Lisa Jardine. Reading Shakespeare Historically. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 207 pp. ISBN 0 415 13489 7 Cloth; ISBN 0 415 13490 0 Paper.
Anne McLaren
Liverpool University

McLaren, Anne. "Review of
Reading Shakespeare Historically." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 19.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_mcla.html>.

  1. Reading Shakespeare Historically is a collection of essays by Lisa Jardine. In it Jardine continues her engagement with issues concerning early modern culture, canonical texts and gender which informed her classic work Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983; 2nd ed. 1989), this time taking into account the rich debates in these areas which have informed early modern scholarship over the intervening years. Although each of the essays is free-standing (and versions of all bar two have appeared elsewhere), Jardine has edited them so that they function as an ensemble. The book therefore has a cumulative effect and is more than the sum of its parts. One result is that Jardine articulates and develops a sophisticated methodology which allows her to "read Shakespeare historically" whilst simultaneously debating current trends in literary criticism within the compass of a very short book.

  2. Jardine wears her ideological heart on her sleeve. She describes herself as a historicising, feminist reader of Shakespeare who is committed to social and political change; her current reading of Henry V germinated from her encounter with Bosnian students in her classes at Queen Mary and Westfield College. For Jardine, reading Shakespeare historically means addressing the past and the present in ways that allow us to attend to the "agency" of "non-élite men and all women:" those shadowy actors on the early modern stage whose lived experience has proved singularly resistant to the techniques of even social historians, and whose descendants-- "the oppressed and disadvantaged of all races, genders and sexual preferences" (157) -- continue to bear the brunt of society’s coercive capacity. Recapturing the lived experience of women in particular is possible, she argues, if we bring the skills of scrutiny and deconstruction usually associated with the literary critic to bear on "documentary" evidence which is customarily the province of the historian. Attending to gaps and lacunae in the evidence -- whether court records or Shakespeare’s plays -- as much as to the "textual residue" which remains to us gives us a sense of the contours (one might say narrative) of early modern culture and allows us to "read out the women" in historically sensitive ways.

  3. In particular, she argues that attending to the "shape" of social interactions in this way allows us to re-address the issue of agency with regard to women and non-elite males. In the first essay ("‘Why Should He Call Her Whore?:’ Defamation and Desdemona’s Case"), for example, Jardine uses depositions from defamation cases in the Durham Ecclesiastical Courts to address the problem of Desdemona’s agency (or perceived lack thereof) in Shakespeare’s Othello. She argues that current post-modernist readings of the play (she instances Leonard Tennenhouse’s Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres) do not distinguish between verbal suggestions of Desdemona’s guilt, which inform the climate of mistrust and suspicion upon which the plot turns, and her specific actions. Yet this distinction is crucial if we are to understand Desdemona as a tragic figure in her own right; as something more than the object upon which Othello’s tragic career is played out. Verbal suggestion has specific social consequences in the wider society when it is interpreted as defamation, as Jardine shows with reference to these court cases. Reading with attention to these two varieties of verbal suggestion -- those that figure in the play, those that feature in defamation cases -- allows us to see Desdemona as a participant in an early modern community which brought its understanding of verbal suggestion to bear on Shakespeare’s play and defamation cases alike.

  4. Jardine recognises that her methodology may not restore agency to women (or female characters) shaped and produced by early modern patriarchal culture. It will at least, she hopes, save them from the final indignity imposed by post-modernist literary criticism: their reduction in status from (subordinate) subject to object. For this reason she tries to carve out a critical position, consonant with her methodology, between the unquestioning acceptance of the distinction between "fact" and "fiction" which, in her view, underpins and distorts too much of even theoretically informed social history and the commitment to text criticism and psychoanalysis characteristic of one wing of the "new historicist" movement as it has developed over the past ten years. In her view unreformed "new historicist" critical strategies, particularly in relation to Shakespeare literary criticism, have posed an unanticipated threat to women’s agency, both in the early modern period and, by implication, in the present. On the one hand, as she says in regard to Tennenhouse, uncritical acceptance of the post-modernist "play of texts" has "freed the critic from any responsibility for distinguishing" between the textual and the social. Regardless of its theoretical appeal this position has, in practice, legitimated the perception of notable women characters in plays as objects: objects who (like Desdemona, or Gertrude, whose career in Hamlet she discusses in her conclusion) exist simultaneously as the unquestioned locus of blame and, as such, are reduced to the level of plot device (20, 148-49).

  5. At the same time these critics’ characteristic preoccupation with texts revealing desire and sexuality have proved to be gender-specific in ways that mean we "fail to appreciate [early modern] women’s deeds" (165). She instances Louis Montrose’s famous reading of Elizabeth I in "‘Shaping Fantasies:’ Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture." In a penetrating reinterpretation she argues his reading denies us "access to Elizabeth as a historical subject and agent" (24) as a concomitant of the insights it generates into early modern male identity. This critical strategy, so revealing of early modern male selfhood, has simultaneously and inevitably hidden from us the actual historical being and specificity of the desired, figured as female. In Jardine’s words, "[D]istinctions in female agency in history seem to have a strong tendency to collapse into a transhistorical textual identity when we concern ourselves as critics with utterances which centre on woman’s sexuality" (25).

  6. She is also good on analysing dependency relations in the context of the early modern household and pointing to their intersection with the political arena. In Chapters 4 and 7 she incorporates the insights generated by the work on homosexuality that has been a feature of the years since the publication of Still Harping on Daughters to refine her own readings of gender relations. She argues convincingly that late Elizabethan and Jacobean culture witnesses a renegotiation of notions of "love" and "service" within the household as within the political arena. Dependency becomes a crucial variable in erotic attachment in a context which charges homosocial bonding with affective significance and reads it as necessary to the maintenance of social stability. Small wonder, then, that, as her chapter title suggests, we can detect "anxiety for the lineal family in Jacobean drama."

  7. In other essays she extends the scope of her historical inquiry by considering members of other social groups (especially elite men) and by diversifying the range of "documentary" evidence she addresses so that it ranges from Erasmus’s letters, to accounts of the patriarchal household by social historians interested in gender issues, to readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets provided by other literary critics. In Chapter 2 she looks at the concept and legal sanctions concerning unlawful marriage as a means of addressing Hamlet’s position; Chapter 3 juxtaposes the "documentary" residue of texts concerning women’s education with the learned women who figure in All’s Well That Ends Well and The Merchant of Venice; Chapter 5 uses Erasmus’s familiar letters to analyse the pivotal affective moments that structure the plot of King Lear. Her concern with women as agents, in the past and in the present, recurs in a different form in Chapter 8, "Unpicking the Tapestry: The Scholar of Women’s History as Penelope Among Her Suitors." In a paper adapted from an address she delivered to the 1991 University of Maryland conference Attending to Women in the Early Modern Period, Jardine argues that fully attending to women in the early modern period -- in part the forging of the critical and analytical tools necessary to do so -- will inaugurate a paradigm shift (if not a historiographical revolution) that will definitively move the traditional historical narrative away from its preoccupation with male identity as it emerges and develops in past time, towards an encompassing vision of the human past in which "textual residues" speak to all of us in the present, about all of us in the past.

  8. Elsewhere her optimism about the potential of this dialogue between the past in the present flags. Not the least interesting sections of the book occur when she considers the possibility, with reference to cultural depictions of Jews and women in early modern drama (including Shakespeare’s plays), that the past is complicit with the present in ways that perpetuate social divisions and dispossession. Do we, as readers, inadvertently conserve and perpetuate ancient prejudices "when we take up the dialogue with [early modern play-texts] as if [they] were innocent in [their] relationship to early modern society?" She offers no solution to this dilemma, unless it is an implicit adjuration to read early modern texts with the same imagination and vigilance that she herself applies.

Works Cited

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

© 1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 24 July 1998)