Lisa Hopkins. Beginning Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005. 224pp. ISBN 0 7190 6423 6.

Brett D. Hirsch
University of Western Australia

Hirsch, Brett. "Review of Lisa Hopkins, Beginning Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 6.1-11 <URL:>

  1. “Lisa Hopkins’s Beginning Shakespeare could hardly have a more inappropriate title,” begins Robert Shore’s review in the Times Literary Supplement (June 10, 2005). Shore contends that for those “just sitting down to read Shakespeare for the first time, this is decidedly not the place to begin,” and that out of the three books covered in his review— ominously titled “How to Read Plays”—he finds that “Robert Fallon’s six pages on the subject are by far the most engaging and instructive in any of these three books.”

  2. With respect, Robert Shore has completely missed the point. It is hardly appropriate to assess Hopkins’s book—designed for student consumption as an introduction to the varieties of theoretical and methodological approaches in Shakespeare criticism—against Fallon’s How To Enjoy Shakespeare and Andrew Dickson’s The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, since both the purpose and target audiences are essentially different. Dickson and Fallon are not writing for an audience familiar with Shakespeare at all. Essentially, Shore’s review is analogous to comparing Michael Laitman’s Kabbalah for Beginners (Thornhill: Laitman Kabbalah Publishers, 2003) with Joseph Dan’s Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) on the basis of their similar titles, and finding Dan’s volume—a survey of the history and character of Jewish mysticism written by the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at Hebrew University—to be lacking on account of its academic attitude to what has become appropriated as a popular, ‘new age’ fad.

  3. To be fair to Shore, perhaps his undeservedly harsh criticism stems from another case of short-sightedness on his part: Shore jumps to the immediate conclusion that Hopkins’s choice of title is erroneous, whilst omitting the fact that it is part of the Beginnings series. The series, which includes volumes on critical theory, ethnic American literatures, postcolonialism, and postmodernism, is “designed to give practical help to students beginning to tackle recent developments in English, Literary Studies and Cultural Studies.” As such, Hopkins’s book is appropriately titled and, in my opinion, offers an insightful and engaging survey of the different methods and theoretical approaches to Shakespeare criticism.

  4. Hopkins begins with a brief historical outline of the critical approaches to Shakespeare, from praise and barbed criticism of Shakespeare by his contemporaries, through liberal humanism, to Bradley, Tillyard, and finally Kott and the idea of Shakespeare as ‘our’ contemporary. At the end of each chapter, Hopkins includes— as part of the Beginnings series guidelines—a “Stop and Think” section, which offers questions for the reader to consider, or for discussion by students in a tutorial situation. For example, the question offered at the end of the first chapter is as follows:
    Many of the changes in approaches to Shakespeare which we have examined in this chapter have been triggered by events in the outside world. Is there any kind of event or development that you could reasonably expect to see in your own lifetime which might lead to a new approach to Shakespeare? (33)
    This seems to me a relevant question to consider at the outset of the book, especially for undergraduate students who are coming to an academic study of Shakespeare for the first time. Perhaps I feel that questions of this sort are important on account of my own adoption of historicist tenets. This is another aspect of Hopkins’s book that Shore takes issue with, noting “Hopkins herself adopts an avowedly Cultural Materialist approach and has a tendency to blur the distinction between writing about plays and fighting in the streets.” Up to a point, Shore is absolutely correct—Hopkins does adopt a cultural materialist approach—but she does so openly; and as hard as I look for it I cannot find the call to arms that Shore alleges is in the book. On the whole Beginning Shakespeare is even-handed in its discussion and assessment of other critical approaches, whilst acknowledging (but not privileging) Hopkins’s own theoretical position. Hopkins readily acknowledges: “my own approach in this volume, in always trying to elucidate the factors which conditioned particular critical approaches, is essentially a product of Cultural Materialism” (93), but she also insists that “it is important to stress that what I say is not ‘the right answer’, but merely one possible response; indeed, it is one of the main points of this book that there is no right or single answer where Shakespeare is concerned” (2).

  5. At the end of each chapter, following the “Stop and Think” questions, is a section of suggested further reading. Generally, these sections include works referred to explicitly in the preceding chapter, and are accompanied by a brief annotated bibliography of additional titles that explore the issues raised in more depth. This is of particular benefit to students wishing to pursue a particular aspect raised in the chapter. While the suggested readings are hardly exhaustive, they do not presume to be and are easily supplemented in tutorial discussion.

