Richard Halpern, Shakespeare Among the Moderns. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997. 294 pp. ISBN 08014-8418-9. John J. Joughin, ed. Philosophical Shakespeares. London: Routledge, 2000. 128 pp. ISBN 0415-17389-2.
Roger Starling
University of Warwick

Starling, Roger. "Review of Shakespeare Among the Moderns and Philosophical Shakespeares ." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 21.1-9 <URL:

  1. Who are we, we moderns? And what, precisely, does we mean here? Who is this "we"? And what does the putting into question of this "we" have to do with the possibility of being or becoming modern? These are some of the questions that Shakespeare's plays continue to pose with a force that is perhaps no less incessant for us than it was for his original audience. But then, if this is so, who is Shakespeare's "original audience"? After all, if the provocation that stems from these much studied and yet enigmatic texts derives in part from their being open to endless reinscription in a potentially infinite series of unknown and unknowable contexts-none of which, it should be added, are capable of exhausting their meaning completely-in what sense is it even possible to speak of any one audience as being somehow more "original" than another? And is perhaps be aware of this irreducible difference--the singularity of the "originary" repetition which is the condition of all history and community as such--at least part of what it means to be modern?

  2. Both books under review betray at least a partial awareness of what it might mean to discuss Shakespeare "philosophically," even though it is the professed intention of only one of them. Richard Halpern's Shakespeare Among the Moderns belongs, as Karen Newman points out, "to the growing area of Shakespeare studies dealing with reception and the 'construction' of Shakespeare." It is also, despite its limitations, a stimulating and impressive study of the disavowed continuities not only between the "modernist" and "postmodernist" Shakespeares, but also--fashionable notions of epistemological ruptures notwithstanding--within twentieth-century culture more generally. Philosophical Shakespeares, the fourth volume in the Accents on Shakespeare series edited by Terence Hawkes, is, despite its title, generally at home with similar productions of its ilk, and none of the pieces here, whatever their merit, would be out of place in one of the New Accents Alternative Shakespeares volumes. Both titles, in fact, suffer from being at once too philosophical and not philosophical enough, preferring on the whole to remain on the by now predictable terrain of Marxism and/or cultural materialism rather than subject their founding assumptions to the scrutiny with which Derrida and others have taught us to regard the term "philosophy."

  3. For Richard Halpern, "modern" is used primarily to refer to the modernist transformation of English criticism, poetics and sensibility in the early decades of the last century, a definition which the more innovative aspects of his study manages to call into question. In five densely and at times brilliantly argued chapters, Halpern demonstrates the extent to which contemporary approaches to Shakespeare, which are more often than not founded precisely on the rejection of their modernist and new critical predecessors, in fact continue to work out a deeply embedded cultural logic that can be traced specifically to modernist approaches to Shakespeare. This is argued most explicitly in the opening chapter, entitled "Shakespeare in the Tropics: From High Modernism to New Historicism," in which Halpern skillfully demonstrates that for all its ostensible novelty, the anthropological preoccupations which came to define much new historicist work in the 1980s was in fact strongly anticipated by the modernist reception of Renaissance theatre. Thus, Halpern argues, while "the New Historicism is generally portrayed as a variety of postmodernism,…it also entails a recrudescence of high modernism. The 'postmodernity' of the New Historicists results not so much from some absolute break with modernist practice but rather from its radical refiguring" (42).

  4. Subsequent chapters address the modernist reception of Shakespeare by means of what Halpern terms "historical allegory:" a notion extracted from the T.S. Eliot's differential mapping of past culture and present interest in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and from Walter Benjamin's influential discussion of Baroque allegory in The Origin of German Tragic Drama. [1] The commitment to allegory allows Halpern to read four plays by Shakespeare--Julius Caesar, Pericles, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet--through the lens of their modernist reception in criticism, film, and theatrical adaptation in ways that prove genuinely illuminating, not only of modernism but of Shakespeare as well. This is especially true of the chapter entitled "Hamletmachines," which discusses the mechanized Hamlet parody in W.S. Gilbert's The Montebanks (1892), Edward Gordon Craig's 1912 production of Hamlet for the Moscow Art Theatre in collaboration with Constantin Stanislavski, Jean Cocteau's The Infernal Machine (n.d.), Lacan's Hamlet seminar (pub. 1981-3), Heiner Müller's Hamletmachine (pub. 1977), and the brief Terminator-Hamlet in Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero (dir. John McTiernan, 1993). After reading Halpern's account of the mechanistic operations of desire foregrounded by twentieth-century adaptations, it become difficult to see how earlier generations of critics and play-goers had so confidently projected their own subjectivity onto the depthless automaton in a play whose doublings and repetitions figure the mechanical reproducibility of "modernity as such" (288).

  5. And herein, perhaps, lies the problem. For indeed, while Halpern is scrupulous is pointing out that reading Shakespeare in terms of modernist allegory "reveal[s] aspects of the plays that would tend to be overlooked by a purely historicist approach" (10), the status of such readings is not only ultimately uncertain; they also run the risk of collapsing into pointless tautology (i.e. modernist, allegorical, and/or mechanically reproduced readings of modernism, allegory, and mechanical reproduction). Although Halpern wants to insist that such reproducibility figures the creative/destructive workings of tradition that finds itself "in some sense [] present" (288) in Shakespeare, the point, surely, would be to investigate how, where, and to what extent the economic and material forces examined by Halpern have exploited the "self-canceling logic" (288) of dissolution and renewal in ways which no doubt simplify the generic determinations of tragedy and the relentlessly corrosive irony with which Shakespeare characteristically subjects them.

  6. A second point, as readers will have no doubt noticed, is that by the end of his study Halpern's critical focus shifts conspicuously from modernism to modernity, a move that not only raises the interpretive stakes but invokes once again the question of historical difference alluded to above. Indeed in characterizing Hamlet as the mechanical writing-machine not simply of modernism, but of "modernity as such," Halpern runs the risk of ascribing to modernity a fixed or uniform character even as he reduces Hamlet to the sum of its mechanical reproductions. The alternative, I would argue, would be to regard modernity not as distinct historical epoch so much as the possibility of realizing the ethical and political implications of difference--of the absolute singularity of the other--which, as Derrida suggests, can occur only within an anachronic or dis-joined temporality. [2] Although Halpern correctly points out that the Hamletmachine registers the "oppressive burden of tradition and improvises a new way of imagining an old play," his insistence that "the Hamletmachine and the Hamlet machine are one" (288) subsumes within an undifferentiated "modernity" the possibility of our being or becoming modern.

  7. One final point about Shakespeare Among the Moderns is that it is subtended by what Halpern describes as "a recurrent (though not quite continuous) focus on capitalism, particularly on what Marxists have identified as its imperialist or monopoly phase, as a foundational dynamic of modernist culture" (11). Indeed whereas Halpern's earlier study, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation [3], sought to ground the dynamic tensions of early modern texts in contemporary economic practices and the reterritorialization of the late feudal polity under the increasingly centralized Tudor state, Shakespeare Among the Moderns offers a similar treatment that functions not only as a sequel of the first, but which implicitly aspires to both incorporate and displace Halpern's more overtly historicist work through a self-confessedly "modernist" approach to modernism. Although the result is an insightful and at times illuminating study of a diverse range of topics, the overarching narrative in which Shakespeare is figured as both author and product of a modernity in which culture and economics alike are driven by the automatizing effects of mechanical reproduction is not only a historical allegory in its own right, as Halpern himself points out, but as a consequence succumbs perhaps too readily to the very combination of totalizing ambitions and self-cancelling logic that it purports to analyze.

  8. Philosophical Shakespeares addresses the growing need for a rapprochement between philosophy and literary studies in the Anglo-American academy. Unfortunately--and despite a number of strong contributions, most notably those by Linda Charnes, Scott Wilson, and Howard Caygill--the volume itself falls conspicuously short of the expectations raised by its title. Although the book jacket prominently features Emmanuel Lévinas' provocative assertion that "It sometimes seems to me that the whole of philosophy is only a mediation of Shakespeare," readers of this volume will search in vain for a discussion of Lévinas' texts in which references to such plays as Hamlet and Macbeth are a small but significant contribution. [4] Also missing are such figures as Benjamin, Derrida, and Lyotard, all of whom have not only written incisively on Shakespeare, but whose engagements with Hamlet-a philosophical rite of passage that is itself worthy of analysis-could be cited as marking a decisive moment in the development of their work.

  9. What the volume does contain, however, is an assortment of essays whose contents will for the most part be reassuringly familiar to readers acquainted with the more ostensibly theoretical criticism of Shakespeare produced over the last two decades. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, of which not the least is the extent to which Shakespeare's plays continue to remain central to what the book jacket describes as "our understanding and experience of modernity." Indeed the extent to which Shakespeare's plays seem both to invite and resist philosophical appropriation, as attested in various ways by the essays collected here, gestures toward an experience of modernity as the indeterminate itself, and thus as the possibility of justice or opening to the other through the questioning of the collective "we." Thus encapsulating both the potential and limitations of the volume as a whole, John Joughin remarks in his Introduction that "in Derrida's recent reading of Marx it is none other than the spirit of Hamlet who exemplifies a non-foundationalist petition to justice which remains unfulfilled, though so far this aspect of Derrida's work has gone largely unremarked in radical currents of Shakespeare criticism" (10). That this is also true in the case of Philosophical Shakespeares is an unfortunate testimony to the accuracy of Joughin's claim.


1. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998).

2.See Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).

3. Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991).

4. The quotation from Lévinas appears in Time and the Other, trans. R.A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1987), 72.

Works Cited


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© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS