Patricia Parker. Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. x+392pp. ISBN 0-226-64584-3 Paper
Mary Bly
Washington University, St. Louis

Bly, Mary. "Review of Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context. " Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May, 1997): 5.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_bly2.html>.

  1. There is nothing surprising about the fact that Patricia Parker's new book is both meticulously researched and, at times, madly creative. According to the author, this is a book about what has been marginalized in Shakespeare: the role of the decorative "quibble." She argues that comic wordplay, closely examined, reveals links operating within and between Shakespeare's plays, links which can entirely change our interpretation of his work. Her larger argument is that "subversion . . . could operate at the verbal as well as the visual level, transmitted sotto voce in a wordplay that could be taken several ways at once" (13). Puns, she suggests, may expose the underpinnings of early modern ideology, even if the plays appear to celebrate those ideals. The idea that puns are, in Margreta de Grazia's phrase, "subversive oddities," is not new. Parker, however, pulls the marginal to center stage, evoking a sense of verbal play that ignores genre and script boundaries: the sexually excessive Moor-with-more, the Barbary horse, falls into linguistic alignment with Cleopatra, the "barbarous" Queen. Parker uses some seventeen Renaissance dictionaries and a wide range of contemporary documents to reveal multiple meanings, restoring unruly or even mutinous implications lost by time.

  2. My initial reaction as a reader and a person who often teaches two Shakespeare classes a semester was surprise: there are pages of "inconsequential quibbles" that I (and thus my students) ignore and flip past as we race towards being and not being. Who pays much attention to Parolles telling Bertram to employ more words: "Use a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords . . . Be more expressive to them . . . after them, and take a more dilated farewell"? But as Parker browses through the play's "dilations," a pedantic bit of interference leads to a complex and fascinating discussion of All's Well That Ends Well as a whole. Parolles' advice links to his name ("words"), as well as his jocose attempt to talk Helena into increase (the "blowing up" of pregnancy). Parolles is a windy social climber. His vacuous type of "increase" links to economic bloating: those "new men" who appeared in the seventeenth century, associated with effeminacy and the decline of the aristocracy. As becomes gradually clear, "increase", which Parker labels the "nodal preoccupation" of All's Well That Ends Well, can be seen as a threat hovering over all of the play's elaborate entanglements. Parolles represents one kind of increase, and Helena another. Helena's claim about the bed trick -- that it is "wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act" -- depends on the manipulation of two into one: one figure displaced (or increased) into another. Where Bertram thinks there is one maid, there are two. Explicitly, the loss of Helena's virginity is itself a dilation, an "increase" which serves as the parodic double of Parolles' empty words about "blowing up": he is blown down at the exact time she is blown up, a further link to Helena's providential "increase," immediate pregnancy.

  3. In a sense, Parker has taken on the whole debate over subversion and containment by offering her theory that subversion rests in the least important components of the plays: the lines excised from modern productions. Yet she often phrases her own assessment of those subversions only tentatively, or wreathes us with smaller arguments and lets us assess the "subversion" for ourselves. For example, preposterous was a loaded word in the Renaissance, a term with a sense of unnatural and improper inversion. Parker's investigation leads to a thoughtful, wide-ranging discussion of early modern investment in proper sequence: order in grammar, in discipline, in domestic arrangement (especially in terms of gender), in the emerging neoclassical orthodoxy. Then, thread by thread, Parker pulls together documents that use "preposterous" as a description for homosexual activity: "a more revealing term than sodomy," she points out, "for it links something represented as sexual inversion with the whole range of recto and verso, front and back, before and behind" (27). So Thersites rails against Achilles and Patroclus as "preposterous discoveries." I could add my own example, which somehow escaped Parker: Heywood's admonishment against doing "as the Sodomites did, [using] preposterous lusts in preposterous habits" (Apology for Actors). In Love's Labor's Lost, homoerotic wordplay is everywhere: puns on bearing and carriage, the pederastic context of Holofernes' tutoring, the reputations of Alexander and Pompey. What, then, of the fact that Costard follows a woman, an "obscene and most preposterous event"? There is preposterousness involved in "following" a woman, who should follow a man. But there is also something of an "outing" of the cross-dressed boy actor playing Jacquenetta. "This play," writes Parker, "repeatedly exploits the ambiguities of a transvestite theater in which the 'woman's part' was played by boys" (30).

  4. The word preposterous--which Parker then fishes out of many plays, delicately tying its use to reversals of sequence and proper order--blooms into a hugely significant word, a pervasive, sexual, unsettling word. No wonder Brabantio says,"For nature so prepost'rously to err . . . Sans witchcraft could not," talking of his daughter's love for Othello. The sixteenth-century "preposterousness" of mating black and white, of women taking precedence, of adultery, of homosexuality, is laid bare by Parker's research. Yet given that "preposterous" depends on a "natural order" as the authorizing concept, what does one make of the Shakespearean preposterous: "the language that both stages [new, increasingly neoclassical, structures of social order and power] and subversively dismantles it"? To return to Love's Labor's Lost, exactly where does that dismantling lie, or rather, how far does it go? Parker offers the proof, but I would have liked to see her mediate the huge potential that opens under the influence of her argument. Is it only that by evoking "preposterous" homoerotic relationships, Shakespeare is mocking the whole genre of romantic comedy, purging "comic convention," in Parker's words? Couldn't a model of contestation lie in the homoeroticism itself, or is the brunt of it shunted towards the breech of generic form or of gender relations between men and women? Parker offers evidence that queer theorists, for one, will certainly run with; but she herself goes only briefly into the conclusions they will create. One notable exception to this openness is her brilliant excursion into the multiple implications of women's privities and cases: she squarely nails feminist subversions in her discussions of Mistress Quickly, Desdemona, Helena, and Ophelia. One could not ask for a more intelligent or interesting discussion than hers of the "close dilations" of the Othello temptation scene, in which Iago unfolds the close, or secret place, of Desdemona's sexuality.

  5. Parker notes in the first chapter that she does not proceed linearly; she works by circling, backtracking and revisiting. Each chapter tugs at the meaning of a few words, turns them back to back, places them against usages drawn from contemporary documents, then relates them to usages in other Shakespeare plays. But by the time the reader makes it to Chapter Seven where Parker weaves together Othello's "dilated traveler's history . . . and his informer Iago's manipulation of verbal evidentia . . . this play's own extraordinary emphasis on the hunger to know as the desire to see, its obsession with offstage events domestic and exotic, related to the sexualizing of the chamber of a woman" (244), one knows a good deal about dilations, about the Jacobean preoccupation with spies and the translation of evidence, and about the links between women's "close" places and morality. Shakespeare from the Margins can be taxing to read, but it is a book which gathers force as it continues.

  6. It seems to me that anyone hoping to write intelligently about 1) Shakespeare's language, 2) "subversion" or political Shakespeares, or 3) Shakespeare at all, will have to read this book. We cannot afford to lose again the meanings of those "inconsequential quibbles" that carried so much consequence in seventeeth-century England. Having no real understanding of their contemporary resonances, we must either borrow Parker's expertise, plaster our own, anachronistic meanings onto punning exchanges, or pretend that the quibbles don't exist and deprive ourselves of the labyrinthine complexities of Shakespeare's wordplay.

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

© 1997, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(May 5, 1997)