David Scott Kastan. Shakespeare After Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. 264 pp. ISBN 0 415 90112 X Cloth, 0 415 90113 8 Paper.
Edward Gieskes
University of South Carolina

Gieskes, Edward. "Review of David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare After Theory." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 13.1-5<URL:

  1. David Scott Kastan describes his new book Shakespeare After Theory as "a book about reading Shakespeare historically" (15). This is, as he acknowledges, neither a new nor a unique project in the wake of the New Historicism and other historicist approaches to early modern literature, but he distinguishes the kind of historical reading he advocates from much recent historicist work. Taking the New Historicism as his central example, Kastan argues that much historicist scholarship -- however provocative and useful -- tends to become a kind of formalism that reads anecdotes or particular events as synecdoches for the whole culture. Such a "historical" practice, he states "is not properly historical at all" (30). As a corrective, Kastan takes as his subject the historical contexts in which Shakespeare's plays were produced, received, and circulated -- paying close attention to the mechanics of printing, the necessarily collaborative nature of theatrical production, and the ways in which subsequent notions of authorship have tended to obscure the "radical historicity" of the plays as theatre and, later, as books.

  2. The book is also an intervention in the discourse about Shakespeare studies in what Kastan terms a "posttheoretical moment." He argues that Shakespeare studies (and literary studies more generally) is "after theory" not because theory's claims have been shown to be intellectually bankrupt but because its claims have been accepted as both useful and productive. As formulated the claim may be overstated -- it sometimes seems that Shakespeare studies is insufficiently theorized -- but it functions polemically as a call to a historical practice informed by the questions and issues about subjectivity, authorship, textuality, and meaning that theory brought to light. Kastan asserts that we now need not more theory but rather more facts about the "historical conditions that have determined the reading and writing of literature" (31). Much of the intellectual excitement of the book derives from this thoroughgoing effort to historicize the ways in which Shakespeare's plays (and by implication other texts) become meaningful to early modern and present-day audiences. Kastan argues that to recognize the historicity of a play as both text and performance returns it "to the world in which and to which it is alive" and that this kind of criticism is "the almost inevitable practice of Shakespeare studies after theory, no longer chasing after it but working powerfully and productively in its wake" (42). Chapter Two describes an "interface of literature and history" that would study "the literary work as both text and object, as structure of words and ideas and also as the material vehicle in which it enters and acts in the world" (54). Kastan argues for the potential productivity and excitement of this approach in the following chapters, all of which read the historical context of Shakespeare as the enabling conditions of both his work and its meaning.

  3. The next nine chapters of Shakespeare After Theory range from discussions of contemporary editorial practices to readings of Macbeth, the history plays, and The Tempest. The three chapters in Part III of the book ("The Text in History") offer perhaps the best examples of the critical practice Kastan advocates. In Chapter 3, Kastan offers a clear and useful reminder of the fact that all editing is essentially criticism, and that, moreover, the texts we use are always already edited simply by virtue of having been printed at all. Modern edited texts, he argues, posit a kind of authorial intention which did not exist for many of the writers whose plays are preserved in print, while facsimiles hypostatize one printed copy of a play as "the play." Kastan suggests that "the play exists in its materializations, of the printing house and of the playhouse, and these are the play's meanings rather than ... conveyors of them" (69) and argues for a scholarship focused on such materializations. Chapter 4 proceeds to read the First Folio through this lens. Opening with a discussion of early "unauthorized" printings of Shakespeare, Kastan goes on to show how the claim that the Folio was printed according to the "True Originall Copies" owes more to a need for advertising than to a desire to produce a version of the plays in accord with Shakespeare's intentions: the Folio was a huge investment for the printers and it was a commercial imperative that readers buy the book. Chapter 5 opposes restoring the name of "Oldcastle" to 1 Henry IV on similar grounds. To restore the name, Kastan argues, is to "idealize the activity of authorship, removing it from the social and material mediations that permit intentions to be realized in print and in performance" (102). These chapters offer provocative insights into the material contexts in which the plays were printed and from which we develop their meanings.

  4. The remaining chapters read individual plays and strive to situate them firmly in the enabling contexts of their initial production, which are the contexts that make them meaningful for us. Several are less fresh than the initial chapters: for example, chapters 6, 7, and 9 offer a more or less familiar discussion of the effects of the representation of authority's contingency and artificiality in the history plays and Macbeth. In chapter 8, Kastan suggestively asserts that the "imitative disruption of the traditional culture of status" in Shakespeare's theatre "brought class into view" in ways that depend crucially on the professional theatre's ability to violate the norms of that culture by making vagabond actors successful and more or less legitimate parts of the commonwealth. His very persuasive chapter on The Tempest rejects the colonial thesis about the play and describes the play in the context of English anxieties about European politics. The book concludes with a discussion of the closing of the theatres in which Kastan asserts that the closing had less to do with religious doctrine than with pragmatic concerns about the potentially politically disruptive effects of stage-playing.

  5. If at times the argument of the book rejects the New Historicism so thoroughly that it produces a kind of mirror image of it, Kastan's work is provocative and, finally, convincing on the need for Shakespeare studies to return to history -- to placing the plays we study within clearly described material contexts -- as a precondition for a discourse on how and what the plays mean to their various audiences, modern and early modern, academic and non-academic, theatrical and literary.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)