“Can there still be an alternative Shakespeare?” muse some skeptical colleagues. Can there not be? The very success of the first two volumes in this series, and the radically progressive impulse within Shakespeare studies for which they stand, conjures such questions. So do the remarkable range and freedom of Shakespeare in performance during these decades, both live and on screen, which have brought the plays to larger audiences and new cultural locations. With these expansions of possibility, both in practice and method, Will Shakespeare has attained a new kind of pop celebrity even as the Bard remains in some quarters the last bastion of community and inherited values. Thus if we take the title as descriptive, it is assured that any representative collection of Shakespeare essays today will indeed be about alternative Shakespeares.
But of course, Alternative Shakespeares and Alternative Shakespeares 2 had more edge than that and defied the simple celebration of pluralism or variety: their contributors knew from the start that more television channels would not necessarily entail more significant choices, that the structures of consumption were as much the issue as the particulars of representation with which they were involved. The alternative agenda was overtly political, anti-individualist and subversive both within the British academy and in regard to the power relations of Anglocentric discourse and society. Shakespeare, clearly embedded within those structures, had to be debunked, re-formed and replaced within the semiotic and cultural debates of the here and now. Twenty years on, the reformation proceeds apace, and so we must ask anew, in and for our moment: alternative to what?
The question can be addressed most directly within the terms of the contemporary academy and scholarship, but brings with it more paradox. When the first Alternative Shakespeares appeared, the influence of poststructuralist theory and cultural materialism was just beginning to be felt within Shakespearean circles: trumpeting the importance of these critical methods and a “collective commitment to the principle of contestation of meaning” (Drakakis 1985:24), the volume was clearly alternative to the dominant academic practice within this subspecialty in English studies. It buoyantly aimed to “liberate these texts from the straightjacket of unexamined assumptions and traditions” (1985:25). A decade later, queer and postcolonial studies were likewise emergent fields of contestation and perceived sites for liberation. But in many ways these once-alternative visions have now become the dominant practices, accompanied by an archive fever that followed from the critique of historical master-narratives and was later abetted by a backlash against the less accessible (and sometimes more philosophically challenging) forms of theory. This overarching paradigm shift testifies to the intellectual force and social value of the alternative critique. Within university classrooms and the minds of scholars, close poetic and psychological analysis has been challenged, if not supplanted, by sociopolitical contextualization and linguistic decentering. It is hard to locate a meaning now that is not contested.
Yet it is not so clear what effects on the wider world have followed, and indeed whether the radical import of the original critique has in fact been realized: if the dominant academic practice is more like a politically denuded version of alternativity, can more assertions of progressive critique avoid the same fate? Moreover, is the very desire for the new and “the next big thing” so thoroughly enmeshed within the logic of global capitalism that alternativity has itself become merely a sign of the status quo? Is it (to use a vocabulary more current in those heady paradigm-shifting days) an empty gesture at demystification or a space of delusory freedom within the hegemonic logic of commodification? If it is, claims of liberation and making a larger cultural difference would smack of naivety or even bad faith, and a bit of humility would seem in order.
To say so is not to deny the value of the thinking process itself or its local consequences. But it does require some rigorous scrutiny of the gap between scholarly practice and political claims. As Alan Sinfield has recently remarked, the move from cultural materialism to the merely material results in “a kind of textual anthropology” producing valuable work, but “the political edge is blunted” (Sinfield 2006:4). Arguing that the “unfinished work” is to continue challenging hegemonic critical traditions that shape our reading of texts by (among other things) recovering the subordinated voices audible only “through the frosted screen of textuality,” Sinfield’s tone nevertheless marks a historical difference between the revolutionary defiance of 1985 and the dogged pragmatism of 2006: “Yet ideology functions not, in the main, through spectacular breaks, but by processes of steady drip, in which no one can be sure that his or her efforts will not tilt a local balance, in one direction or another” (2006:25). Undeniably true and true to the continental theoretical traditions upon which cultural materialism was built, Sinfield’s doubly negative construction and lack of specified direction as to the effects of one’s efforts must nevertheless give one pause.
Indeed, this passage oddly recalls for me the sardonic voice of Julian Barnes in a memorably contesting but inconclusive novel, describing another kind of steady drip:
Unfair though my associative connection may be, it captures a nagging truth that has haunted Anglo-American modernity for as long as artistic and critical manifestos have announced our collective liberation. Nor is its skepticism a sign of weakness so much as strength: it shows a willingness to look hard at the gaps in our stories, the places (to revert to the earlier vocabulary) where ideological hegemony is ripe for contestation. It is no mere coincidence that Barnes’s novel confronts terrorism and religion head-on and, with them, the ways we contort living beings into the clean and unclean, the saved and the damned. This is secularism at its muscular core, even if Barnes would confine us to a hospital; less grim in his imagination, Sinfield is right to acknowledge both the limits and the necessity of ongoing advocacy even if all we have are those obscured (darkling) voices. To say that the Real may be inaccessible or delusory is not to lessen the force or energy of our project in this time and place: it may be less likely to inspire the troops, but that is precisely why it is less likely to lead in the direction of another Spanish Inquisition.
