“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.”
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
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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”
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).
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.
Judged on its individual merits, Beginning Shakespeare is an
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.
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..
Armstrong, Philip. Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis.
London: Routledge, 2001.
Dan, Joseph. Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction.
New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
Dickson, Andrew. The Rough Guide to Shakespeare.
London: Rough Guides, 2005.
Egan, Gabriel. Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics
to Ecocriticism. Accents on Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.
Fallon, Robert. How To Enjoy Shakespeare. Chicago:
Ivan Dee, 2005.
Laitman, Michael. Kabbalah for Beginners. Thornhill:
Laitman Kabbalah Publishers, 2003.
Newman, Karen. “Renaissance Family Politics in Shakespeare’s
The Taming of the Shrew.” English Literary Renaissance 16.1
Shore, Robert. “How to Read Plays.” Times Literary
Supplement. 10 June, 2005.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.