A review of The Age of Shakespeare, by Frank Kermode
Imagining Shakespeare, by Stephen Orgel


Shakespeare has a way of bringing out the best in people, from actors to directors to stage designers, and this principle even seems to work for literary critics. At a time when literary criticism has generally become unreadable and unread, good books on Shakespeare continue to appear and evidently find a market, as witness these volumes by Frank Kermode and Stephen Orgel. In many respects, they represent the opposite poles in literary criticism today—what might be called the old versus the new historicism. Kermode stands for traditional critical approaches, and is indeed one of the most distinguished older scholars in the Renaissance field. Moreover his book is addressed to a general audience, not a specifically academic one, and is largely intended to introduce readers to Shakespeare, to give an overview of his career and place him in the context of his age. In short, The Age of Shakespeare is the kind of book that inevitably gets described as a great scholar's summation of a lifetime's study of his favorite subject.

Orgel, by contrast, stands for the avant-garde in literary criticism, although the movements he is associated with have been around so long—over two decades—that they have in fact become the establishment in the academy and have virtually displaced traditional modes of criticism. Orgel would probably be best described as a new historicist, but his work links up with feminism, gay studies, and other forms of the race/class/gender criticism that dominates the academic world today. Thus his book is basically addressed to a specialized academic audience, and he tries to break new ground in Shakespeare studies. The result is that he often explores issues that a general reader would find overly theoretical, arcane, or just plain weird. But one could easily overstate the difference between Kermode's work and Orgel's. Kermode has obviously been keeping up with contemporary criticism, and incorporates many new historicist insights into his account of Shakespeare (while still maintaining a healthy skepticism about some of the excesses of the approach). By the same token, Orgel is at his best when he just offers intelligent readings of Shakespeare's plays, trying to figure out what they mean even though on theoretical grounds he may think that goal is impossible. 

Kermode has taken on a daunting task in The Age of Shakespeare. In just under 200 pages, he is trying to provide his readers with the basic background information needed to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. Of course no one book could fully accomplish this goal, but Kermode has made a valiant effort, and The Age of Shakespeare now stands as one of the best compact introductions to the subject. Kermode covers a remarkable amount of ground in such a brief book. He discusses what we know of Shakespeare's life, he sets him in his historical context, stressing the central religious and political conflicts of the Elizabethan Age, and he relates Shakespeare's achievement to the larger literary currents of his day, naturally emphasizing theater history but also focusing on Shakespeare's lyric poetry and its connections to that of his contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson and John Donne. And finally, interspersed throughout Kermode's account are capsule discussions of each of Shakespeare's plays that trace the unfolding of his career as a dramatist. 

Treating each of Shakespeare's plays in roughly two to four pages apiece is the most difficult challenge Kermode set himself, and the results vary. He spends a disproportionate amount of time, for example, on some of Shakespeare's lesser works, such as the early and comparatively slight comedy, Love's Labour's Lost; and his discussion of the great tragedies is necessarily a little disappointing, since it is impossible in a few pages to do justice to works of the complexity of Hamlet and King Lear. Kermode is at his best when discussing the middle phase of Shakespeare's career and specifically the romantic comedies. He does a particularly good job relating A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice to Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, showing how a number of motifs run through these plays and tie them together, cutting across the divide between comedy and tragedy. 

The sections on theater history are among the strongest parts of The Age of Shakespeare. Kermode deftly gives his reader a feel for the popular nature of Shakespeare's medium, often drawing apt parallels with contemporary equivalents. After pointing out "that the Elizabethan taste for plays was of a piece with a love for other public entertainments such as fencing, bear-baiting, and cock-fighting," Kermode reminds his readers: "Londoners may reflect that in our own time the Albert Hall is a multipurpose amphitheater, used for operas, symphony concerts, boxing, tennis tournaments, and national celebrations like Armistice Day." At the same time, Kermode does not fail to call our attention to some crucial ways in which Shakespeare's theater differed from what we are familiar with today: "few theatrical historians omit to remind us that these theaters had no lavatories."

