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.