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A Reminder that Shakespeare Is Not Always for All Time Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     January 09, 2013    
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A Reminder that Shakespeare Is Not Always for All Time
  • The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare and his Time
  • by Robert Brustein
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Published in 2009
  • 4

In The Tainted Muse, critic and playwright Robert Brustein casts a look at what is for the modern reader one of the more problematic aspects of studying Shakespeare: the fact that he is often, by our standards, politically incorrect to a startling degree. This is often brushed aside by saying that it was merely a feature of the time and that Shakespeare wasn’t nearly as bad as his fellow authors, allowing Shakespeare lovers to retain their moral credentials, and by startling hair-splitting to excuse the less salvageable moments. Thus we have Michael Radford excusing himself for making his Al Pacino-starring Merchant of Venice by arguing that ‘it’s not an anti-Semitic play, it’s a play about anti-Semitism’. Well, perhaps in your severely-truncated script it is, Mr. Radford; but as written it is mostly a play about young love, strong male friendship, and a loathsome moneylender who happens to make a couple of good points in passing but is mostly, unequivocally, a Jew (and no, not merely ‘Jewish’).

It is one of the features of Shakespearean commentary that readers have always sought to imagine a Shakespeare in their own image, which is one reason for the sheer quantity of books on the subject; and as commentators can find in the collected works as many statements (contradicted elsewhere) to support their position as can readers of the Bible, this is likely a permanent state of affairs. This has led to something of a reaction: in particular, Katherine Duncan-Jones has written an entire book to prove that Shakespeare was a mean-spirited miserly syphilitic who hated everybody, especially those living in Stratford-upon-Avon. Brustein, though not going so far, is in this line and provides a useful correction to the overarching correctness so many people claim for Shakespeare as an excuse to continue reading and performing him, thus giving in to the idea that a work of art must be moral to be of any worth. Brustein, rather, argues that there are deeply problematic aspects of Shakespeare that must not be brushed over, but that they do not diminish the artistic worth of the whole.

In particular Brustein looks at six prejudices that he sees as particularly strong in Shakespeare’s work as opposed to being common to the literature of the time, strands of thought that recur over the course of his career with especial virulence and that may thus be argued for as being peculiarly his, particularly when they occur without much justification in a text. The six are misogyny (of course), effimiphobia (the loathing of unmanly courtiers), machismo (the admiration of plainspoken manly men), elitism and mobocracy (the hatred of the mob and the underclass), racialism, and intelligent design (as Brustein chooses to title his chapter on Shakespeare’s evolving view of the universe).

To what extent Brustein proves his argument that these six are uncommonly strong in Shakespeare is debateable; certainly, he provides evidence of the presence of these feelings in the works and fascinating discussions on how they work. His discussion of the bluff soldier and how it slowly became a theatrical type that allows Iago to easily slip on that role is especially fascinating, as is his exploration of the figure of the effeminate courtier in early modern English society. Likewise his brief but cogent final chapter on the evolution of Shakespeare’s beliefs about the physical world, which is matter enough for several books (many of which have been attempted) but receives here a fine introduction, is an excellent addition to the literature. Beyond this there is a welcome subtlety to Brustein’s view, especially in his tracing of the evolution of Shakespeare’s thought, realising that a twenty or so year career is unlikely to be intellectually monolithic.

One will note that the fifth chapter is entitled ‘Racialism’ rather than ‘Racism’, an important difference, the first suggesting that the various races are merely inherently different from one another while the second argues that, beyond this, some are superior to others. This could seem an attempt to diminish Shakespeare’s prejudices about race, but it is a useful way of signalling the ways in which his portrayals of Africans (in particular) differ from the norm of his time. On the other hand, Brustein’s decision to call the chapter on Shakespeare’s view of the universe ‘Intelligent Design’ may be trying a bit too hard to be relevant.

Yet much of the evidence presented is concerned with placing Shakespeare’s own prejudice in context, which rather weakens the idea that these six were his own. As a study of the forms prejudice took in early modern England, the book is excellent; as an exploration of Shakespeare’s specific mind, it is rather less convincing. It strikes me as particularly suspicious that Brustein’s conclusions about Shakespeare’s life fall so easily into a highly traditional biography – which is not to suggest that he is necessarily wrong, but that the coziness with which his views align with the classic Shakespeare whose four stylistic periods arise from biographical events may imply that Brustein neglected to check his own presumptions at the door. His rather blithe assumption that Shakespeare’s loathing of women is due to his wife having cheated on him is a prime example of this.

This is not to say that this is a bad book; it is an excellent and informative read, particularly recommended as an introduction to the whole question of prejudice in early modern English literature. But it might have been better had Brustein held to that rather than attempt to argue that he has deciphered a portion of Shakespeare’s mind. Luckily Brustein is not Harold Bloom; he has the modesty to claim only an attempt at illuminating a certain aspect of Shakespeare’s thought. But the overall excellence of the book is undermined by the faint but distinct taste of ‘Not Proven’ that lingers once the covers are closed.

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