Louis Montrose. The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. xiii+227pp. ISBN 0 226 53482 0 Cloth.
Paul Budra
Simon Fraser University

Budra, Paul. "Review of The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre. " Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 7.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-2/rev_bud1.html>.

  1. This book is divided into two parts. In the first, Montrose, who has long been the most eloquent theoretician of New Historicism, considers some of the "socioeconomic, political, and religious forces and institutions that shaped the Elizabethan subject's conditions of existence and the Elizabethan theatre's conditions of production" (xi). This is a very broad mandate for a very short book; indeed, it is a formidable mandate for a book that has to go on to a part two: the application of the "themes" of part one to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with special attention paid to questions of gender and domestic economy. And, if that were not enough, the book begins with a metacritical prologue on the so-called "culture wars" and ends with a short epilogue on the "historical conditions of possibility of Shakespeare's genius" (206).

  2. What emerges most clearly out of this ambitious project is Montrose's distrust of the popular Foucauldian subversion/containment model of power relations. For Montrose this binary opposition is "hopelessly inadequate" (11) for cultural analysis, and the book pursues this point by focussing on two central problems: the existence in the Elizabethan period of two theoretically distinct modes of cultural production, one hierarchical and deferential, the other based on market relations; and the complex and shifting relations between playing, Crown, and civic oligarchy. Drawing on plays, anti-theatrical literature, homily, and Elizabethan histories, Montrose mounts a series of arguments around these subjects, all of which end with some recognition of the multivalent layers of ambiguity, filiation, and mediation inherent in the power relations of the specific cultural moment or practice.

  3. The conclusions that Montrose draws are sensible and a welcome antidote to much recent polemical Renaissance criticism. For example, Montrose goes over the now familiar arguments regarding the late sixteenth-century suppression of guild and religious drama, but he distances himself from those critics who view the pre-consolidation of Protestant authority as a communal Eden, seeing rather the subordination of local to national interests as part of a complex cultural shift, not simply the flexing of hegemonic muscle. On the other hand, the desire to avoid binary polarities of political/cultural category can lead Montrose to qualify until there is not much left to say. So, for example, in his analysis of the Lord Chamberlain's Men's performance of Richard II, staged at the behest of Essex just before the launching of his ill-fated rebellion, Montrose concludes that "the motivations of the players do not seem to have been political -- if we construe that term narrowly, to mean actively promoting the agenda of a particular faction. The players' motives were, nevertheless, shaped by consideration of a distinctly ideological character" (75). What motives, we might ask, would not be considered ideological in today's critical climate? Montrose continues to explain that the immediate motives of the players were "social deference and commercial gain." This is news?

  4. The strongest statements in the first part of the book come when Montrose is addressing fellow critics who offer less qualified visions of the Elizabethan theatre's relation to political culture. And so he has harsh words for Richard Helgerson's interpretation of Shakespeare's representation of absolutist power. More tellingly, Montrose goes on at disproportionate length to attack Paul Yachnin's thesis that Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre was not only irrelevant to issues of political power, but celebrated, or at least acknowledged, that irrelevance. Yachnin's subtle argument is simplified and dismissed by Montrose and for obvious reasons: Montrose is committed to a political/ideological model of playing and culture that, however qualified, cannot admit what Yachnin acutely intimates -- maybe it really was all fun and games.

  5. The second part of the book, in which Montrose focusses on A Midsummer Night's Dream, is more satisfying. Pulling in Elizabethan marriage manuals, mythological subtexts, Aristotelian and Galenic models of human reproduction, royal processions, and guild drama, Montrose problematizes an already critically saturated play with new levels of cultural resonance and, yes, wonder. When covering such topics as menstruation, the political import of Bottom's dream, or the economic implications of Puck's epilogue, Montrose is consistently illuminating and inventive, easily accomplishing the more narrow and practical critical project he details in his summary, that of "attempting to locate [the play] more precisely in the ideological matrix of its own production" by recognizing the "foregrounding of theatricality as a mode of human cognition and human agency" (205).

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(RGS, JD, PB, LH, 3 September 1997)