It would be absurd to claim to have definitive answers or a blanket solution to the paradoxical situation reigning in the first decade of the twenty-first century, although I can confidently assert that alternativity in and beyond Shakespeare studies has produced meaningful effects in our classrooms by enlarging the range of perspectives and readings allowed, and has contributed to more social inclusiveness in higher education. This is a direction worth pursuing further, as several of the essays in this volume do. Moreover, addressing the debates about theoretical assumptions and the cultural production of meaning not only in interdisciplinary programs but at the very heart of the literary canon, in Shakespeare classes, has been crucial to their effectiveness more generally. Here too, Alternative Shakespeares 3 continues the unfinished work. For those who read criticism—be they students, artists, “common readers,” or scholars—the Alternative Shakespeares volumes (and other Accents on Shakespeare that followed) have provided accessible routes to participation in some of the more intellectually rigorous and urgent critical conversations of our days, and have revealed ways in which the conglomerate known as Shakespeare participates in the ongoing work of culture. In fractious times, the work grows more urgent than ever.
What this volume (and I hope our field more generally) also attempts in the “here and now” is to keep sociopolitical progress within our vision without spending too much time polemicizing differences of method within the field—that is, without engaging in the kind of internecine squabbling and “us versus them” rhetoric that Virginia Woolf wishfully assigned to the “private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides’” (Woolf 1989:106). Or, to borrow Linda Charnes’s updated metaphor, Alternative Shakespeares 3 by and large eschews the “Smackdown” approach to critical debate and the “ideological fantasy of some kind of critical holy Grail: in Lacanese, a methodological Big Other (the Critic-Supposed-to-Know) that will render our arguments authoritative and impregnable” (Charnes 2006:14). Here the feminist contribution to theory may also model a critical way forward out of the Oedipal maze. For if (and only if) John Drakakis meant it when he said in the Afterword to Alternative Shakespeares 2 that the volume must “disown its filial obligation” to Alternative Shakespeares 1 as an “act of patricide” (never mind that Drakakis, as the first volume’s editor, is also imagining suicidal prospects for himself and other repeat contributors), then Alternative Shakespeares 3 takes up its “path forward to yet further alternatives” not as the next generation but perhaps more like a third term (Hawkes 1996:244)—or if still conceived generationally, like a collaborative daughter rather than a murderous son, not feeling quite such a need “to bite the hands that feed” her as she struggles to realize the liberatory potential of the parental legacy (Hawkes 1996:244). That different positioning allows an entirely new set of contributors to appear here and speak perhaps less uniformly though no less collectively in their politics and method.
Thus in the essays written for Alternative Shakespeares 3, the reader will again find signs of truly new dimensions and potential for progressive, engaged forms of analysis in Shakespeare studies. Performance and media studies have made major advances in the past decade, and Shakespeare is perceived more than ever as a multimedia artist. Several contributors from these fields bring interdisciplinary breadth to the collection, and raise questions about the theories and institutional contexts involved in performing Shakespeare. The digital revolution and its multimedia consequences—which have allowed new production possibilities and have prompted allied explorations of print culture and the circulation of information—are only the most obvious of such territories. The first set of essays by Robert Shaughnessy, Katherine Rowe and W. B. Worthen draw respectively on theatrical, film, and digital vocabularies to consider the changing place of Shakespeare and our artistic and critical use of his plays within these new media contexts. Collectively, these essays move towards a more rigorously historicized sense of media and performance, refuting the pat dichotomization of “text versus performance” and false presumptions about the timelessness and self-evident quality of stage gestures and embodied interpretations. They show how twenty-first-century Shakespeare is shaped by contemporary forces such as information theory, theatrical realism and absurdism, and media convergence. Shaughnessy and Worthen refuse the self-congratulatory theatrical exceptionalism that would exempt live performance from recognizing its sociocultural interpellation, but they also reject the schematic subordination of the embodied particular characteristic of much cultural theory. Rowe similarly reveals the shaping power of media scripts as she challenges the medium specificity of much film studies discussion, which has heretofore inhibited the full incorporation of screen Shakespeare into the mainstream of Shakespeare studies. From Feuillade to Hytner, from stage to digitized screen, these three scholars take artistic form into account without falling into the anti-historicist traps of neoformalism or media studies triumphalism. But it is not only in confronting modern performance that the material conditions and multimedia nature of Shakespeare’s plays demand reconsideration. Awareness of new media as one dimension of a radically changing culture has also led to historically nuanced reconsiderations of old media and of Shakespeare’s locations more generally in a “pre-literate” culture. The next, and largest, cluster of essays considers fundamental changes in the status of the book, the family, nations, and religions, and the basic communicative and epistemological vocabularies of words and numbers, in order to generate alternative readings of early modern culture as well as Shakespeare. Lukas Erne, pursuing a method Catherine Belsey has recently praised under the slightly tongue-in-cheek label “Intertextual Historicism,” challenges the conventional longue durée description of Shakespeare’s gradual medial transition from stage to page (although Worthen’s redeployment of that history suggests its continued potency at the macro level). Erne recognizes the irrecoverability of past performance, but rather than lament or chase its chimerical traces, he finds in the stage directions of the earliest printed texts the potentiality for recovering—or at least hypothesizing—an early modern readerly experience. By focusing on the “extra-dialogic” dimensions of the text, he posits an alternative route through the page versus stage binary and explores traces of a differently reconstructed author. Patricia Parker extends Erne’s challenge through her close attention to early modern connotations of words and names we may not discern and which subsequent editors have effaced. Her particular attention to lancets, lancelets, and the character now known as Lancelot Gobbo (a renaming that may be the unkindest cut of all) raises questions not only about material texts and graphic cutting but also about the complex representation of religion and race in The Merchant of Venice. Through scriptural citation, she reveals how the play interweaves its disturbingly abortive dramatization of bloodletting with skepticism about conversion and its capacity to produce a spiritual “circumcision of the heart.” The archive can too easily become a place of retreat, but in Parker’s hands—as in the essays that follow—what Terence Hawkes calls “presentist” awareness leavens and helps reanimate historicist specificity (Hawkes 2002: passim). Significantly and appropriately, in both Parker’s piece and Willy Maley’s essay on Cymbeline, religion is considered not as an independent variable or a glib label (was Shakespeare Catholic?) but as a set of cultural texts and practices that is and was thoroughly enmeshed with sociopolitical and ethical assumptions. Building on the insights of postcolonial analysis of core and periphery but emphasizing the difficulty of unraveling the strands of internal colonialism and empire-building in amorphously bounded Britain, Maley emphasizes the symbolic and linguistic nexus of nationhood, religion, and ethnicity as it informs identity formation and Shakespeare’s seeming “hodge-podge” of a romance. Sexuality is another staple ingredient in Cymbeline’s complicated “alphabet soup,” and one that Maley reveals to be intertwined with nationalist attitudes (especially in responses to the Queen). As with religion, an adequate account of the narrative and cultural use of these social categories cannot be carried out in isolation. Thus Kate Chedgzoy, charting the queer and patriarchal strains within representations of Cupid, demonstrates how sexuality needs to be understood as part of a complex set of familial interrelations that involve gender and age as well as forms of desire. Focusing on Cupid’s lability as differently deployed by the adult Shakespeare and fourteen-year-old masque author Rachel Fane, Chedgzoy attends to Sinfield’s “subordinated voices”—but in this instance, the voices of early modern girlhood (or what we now call adolescence) for whom sexuality could figure a threat as often as a thrill.
Sociopolitical categories have been focal to the project of alternative Shakespeares, but there are other less obvious areas of contestation as well. Despite the theoretical currency of Foucault and Deleuze, Benjamin and Blumenberg, too often the “history of ideas” label still obscures the progressive contribution of those who look beyond concrete materiality to consider symbolic systems and epistemologies. Through attention to number (and grace) in The Winter’s Tale, Shankar Raman reveals the cultural specificity and cross-cultural inheritance even of forms of knowledge as apparently divorced from the sociopolitical as mathematics. Whereas Lukas Erne’s essay turns from the present of new media to reconsider old media in the light this new landscape encourages, so Raman’s provides the pivot from interdisciplinary exploration within the early modern period to more direct consideration of its legacy and the need to roam further outside disciplinary boundaries in the present. Rather than focus on ingenious new readings alone, it is just as—perhaps more—important to resituate those readings within a larger, more deeply understood multidisciplinary cultural landscape.
As scholarship extends our understanding of the importance of historicity in analyzing domains once thought “timeless” or transcultural (e.g. the senses, emotions, scientific analysis), we also recognize the need for renewed attention to the ethical significance and application of such knowledge. The final set of essays highlights the importance of renewed conversation beyond the literary or perfor...