted in relation to Robert Ornstein's The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison, 1960), to which Dollimore also refers.

34Radical Tragedy, 194.

35 Lever, Tragedy of State, 83, 84; subsequent references in the text.

36Radical Tragedy, 231.

37 Ibid., 234.

38 Ibid., 242.

39 Lever, 84.

40 Mark H. Curtis, "The Alienated Intellectuals of Early Stuart England," in Crisis in Europe 1560-1660, edited by Trevor Aston (London, 1965).

41Radical Tragedy (1989 edition), xviii.

42Political Shakespeare, edited by Dollimore and Sinfield (1985), 4.

43 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London and New York, 1985), 10; subsequent page references in the text.

44 Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de Linguistique Générale (Paris, 1916), translated by Roy Harris as Course in General Linguistics (London, 1983).

45 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (English translation, Michigan, 1973; first published in Russian, 1929), 134.

46 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relations to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959; 1972 edition), 4.

47 Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford, 1992), 9, 8; subsequent references in the text.

48 See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago and London, 1980), . . . .

49 Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory (London, 1979), cited in Sinfield, Faultlines, 33.

50 See Greenblatt, op. cit., . . . .

51 See T. S. Eliot, Introduction, in Seneca, his Tenne Tragedies, edited by Thomas Newton (1581; New York, 1967); John W. Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy (Hampden, Conn., 1965). See also G. K. Hunter, "Seneca and English Tragedy," in Seneca, ed. C. D. N. Costa (1974), reprinted in G. K. Hunter, Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (1978). Also in Dramatic Identities, see Hunter, "Seneca and the Elizabethans: A Case-Study in 'Influence.'"

52 John Drakakis, review in Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 342.

53 Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (1989 ed.), xliv.

Source: "Marxist Criticism: Cultural Materialism, and the History of the Subject," in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Modern Critical Theory, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997, pp. 38-63.


Marriage as Comic Closure


Mixed Verse and Prose in Shakespearean Comedy