Alyal, Amina. "Review of Gordon Williams, Shakespeare, Sex, and the Print Revolution." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 19.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-3/alyarev.htm>.
Gordon Williams has written an entertaining book, the strength of which is its intricate mapping of interconnections across a range of media. It is a densely plotted study of recurring motifs and allusions in broadsides, paintings and literary texts, on cultural topics such as war, religion and sex, and theoretical issues such as readership, censorship and instruction. Williams's main contention is that print catches oral sexual terminology, which can then be picked up by other writers and echoed, often quite precisely. He demonstrates this thesis, carrying out another examination of Renaissance imitation; one that has been done from a classical viewpoint by others, for example Jonathan Bate (1993), but is this time tied specifically to the phenomenon of print. He is interested in the intersection of oral and print culture, seeing theatre as one of the sites of this confluence, just as censorship directs it in terms of strategies of evasion and euphemism. Exploration of linguistic cross-references yields some stylistic delights, such as the felicitously punning chapter title "Trojan Whores."
The book has three sections, on the contingencies of print; imitation of the classics; and sexuality in the reformation. There is a range of reference, to the Ovidian poems, the Roman plays, the Tragedies, and the Comedies, with perhaps the most insight applied to the Problem Plays. Section One includes some clever examination of the bawdy proliferation of punning meaning in the bad quartos. Williams recognises the radical nature of the authority conferred by the printed text upon a single author, contrasting that with an opposite contemporary trend. He considers the reader as voyeur, and examines the self-conscious metaphor of the book as whore in writing of the period.
Section Two is concerned with how writing about love and sex shapes cultural understanding, and examines the consciousness of this process in Renaissance texts. Scholarly discussion of the anxieties about the dissemination of translated Biblical texts is widespread, for example in Gerald Hammond (1982) and Alter and Kermode (1987), neither of which works are in the bibliography; but these elitist worries are linked by Williams to images of sexual exposure and, for example, Lucrece's concerns about reputation. Scholarly discussion of the anxieties about the dissemination of translated Biblical texts is widespread, for example in Gerald Hammond (1982) and Alter and Kermode (1987), neither of which works are in the bibliography; but these elitist worries are linked by Williams to images of sexual exposure and, for example, Lucrece's concerns about reputation. Space is given to a discussion of mannerist art, explaining its exposure of relativity in truth/morality as a direct result of the print phenomenon: paradoxically the easy access to multiple viewpoints promotes plurality rather than unity. The section sometimes maintains focus, as when discussing Cressida's body as the book exposed to the prying eyes of reader/voyeur (112-13), but at other times strays, becoming, for example, a straightforward examination of sex and warfare, or a tracing of Ovidian influences. In each case the connection with the book's declared interest in print is unclear.
Section Three dwells more and more on paintings, to the extent, ironically, of discussing the pictorial iconography of the open book that appears in so many Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation. Vividly described are some pictures centrally important for Renaissance conceits such as the proximity of pleasure and the pox. This is all the more tantalising as there are no plates, and there is often no title given for the picture, making it difficult to trace. Much of this section is only tenuously related to print culture. The subject is picked up again towards the end, where woman as educator is interestingly juxtaposed with the evident concerns about the unhealthy consequences of over-educating young men. Williams reads this as a physical unhealthiness, opposed to outdoor activity; he neglects to mention the dangers of sophistry elaborated for example by Giovanni's over-developed reading intelligence in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (c.1629).
- This book is only partly on the theoretical linkage of sex and text in the tradition of Toril Moi and Hélène Cixous, or of the kind more recently produced by Jeffrey Masten in Textual Intercourse (1997). Much of Williams's attention goes to the quasi-historical analysis of print as a vehicle that circulated specific images, words and sexual practice geographically. Sometimes the points made are not new, for example on Catholicism (80), on colour symbolism (83) and on elitism and manuscript (46). The book is occasionally a survey, and sometimes wanders, albeit profitably, from the avowed intent. The use of secondary sources, especially recent ones, is rather thin, reflected in the undivided "Select Bibliography." What is valuable is the sheer amount of knowledge and observation about primary texts and art, and the richness of the observed linguistic and pictorial nuance and refrain.
- Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible. London: Collins 1987.
- Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and Ovid. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.
- Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." New French Feminisms. Ed. E. Marks and I. de Courtivron. Sussex: Harvester, 1981.
- Ford, John. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Ed. Brian Morris. London: Ernest Benn, 1968.
- Hammond, Gerald. The Making of the English Bible. Manchester: Carcanet New Press 1982.
- Masten, Jeffrey. Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
- Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)