BOOK REVIEW / Of sound and fury, signifying nothing: 'Appropriating Shakespeare' - Brian Vickers: Yale, 35 pounds

CONVERSATIONS during the interval at Stratford are likely to be about the characters and the story of the play. There may be some controversy, but there will be no deep disagreement about what's supposed to be happening, no suggestion that the play is really about something it doesn't actually say - that Desdemona's handkerchief symbolises Othello's mother's missing penis; or that the Elizabethan theatre was an arena in which political subversion ceaselessly struggled against the power of authoritarian ideologies; or that since language has no reference to 'reality' the plays, being made of words, are to be thought of as containers of inward-looking signifiers, offering nothing to nave interval chatterers, only to disciples of Derrida or Lacan.

The ordinary folk hardly know their luck. The output of Shakespeare criticism is now unmanageably large, and much of it is absurd - methodologically very refined, no doubt, but absurd nevertheless. Brian Vickers has taken a long look at the latest fashions in absurdity, and, because he sometimes finds them to be more sinister than silly, he is angry as well as thorough. Such is the power of his intellectual opponents that he was quite surprised, he says, to find a publisher for his book. He believes, not without reason, that the people he is talking about are so obsessed with the virtue of their own theories that they can dismiss correction of their anachronisms and palpably false interpretations as irrelevant, simply an envious assault on a self-sealing theoretical position, whether it is Deconstructionist, Cultural Materialist, Psychoanalytic, neo-Marxist, or Feminist.

Vickers brings up some heavy artillery for the assault: E P Thompson for the reduction of Althusser, Ernest Gellner contra the psychoanalysts, Gary Runciman talking sense about theories in relation to empirical evidence, and so on. He also deploys his own considerable intellectual resources. He thought he had finished exposing the malign influence of '60s Paris' - Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Althusser, Lacan - on literary studies, when it occurred to him that he should attack the roots as well as the branches. He therefore prefaced the original book with what amounts to another, calling the gurus to account for their wanton misuse of the linguistic theories of Saussure. He accuses them of double- dealing, ignorance and arrogance, pointing out that, in transforming for their own ends the rickety structuralism of Saussure, they completely ignored more interesting contemporary developments in the study of language and society. He reserves his keenest scorn for Althusser, patron of the British Cultural Materialist school, and, in Vickers's eyes, no better than a fraud.

Why, he asks, have so many Shakespeareans fallen for this stuff? Well, it's comfortable to belong to a school. They have been seduced by the apparent omnipotence of theories whose first concern is to establish their own immunity to criticism. The American scholar Richard Levin infuriated feminist Shakespearians by remarking that it is wrong to call the killing of Desdemona 'the consequence of gender roles imposed on the pair by a patriarchal society', observing that Venetian society is shown to be very shocked by it, and so is Othello. This is not 'one of your everyday patriarchal events' but 'a horrifying violation of the norms of their world'. Levin attributes the error to the feminist habit of making theory dictate the facts: Leontes must be misogynistic because all men are misogynistic, etc. In their responses the feminists offered no detailed defence, simply attributing Levin's remark to his own inevitable misogyny. They find in Shakespeare only what suits them. Likewise, the New Historicists find their Foucauldian pattern of dominance and subversion everywhere, because it suits them.

Vickers believes that the normal function of language is to communicate information and intentions accurately, so, unlike many of his opponents, he thinks it proper to consider what Shakespeare, as author, can have meant to communicate. He does make provision for changes in interpretation over time, and resists talking about a Single Original Meaning, but he won't allow that there are no historical restrictions on what you can say about the plays.

Most people would probably agree that there is some kind of horizon of original meaning, but that access to it is conditioned by the fact that the horizon of our present interests is, inevitably, different. The two horizons have to be brought together; that is the task of the interpreter. It is clear that acceptable interpretations do change, and also that there is a need for criticism not to be stale. New things may still be found out about the original sense, but that is only part of the job. Critics, and also directors, must be capable of acts of honest reimagining, too. Simply to repeat what has already been said is to be false, but to avoid repetition by anachronism or theoretical prejudice is also false.

Vickers, a Bacon scholar, quotes the philosopher: 'God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.' He also echoes Bacon's disapproval of scholars who construct systems and then 'wrest all other facts in a strange fashion to conformity therewith'. Admittedly, he can be a bit dogmatic himself, given to offering either/or choices. 'Either texts have an integrity constructed by a writer with definite aims in mind, or they are truly random collections of signifiers which critics are free to arrange in any pattern that serves their obsession.' But there must surely be another way: 'definite aims' is too definite. Any long, highly- wrought text will offer legitimate senses that cannot be thought consequences of a definite aim.

However, the virtue of this book lies in the learning and polemical force with which it exposes so many faulty, self-serving or merely silly arguments. Vickers is right especially to deplore the now incessant, half-baked politicisation of Shakespeare, who is distorted to fit anachronistic notions of colonialism, gender, ideological state apparatuses, and so forth. Vickers can't deal with everything, and there are other recent books that deserve, but escape, his severity. But he leaves no doubt about the size of the problem.

It may be thought a reluctant tribute to Shakespeare - or, as they now tend to say, 'Shakespeare', since the connection between authors and their work is judged to have been effectively severed - that the theorists consent to notice him at all, but one often suspects that being unable to see why he's worth bothering about, they are reduced to giving out a dream of their own imagination for a pattern of his world.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor