Richard Strier. Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. xiii + 232pp.
Mark Robson
University of Leeds

Robson, Mark. "Review of Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts. Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 13.1-5 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_rob1.html>.

  1. Provocative, stimulating and impassioned, Richard Strier's Resistant Structures is a compelling intervention into current debates on reading early modern texts, attempting to reconcile formalism with historicism to provide a new model for contextualized close readings. Throughout the book, however, he refuses to elevate this practice to the level of a "scheme," since schematic readings are the target of Strier's polemic. Addressing himself to the blindspots which such readings create, he provides many judicious and eloquent debunkings of critical assumptions.

  2. The book is divided into two sections, the first theoretical, and the second consisting of close readings of Herbert, Donne, Shakespeare and Nahum Tate. Part One opens with a restaging of the critical disputation between William Empson and Rosemond Tuve, introducing the confrontation of "formalism" with "history." Prevailing opinion, according to Strier, has it that Tuve's "old" historicism (which he describes as a form of argumentation based upon an appeal to "tradition") won this particular encounter. However, Strier asserts that Empson's advocacy of reading with a "clean palate" reveals Empson as the more rigorous historicist since, freed from the burden of preconception that tradition imposes, he is able to respond to the text, rather than to any assumed notion of what the text must be saying. For Strier, (un)critical assumption inevitably leads to error, and Empson remains the model reader throughout Resistant Structures. Countering perceived dogmatisms, Strier advises a pluralistic and anti-systematic mode of reading and espouses a methodological modesty, resisting claims to present the reading of any text. His purpose is to raise possibilities, to identify strong (particularly "radical") presences within the texts and their moments of production, and to prevent the suppression of surprise and perplexity in his readings.

  3. Part One continues by engaging with the work of Stanley Fish, moves on to contrast (and compare) Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman's collection of essays under the heading Shakespeare and the Question of Theory with Terry Eagleton's work on Shakespeare, and concludes with an essay on New Historicism. Strier is generous in his use of all the critics cited, but where he gives with one hand he takes back with the other: deconstruction provides many insights (and see p.131), but is attacked for schematic oversimplification and its seeming preoccupation with language at the expense of politics; Eagleton is praised for his ideological awareness, but chided for being an ideologue. Confronted with both older forms of historicism and with New Criticism, Strier's analysis of New Historicism, and Stephen Greenblatt's work in particular, interestingly centres upon the question of intention. Geertz's influence on Greenblatt is seen to be positive, offering a way to reconstruct the specificities of a culture, but the lack of agency within Greenblatt's models of self-fashioning and the circulation of social energy are criticised for preventing empathy with historical subjects.

  4. Part Two consists of compelling readings of Renaissance texts, beginning with Herbert's "The Church-porch" and "The Church" in the context of "devout humanism." Strier's general point is that the difficulty that New Historicism has with religion is the result of its concentration upon strategy and cynicism in social interaction, and he argues that to be able to read Herbert's poetry the critic must be aware of theology as well as ideology. John Donne's "Satire III" reveals the possibility of combining seemingly divergent strands of radical thought within a single work. "Jack Donne" is not for Strier the Catholic poet who converts into Doctor Donne the Protestant preacher; he is a poet who examines the question of individual religious conscience at a profound level. Strier's reading of Shakespeare's King Lear centres upon obedience, moving from a reconstruction of intellectual context, including material from Castiglione, More, Luther and the Homilies, to an analysis of the play which focuses upon the paradox of obedience through non-obedience. Strier's final chapter traces this theme through Tate's reworking of Lear, arguing that the play is a Whig, rather than a Tory, revision.

  5. There is much to ponder here. Strier's nuanced and careful approach produces fertile and detailed readings, but in places he does not live up to his own rhetoric. Strier's treatment of deconstruction is particularly troubling--his engagement with Derrida consists of one brief quotation (hardly a close or contextualized reading)--leading him to restate commonplaces of anti-deconstructive dogma (p.40). Similarly, despite proposing that it is possible to decide what Shakespeare's own views on obedience were by tracing the theme through other plays, Strier makes no mention of Richard II, Measure for Measure, the treatment of the rebellion of Jack Cade, or Shakespeare's contribution to The Book of Sir Thomas More. This is a fascinating, important and enjoyable book, which should provoke careful consideration of critical practices, but much remains to be elaborated.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 22, 1996)