BOOKS SHAKESPEARE: Call to arms in the war of the poses

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READING SHAKESPEARE HISTORICALLY by Lisa Jardine, Routledge pounds 40/pounds 12.99

THESE days Shakespearean studies seem less and less an academic discipline than a form of constant warfare; debates rage for months in literary journals, and delegates line up at conferences like armies preparing for pitched battle. As Lisa Jardine tells us in Reading Shakespeare Historically, her latest call to arms, feelings ran so high at a meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in 1986 that a bootleg tape is still in circulation.

It's hardly surprising then, that Professor Jardine should begin her eclectic yet erudite collection of essays with Henry V, Shakespeare's most bellicose drama. But for Jardine "reading historically" means projecting forward as well as back, so that Kenneth Baker rousing the Tory faithful with the St Crispin's Day speech or Kenneth Branagh reducing Prince Charles to tears at Stratford sit quite happily alongside a discussion of inter- racial marriage and succession in Tudor England.

In Jardine's new configuration, Henry V becomes an expression of national anxiety, not confidence. Similarly, she pairs contemporary accounts of sexual shenanigans between masters and pages in Elizabethan households with modern Queer Studies to conclude that Viola's cross-dressing in Twelfth Night highlights not gender difference but similarity. But it is Hamlet, as ever, which intrigues. Overwriting cases of "unlawful marriage" brought before Tudor Ecclesiastical Courts with her own feminist analysis, Jardine argues that the play hinges not on Hamlet's incestuous desires for his mother Gertrude, but Gertrude's for her brother-in-law Claudius, making the point that here, as the instigator of the marriage, Claudius was the guilty party. Making an unlikely ally of a 16th-century secretarial handbook, she re-imagines Hamlet's closet scene to cleanse Gertrude further of her guilt - hijacked, like her most private room, by male ambition and desire.

Jardine's approach, as her lively contributions to Radio 3's Night Waves show, is always inviting. Yet shifting through her impassioned depositions on Shakespearean theory, there is occasionally a sense, as Gertrude might have said, that the lady doth protest too much. Can it really be so dangerous to "accommodate competing accounts of a set of textually transmitted events ... without discarding as illusory the lost incidents in past time which gave rise to them"? To believe, in other words, that a text can mean different things to different readers at different times, but still maintain its own historical agenda?

Eras of enormous cultural change, such as the Renaissance, in which new systems of moral and social obligation, new opportunities in education and new gender roles all emerged, often produce works of genius, and of lasting, universal appeal (fifth-century Athens is another pertinent example). But to pretend that such works, particularly drama, performed for public consumption and by public consent, won't also reflect the tensions inherent in such changes is clearly absurd. Even classical scholars, hardly renowned for their theoretical waywardness, have long accepted that Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus - the father, as it were, of them all - acts as both historical conduit and literary text, channelling the "faultlines" in fifth-century Athenian democracy, as well as those of the family unit, however interpreted.

The difficulty might be the tenacity with which traditionalists cling to the wreckage of monolithic interpretation - the one key which will unlock a text's meaning for all time. Jardine's contentious essays further rock the boat. Contrasting a courtier's account of his erotic dream about the ageing Elizabeth I with a "real" description of the Queen from an ambassador's diary, she questions assumptions about actual and fictional narratives. In "Unpicking Tapestry", her excellent survey of the obstacles lying in wait for feminist (and female) historians, she calls for new, "rupturing" accounts of the past, which overturn rather than rework previous studies.

It's disappointing then, that Jardine's concluding argument is so abrupt and unsatisfactory. Does a modern audience really absolve Hamlet of blame so that it can "transfer culpability" to the "oppressed and disadvantaged"?

Today, when we have lost all faith in our leaders, especially our sovereigns, the truth is surely far more complex: despite the best efforts of Kens Baker and Branagh, we'd be far more likely to confer probability on the latest scandal about Hamlet or Henry V's private life until they, like our own Prince of Wales, were also left sobbing in the aisles.

But such minor disappointments should not detract from the fascination and quality of Lisa Jardine's work. Reading Shakespeare Historically strikes blow after blow for scholarship and reason, and it is sensitive both to the nuances of historical time and the intrinsic qualities of the text. Whether swapping (flak?) jackets with a male colleague to give their twin papers on Shakespearean transvestism, or reassuring hearty Princeton jocks who find Henry V too "girly", Professor Jardine sallies forth with conviction and verve.