In his discussion of Shakespeare's life, Kermode proves to be a paragon of restraint, especially by comparison with Michael Wood's recent biography, which borders on a work of fiction. Kermode generally sticks to the facts, such as we know them, even when in Shakespeare's case they are disappointingly bare: "Despite many guesses, we know little about his private life at that time except that he must have been secure financially and keen to remain so." As a sign that Kermode does pay attention to contemporary criticism, he devotes a great deal of space to one of the latest trends in Shakespeare studies: "Some conjectures now in fashion require us to believe that the poet was, or had been, Catholic, and that his Catholic faith was one reason why he found himself working in the London theater." To his credit, Kermode allows those who view Shakespeare as Catholic to have their say, but he also notes the highly hypothetical character of their reasoning: "It will perhaps be noticed that these speculations grow more and more far-fetched as one 'might have' succeeds another, or a 'may well have' or a 'surely.'" Kermode quite properly turns from biographical speculation to the plays themselves for evidence on the issue of Shakespeare's Catholicism: "Had he been, as some claim, a lifelong Catholic, it is strange that no unequivocal trace of his beliefs can be found in his thirty-seven plays." Kermode goes on to cite some of the evidence for Shakespeare's Protestant sympathies, such as the fact that when he quotes from or alludes to the Old and New Testaments, he often uses the 1560 Geneva Bible, the preferred text of Protestants in his day (the King James Version did not come out until 1611).

Kermode attributes the new vogue for viewing Shakespeare as a Catholic to sentimentality, and as evidence he quotes Peter Milward from an essay called "Religion in Arden": "Surely… from the depths of his heart Shakespeare looks fondly back to the time before far-reaching changes had been inaugurated by Henry VIII." But claims such as this are rooted in something deeper than mere sentimentality. Kermode gets closer to the heart of the matter earlier in his account of the Reformation in England when he speaks up on behalf of Protestantism: "Of course a case can also be made for the beneficial effects of the new Protestantism, and indeed some say that the notion of undisturbed Catholic contentment suddenly and barbarously interrupted by Reform is mere propaganda. The intellectual and educational achievements of Protestantism, it is argued, are in the Catholic version of events much undervalued." Indeed, presenting Shakespeare as a Catholic is a way of rejecting what came to be known as the Whig interpretation of history—the view that the Reformation was part of a progressive process that took England out of the Dark Ages of the medieval world and into the enlightenment of the modern age.

Those who argue for Shakespeare's Catholicism do not want the greatest writer in English to serve as a poster child for Protestant modernity as progress. I suspect that their real motivation stems from the association in their minds between Protestantism and capitalism, a way of thinking that in England goes back at least as far as R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926). As 19th-century writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris evince, the English have a long tradition of linking nostalgia for the Middle Ages with critiques of capitalism. Given the anti-capitalist bias of most literary critics today, the promotion of the idea of Shakespeare as a Catholic is probably rooted in an economic, rather than a religious agenda. The celebration of the Catholic Middle Ages in literary criticism is at heart a championing of what amounts to a pre-capitalist utopia, with about as much reality as Tolkien's Rivendell.

Kermode does not share my suspicions about the anti-capitalism of the partisans of Shakespeare's Catholicism. Indeed he makes several anti-capitalist remarks himself, as in this characterization of the Elizabethan economy: "So the rich grew richer, their lives more luxurious and ostentatious, while the poor grew poorer. These were the early days of capitalism." Like many literary critics when they stray into the unfamiliar territory of economics, Kermode confuses capitalism with mercantilism—the very system it set out to displace. As Kermode himself shows, the Elizabethan economy was characterized, not by free markets, but by government-granted monopolies; not by free trade, but by imperialism. Kermode reveals that anti-capitalist prejudices are deeply rooted in the English academic tradition, and predate quasi-Marxist movements like cultural materialism and the new historicism. But at least Kermode avoids the excesses of such movements and especially their tendency to politicize discussions of Shakespeare. He questions, for example, the new historicist attempts to read The Tempest as if it participated in the ideology of European imperialism. But if Kermode is alert to the dangers of politicized readings of Shakespeare, he is at times too eager to dismiss any sort of political reading at all: "Perhaps the connection between plays and contemporary politics was less close and important than is sometimes alleged." Here Kermode's traditionalism actually stands in the way of his appreciating a whole dimension of Shakespeare's achievement—the way genuine political concerns stand at the center of many of his plays.