  6. Each chapter is devoted to a current theoretical approach to Shakespeare studies, including psychoanalysis, new historicism, cultural materialism, ‘new factualisms’ (biographical and bibliographical studies), gender studies and queer theory, postcolonial criticism, and performance criticism. Hopkins’s general approach to each of the aforementioned is to first discuss the historical background and development of the critical ideology, then examine the key concepts and assumptions, and end with an illustration of how they can be applied to readings of Shakespeare. In cases such as psychoanalytic criticism, where different schools of thought—Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian, and Post-Lacanian—have modified the critical methodology, Hopkins offers examples of the different readings resulting from these variations.

  7. Following these illustrations there is a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant critical perspective. Taking psychoanalytic criticism again as an example—and purely as an example: I have no ideological axe to grind in this forum—Hopkins highlights the usual criticisms of the methodology: its claim of universalism (37), the assumption that “the sexual make-up and gender orientation of all humans is (or ought to be) the same” (38), and “the slipperiness which allows psychoanalytic criticism to place particular weight on features which are actually not particularly prominent in the text, on the grounds that their absence is significant and hence evidence of repression” (38). This is, of course, balanced by Hopkins’s examples of the strengths of psychoanalytic criticism: that “to an extent, psychoanalysis has an obvious kinship with literature, since in both it is necessary to assume that things are unlikely to be what they seem” (36), that “the psychoanalytic critic probes beneath the surface of the text, seeking the hidden motivation of either the author or the characters or both” (37), and, as a result, the approach “may be attractive to students because it holds out the promise of allowing us to extrapolate from our own experiences, postulating as it does that what lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s plays are universal human experiences” (37).

  8. Beginning Shakespeare takes pains to include the ways that recent critics of a particular theoretical position have attempted to engage with and overcome the sorts of weaknesses that are highlighted in the chapters. For example, Hopkins suggests the work of Philip Armstrong as indicative of the sort of psychoanalytic criticism that seeks to address its “traditional areas of blindness” (60). Similarly, Karen Newman’s article, “Renaissance Family Politics in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew,” is given as an example of an attempt by a new historicist to counter the criticism that new historicism ignores gender issues and literary form (82-86), and Hopkins offers the same discussion of recent developments in every chapter. In this respect, it is hard to see any merit in Shore’s claim that while the book “promises to liberate readers in their struggle to establish a critical approach of their own, some might feel constrained by its censorious tone.” Hopkins is fair in her assessment of each of the critical ideologies discusses in Beginning Shakespeare, and does not spare the rod or spoil any approach in particular: even in her chapter on cultural materialism—her ‘home turf’ per se—Hopkins is critical of the sweeping generalisations, bald assertions, and trans-historicism often occasioned in cultural materialist criticism, suggesting that “arguments about the finer nuances of the text do not ultimately matter, because what is important [to cultural materialism] is the big picture, and the political project which it serves” (99).

  9. There will be academics who take issue with Hopkins’s discussion of particular critical perspectives, but Beginning Shakespeare is not meant to be authoritative and exhaustive in its coverage of the current critical climate. It is meant as an introduction to the variety of ways in which Shakespeare can be (and has been) read, understood, and criticised. In an age with an increasing fixation upon “outcomes based education,” occasioned by smaller English departments and shorter courses, Hopkins’s book is an exceptionally useful tool for students who are often asked to refer to secondary sources in answering their assignments, but whose courses have not had the opportunity (or time) to cover the different theoretical approaches in great detail. Beginning Shakespeare provides a basic map of these approaches that are relevant to Shakespeare studies, and will save many a student from drowning in a sea of criticism.

  10. Judged on its individual merits, Beginning Shakespeare is an excellent handbook that belongs as required reading for any course on Shakespeare. It is well written, and Hopkins’s style is insightful, engaging, and a pleasure to read. Her treatment of the historical developments of each theoretical perspective avoids the temptation to provide too much detail—often the quickest way to lose student attention—and sticks to material that is relevant and informative, offering suggested readings for those who wish to investigate further.

  11. That said, there are two areas that the book could have addressed in greater detail. First, the growing field of Shakespeare on film could have occupied a chapter of its own, rather than appearing as part of the chapter on performance studies. Certainly the two are intertwined, but despite their common elements I feel that Hopkins could have addressed each of their historical developments and critical strengths and weaknesses separately. Secondly, a discussion of ecocriticism is noticeably absent. While it is perhaps still a fledgling discourse in Shakespeare studies, it is becoming increasingly more prominent with publications such as Gabriel Egan’s Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism as part of the Accents on Shakespeare series, and the inclusion of a panel session on “Ecocriticism and the World of Shakespeare” at the International Shakespeare Association Congress in Brisbane later this year. These are two aspects that could be easily incorporated into a revised edition..
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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).