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

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 A Theory of Literary Production (1966; 1978...

(The entire section is 11,235 words.)