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For more radical readings of Shakespeare, we need only turn to Stephen Orgel. He does not offer as comprehensive a treatment of Shakespeare as Kermode does; indeed in many respects his Imagining Shakespeare reads more like a collection of separate essays than a single, sustained inquiry. But if Orgel's book is not strictly unified, that is only appropriate, because in fact he does not wish to present a unified image of Shakespeare. The aim of Imagining Shakespeare might be described as the destabilization and deconstruction of our image of Shakespeare—of Shakespeare the man, of the texts of his plays, and above all of their meaning. In a chapter entitled "History and Biography," for example, Orgel examines the literal images of Shakespeare that have come down to us, the few purported contemporary portraits, as well as later manufactured "likenesses," including such remarkable inventions as a Shakespeare death mask that surfaced in Germany in 1849 and James Sant's quaint Victorian painting, Shakespeare as a Boy of Twelve. Orgel has always been interested in the relation of the visual arts to literature, most notably in his studies of the Jacobean court masque, and he has an acute eye for visual detail. All the chapters of Imagining Shakespeare are lavishly illustrated, often with rare and fascinating material. In the chapter on visual representations of Shakespeare, Orgel reminds us that, even though the image of Shakespeare has become one of the central icons of our culture, we do not in fact know what he really looked like.

The contemporary portraits are of varying degrees of authenticity, and, in any event, they do not present a consistent image of the playwright. Later representations of Shakespeare show how much we are tempted to mold our image of him in accord with varying ideas of what we wish he had looked like. An accurate visual representation of Shakespeare simply eludes us.

The chapter on Shakespeare portraits might stand as an emblem for Orgel's book as a whole. He is trying to show that we are always imagining Shakespeare. The centuries-old project of plucking out the heart of the mystery of Shakespeare, of uncovering the authentic truth about him and his plays, is for Orgel from the start a chimerical quest. Just as there is no authentic visual likeness of Shakespeare, there is no authentic Shakespeare at all. We are always inventing and re-inventing Shakespeare in accord with our desires and fantasies, for, as Orgel might put it, our experience of Shakespeare is fundamentally theatrical. We have no real Shakespeare, only representations of Shakespeare. This view of Shakespeare has become common among the new historicists and their associates, and has led them to study what is called the reception of Shakespeare and his plays, how his work has been received over the centuries, which means how it has been reinterpreted and recreated. This approach is in line with the general tendency of contemporary criticism to deny that works of literature have determinate and determinable meanings. Studying the reception of Shakespeare's plays points us in the direction of multiplicity of meanings, since each generation finds something new in each of his plays.

Several of Orgel's chapters are exercises in reception history, as he looks at how plays such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Winter's Tale, and The Merchant of Venice have been staged, performed, costumed, illustrated, discussed, analyzed, and otherwise represented over the years. These chapters vary in quality. The one on The Winter's Tale, for example, has a promising beginning, as Orgel starts off from the intriguing fact that the play contains Shakespeare's only reference to an artist roughly from his day, Giulio Romano. But as the title of the chapter—"The Pornographic Ideal"—might have warned us, Orgel seems to bring up Romano chiefly to be able to show some dirty pictures and to use some four-letter words. He does eventually get around to an interesting discussion of how the statue scene at the end of The Winter's Tale has been variously staged, and includes some remarkable photographs, going well back into the 19th century, of famous actresses in the role of Hermione. But the chapter overall has a disjointed character, and I am not sure exactly what Orgel is getting at in trying to view The Winter's Tale against the background of Romano's obscene woodcuts. This seems to be reception history at its most arbitrary, and illustrates the chief vice of the new historicists, the way they randomly throw together cultural elements from widely disparate realms. Giulio Romano may be mentioned in The Winter's Tale, and he may have created some obscene woodcuts, but that does not mean that there is a pornographic subtext in Shakespeare's play.

By contrast, in Orgel's chapter on A Midsummer Night's Dream his typical new historicist moves generally work, resulting in the highpoint of the book and one of the most suggestive and illuminating discussions I have read of this play. Orgel takes his cue from a number of 20th-century productions that have brought out what he calls "the play's view of sexuality as a universal and basically anarchic motivation." These avant-garde productions presented gender as fluid by employing various forms of cross-dressing and highlighted a dark and even potentially tragic side to the sexuality in the play by portraying it as a repressed force that might at any moment violently break out of the boundaries trying to contain it, especially the marriage vow. Orgel refers, for example, to "John Hancock's landmark production at the Actors' Workshop in San Francisco in 1966…which took seriously the fact that Theseus is a warrior and Hippolyta both an Amazon and the spoils of his victory, not a romantic heroine but a captive enemy. Hancock brought her on stage in the opening scene in a cage, dressed in a tiger skin, snarling and delivering her romantic lines with heavy sarcasm from behind bars." Orgel views this kind of creative stage interpretation of the play as a useful antidote to a critical tradition that "has been quite uniform in denying that there is any sexual complexity beneath the comic surface of A Midsummer Night's Dream." Orgel goes on to show how considering the mythological background of the play casts it in a new and darker light, indeed a larger tragic context. Theseus marries Hippolyta only after betraying his earlier love, Ariadne, and the product of this marriage will be his son Hippolytus, who eventually becomes the subject of tragedy when Theseus later marries Phaedra and she conceives an overwhelming passion for her stepson. As Orgel writes: "This, indeed—not the romance of young love but the uncontrollable, destructive and incestuous nature of passion—is the central element in the myth." Viewed against this mythic background, the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta celebrated in A Midsummer Night's Dream starts to look ominous indeed.

Orgel may be going too far in suggesting a tragic dimension to A Midsummer Night's Dream, but he is right that the view of love in the play is genuinely complex and not simply light-hearted and comic. That is why the play seems to be paired in Shakespeare's imagination with Romeo and Juliet, which shows how the romantic love that has a comic resolution in A Midsummer Night's Dream might just as easily have led to a tragic end (parodied within A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Pyramis and Thisbe interlude—to add another level of complexity). Avant-garde productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream thus led Orgel to a long hidden truth about the play, what one might call the heart of its mystery. But something peculiar is happening here. For a change, Orgel seems to be talking about what Shakespeare really meant in one of his plays. He seems to be contrasting the way most interpretations falsely construe the play with the way he and the avant-garde productions get it right and reveal what Shakespeare truly had in mind:


A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is often claimed, was written to celebrate a wedding, though no one has succeeded in finding the wedding. Still, it concludes on the eve of three fictive marriages, and therefore would hardly be expected to probe the dark side of its subject; but perhaps the relentlessly festive view most productions and commentators have taken of this comedy is more a function of what audiences, readers and critics have wished to ignore than of Shakespeare's way of fulfilling his putative commission.

Throughout most of his discussion of the reception of Shakespeare's plays, Orgel refuses to discriminate among different interpretations, as if he wants to let everyone have his or her say on the subject. Indeed he wishes to deny that Shakespeare's plays have any authentic core of meaning; in his view they come to life only in stage productions and other forms of representation, and take on multiple meanings in that process. As his book concludes:


What audiences want is never a constant, and is determinable by actors, directors and producers, moreover, only through trial and error, and largely in hindsight; and this is true in great measure because the very notion of the audience as a unit with definable tastes and responses is suspect…. Having begun with scripts and performers, here is where we must conclude: the essence of drama, the theater's life and soul, is finally the audience.

This sounds very eloquent, but what Orgel is saying is that the audience basically determines what Shakespeare's plays mean. And yet in his discussion of A Midsummer Night's Dream he chides traditional audiences for the way they have been willfully blind to the darker implications of what Shakespeare is trying to show about love and marriage. In short, when Orgel has his own agenda to pursue—he is intent on using A Midsummer Night's Dream to raise doubts about the ideal of heterosexual marriage—he is willing to discriminate between what Shakespeare really meant and what audiences and critics have mistakenly seen in the play. I happen to think that Orgel's interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is correct, or at least that it brings out one side of the play that has been largely and unjustly ignored over the years. But the way Orgel reads A Midsummer Night's Dream contradicts his general view about how Shakespeare is to be interpreted, namely, that every interpretation of Shakespeare over the years has its own validity and somehow contributes to the meaning of his works.

* * *

Orgel is thus willing to allow a Shakespeare play a determinate meaning as long as that meaning is subversive, and above all subversive of social conventions such as marriage. This is a good point on which to contrast Orgel's new historicism with Kermode's old historicism. Orgel's book obviously has an edginess that Kermode's lacks. Orgel brings up subjects—pornography, incest, homosexuality, sodomy—that Kermode shies away from. As a new historicist, Orgel believes that all history is a social construction—and specifically constructed to serve the interests of those in power. Orgel would like to deconstruct those power formations and liberate us from their spell. Accordingly, Orgel's Shakespeare may be imagined, but ultimately imagined in such a way as to make us feel uncomfortable, to shake us up and free us from our conventional attitudes. As an old historicist, Kermode believes in the historical reality of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Age, and he anchors his discussion in that reality. Thus Kermode does not come up with an "uncomfortable" Shakespeare; in fact he presents us with a Shakespeare who fits quite comfortably into his age, linking up with his contemporaries in his attitudes and his artistic techniques.

In particular, unlike Orgel, Kermode has a hard time imagining that there could be anything subversive about Shakespeare's plays; indeed he questions whether any plays in the Elizabethan Age could have been other than orthodox. After all, the plays were censored by the Lord Chamberlain's Office, specifically by the Master of the Revels, and as Kermode writes: "it is unlikely that many plays that could be thought seditious or otherwise objectionable would have been submitted to his office." Kermode later makes the same point when talking specifically about Macbeth: "It was not very likely that Shakespeare's Scottish play, performed by the company the King himself sponsored, would offer anything subversive and in many respects Macbeth is a tribute to the King and his lineage." The one possibility that Kermode does not consider is that a subversive message in the play might escape the scrutiny of a censor, that Shakespeare, for example, might have learned to write in such a way that he conveyed subversive meanings to alert viewers or readers, while appearing to be perfectly orthodox to the conventional mind of a censor. Macbeth may appear to celebrate the ancestry of James I, but does the play really offer an attractive portrait of Scotland? Does it not in fact portray Scotland as barbaric, especially by comparison with England? On reflection Macbeth does not seem to be the most flattering way to commemorate the ascension of a Scotsman to the English throne.

Despite Kermode's insistence that there is nothing subversive in Shakespeare's plays, he himself cites the case of a "copy of the Second Folio (1632) that was censored by the [Spanish] Inquisition." (The censor was an English Jesuit named William Sankey, preparing reading matter sometime in the 1640s for students at the English College at Valladolid, Spain; for the fascinating details, see the appendix of Roland Mushat Frye's Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine.) Perhaps Shakespeare's contemporaries were not as persuaded as Kermode that his plays are not at all subversive. Kermode says that the Catholic censor "bafflingly cut the whole of Measure for Measure." Perhaps this censor saw what Kermode fails to see—that this play may be astonishingly anti-Catholic in its implications and perhaps even anti-Christian. Set in Vienna, the Habsburg heart of the Holy Roman Empire, Measure for Measure seems to show the impossibility of a truly Christian regime, and in particular the disastrous results of trying to take one's bearings in politics from the ideal of holiness. When one tries to force human beings to live up to an overly strict standard of chastity, the result is that the law loses all authority in the face of the natural impulses of the human heart (in the daring symbolic terms of the play, the nunnery is inevitably shadowed by the whorehouse). No wonder Fr. Sankey cut not just selected passages but the whole of Measure for Measure out of his copy of the Second Folio. 

The Age of Shakespeare and Imagining Shakespeare thus seem to offer a stark choice: if you want your Shakespeare to be edgy and subversive, read Orgel; if you want your Shakespeare to be tame and conventional, read Kermode. In fact, this formulation exaggerates the differences between the two, since at his best Kermode does not ignore the complexities and deeper meanings in Shakespeare, and at his worst Orgel ends up merely reading the conventional ideas of our day back into Shakespeare. Both books have their strong points and their weak points. Orgel's is the more uneven performance and the gap between his best and his worst moments is greater. But both works are worth reading, with The Age of Shakespeare being more likely to satisfy the general reader and Imagining Shakespeare more likely to appeal to the specialist. And, as always, Shakespeare's ability to provoke this variety of thoughtful responses is one measure of his enduring greatness.