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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies