Naomi Conn Liebler. Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Rituals Foundations of Genre. New York: Routledge, 1995. xii+266 pp. ISBN 0415086574 Cloth; 0415131839 Paper.
Jeffrey Kahan.

Kahan, Jeffrey. "Review of Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Rituals Foundations of Genre." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 12.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_kah1.html>

  1. In 1959, C.L. Barber launched a new awareness of Elizabethan social and communal concerns in his Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. More than 35 years later, Liebler has appropriated two-thirds of Barber's title, along with a significant amount of anthropological data, and used it as a springboard to discuss ritual and its social function in Shakespeare's tragedies.

  2. Of course, time has marched on since Barber's study and with it so has our perspective. A major difference between Barber and contemporary critics is that the former believed that literary meaning was discernible in the study of patterns and unity, and that apparently esoteric meaning could be reappropriated with the right historical contextualization. Moreover, Barber, like so many critics of his generation, valued Shakespeare as the pinnacle of Western, if not human expression. Since that time, Shakespeare has lost his position as the soul of his age, not to mention our own.

  3. Deconstruction, Marxism, Feminism and New Historicism have pushed New Criticism, Historicism and Genre Study off the critical map. The contemporary critic, raised on a heavy diet of Bristol, Greenblatt and Taylor, is encouraged to see literature as an intersection of historical, social conditions and politics. The study of pattern, unity and intention has been replaced or displaced by margins and faultlines. While this has yielded new insights into critical practice and ideology, studies of pattern and technique are generally viewed as quaint or old-fashioned. Liebler views this critical phenomenon as "costly"(3).

  4. The attempt to bridge this critical divide is subtle. While believing that form and pattern are absolutely intrinsic to human expression, Liebler appropriates the commonly espoused ideological position that our knowledge and understanding of these expressions are entirely dependent upon the social factors that produce them. For example, she sees within Shakespeare's plays the outlines of the pharmakos as defined by Frye as "scapegoat" but also as expanded upon by Derrida to mean both remedy and poison.

  5. Bringing this kind of argument to bear on Genre Study, Liebler notes that in both comedy and tragedy, "the constructed cultural values of the fictive community are invariably reaffirmed and reconsecrated, but in tragedy the management, alteration, or manipulation of those values is [sic] put to question"(8). Liebler cites various anthropological studies that discuss social rituals of separation, transition and reintegration, and, while applying careful caveats to differentiate between ritual and drama, she maps them onto Shakespeare's tragedies.

  6. This combination of ideological awareness with anthropological and genre formalism yields an astonishing variety of rich contextualizations, rendered with clarity and insight. She sees within Richard II, Richard III, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Titus and Coriolanus, repeated patterns of marginalization in which the main characters of each play "do the work of victimage or sacrifice"(123). While these patterns are similar, Liebler's strands of explication are varied and complex. In her study of Richard II, she combines the myth of Cain and Abel, concepts of misrule, patterns of sun and rain as well as source materials and contemporaneous socioeconomic issues. In her discussion of Julius Caesar, she relates the play to rites of passage, Michaelmas, civil and ecclesiastical policies. In her discussion of Coriolanus, she draws upon anthropological data concerning folk plays about St. George and the dragon.

  7. Undeniably, there is much here that is scholastically original and pedagogically useful. Nonetheless, her attempts at synthesis will doubtless solicit the standard sorts of counter-arguments. For one, her texts are highly selective. One wonders what Liebler would make of Antony and Cleopatra or Troilus and Cressida. Further, the book never deals with comic tensions within the selected texts. The choice of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and the restriction of any discussion of the comic or "lowly" elements in Richard III and Hamlet is oddly reminiscent of the sixteenth and seventeenth century's attempts to "correct" Shakespeare's genre mixing. Purging any reference to the comic in Shakespeare's tragedies is curious in a critique that argues that Shakespeare's tragedies function nearly identically to the elements she omits. The author also avoids any discussion on how her paradigm redefines the darker elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor or the Problem Plays. No distinction is made between the histories and the tragedies. This is a common enough oversight but odd in a book devoted to genre study.

  8. While many New Historicists may applaud Leibler's sensitivity to such culturally laden terms as "goodness," Marxists will be disappointed by her sometime confusion of "restorable authority" (167) and collective interest. Moreover, Liebler has a worrying tendency to refer to Shakespeare's audience as if it were uniform and heterogeneous. Performance critics will point out that her attempts to read even sections of the plays in terms of recognizable ritual and pattern render them nonsuspenseful. While this is a possibility, it is a possibility that raises profound social questions concerning Elizabethan entertainment and audience reception.

  9. While some may see her attempts at synthesis as misguided, Liebler's book does successfully dust off and refurbish a long-neglected critical tool. Even those ideologically opposed to aspects of her approach will grudgingly admit the usefulness of many of her readings: no small feat in Shakespeare Studies.

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).
(December 31, 1996)