John J. Joughin, ed. Shakespeare and National Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. ix+351pp. ISBN 0 7190 5051 0 Paper
Swen Voekel
University of Rochester, Rochester, NY

Voekel, Swen. "Review of Shakespeare and National Culture." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 16.1-7 <URL:

  1. Beginning in the early 1980s, in the work of cultural materialists in Britain such as Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore, theoretical discourses resulting from the various political struggles of the 1960s (feminism, Marxism) and from French post-structuralism were brought to bear on Renaissance literary texts in ways which promised to emancipate these texts from New Critical and humanist readings that were said to de-historicize and fetishize the literary canon. Unlike previous critical discourse which pretended to critical and political neutrality, cultural materialism, as Dollimore and Sinfield put it in the foreword to their influential collection of essays, Political Shakespeare, "registers its commitment to the transformation of a social order which exploits people on grounds of race, gender and class." The dividing line between critical practice and political praxis was to be dissolved with the help of a body of theoretical texts drawn from discursive fields already deployed in cultural and political struggles.

  2. Some ten years on, John Joughin, in his introduction to Shakespeare and National Culture, bluntly poses the questions: "How did the bold innovatory momentum of these projects become so thoroughly outflanked in terms of the allocation of material resources? Why, towards the end of the same decade, after the prompt dispatch of idealist criticism and essential humanism, did so many of us find ourselves clinging to a life-raft which sought to save the humanities?" (4). These essays testify to the ways the Right has taken the initiative in what truly are "culture wars," and the centrality which Shakespeare plays in battles fought in the popular press, in the theater, in government offices, as well as within academia.

  3. As the title attests, the essays think through these issues in the context of national cultures. By and large this means examining contemporary nationalist appropriations of "Shakespeare" (text and cultural icon) by theater groups such as the RSC, textual editors, film directors and literary critics; there are some essays which attempt readings of Shakespearian texts in their early-modern context, but these eventually come back to twentieth-century uses of those same texts. The book begins with essays by Graham Holderness and Andrew Murphy, Simon Barker, and Richard Wilson on the English cultural scene. These range from examinations of attempts by textual editors, the press, the Prince of Wales, government ministers (in the form of the National Curriculum), literary critics and powerful theater groups and directors such as the RSC and Peter Brook to reify a national Shakespeare to fit the "Tory dream" of "combining . . . the new-right fiscal and old-right philosophy of heroes and heritage" (50); a "real Shakespeare" shorn of historical context and supposedly emancipated from "a stew of continental isms . . . overlaid with a paralysing custard of political correctness" which have "stifled Britain's greatest heritage," as Jeffrey Richards would have it in a piece in The Daily Mail cited by Wilson (60).

  4. The next set of three essays fall under the rubric "Contesting the Colonial," which begins with Willy Maley's claim that "English Renaissance literature has resisted a broad-based British perspective" (85) and that "the British myth--Tudor, Stuart, Hanoverian and Windsor--depends upon [a] disavowal of so-called 'internal colonialism'--indigenous indigestion" (101). Ania Loomba then traces the vicissitudes of the Shakespearian text in nineteenth-century Parsi theatrical practice and twentieth-century Indian cinema, arguing that it is "necessary to resist both the colonial hangovers surrounding Shakespeare and [the] easy [nationalist] polarity between 'us' and 'them'" (138). Martin Orkin presents a detailed reading of The Tempest to rebut purely rhetorical analyses of that play and to situate it within the post-1994 South African academic scene.

  5. The next section deals with "Shakespeare at the Heart of Europe." Robert Weimann begins with Romantic appropriations of Shakespeare and then moves forward to analyze the role Shakespeare played in the creation of a conservative socialist state in East Germany, and the various responses of literary critics and theater groups. Thomas Healy asserts that "it increasingly seems that one of the principal functions of Shakespearian criticism is to account for . . . histories of incorporation by national or other groupings" and goes on to examine several of these histories in an Eastern European context. Finally, Francis Barker offers a philosophical piece on "Nationalism, Nomadism and Belonging in Europe" which includes an extended examination of Coriolanus.

  6. In the final section, "Shakespeare and Transnational Culture," John Joughin takes a hard look at the recent oppositional critical practice, and especially at its claims to political efficacy, and asserts the "need for something more than the cosy post-metaphysical assurance that old aesthetic sensibilities just don't count any more" (270). Curtis Breight examines the reinvigoration of popular Shakespeare in the British and US film industries, giving pride of place in his analysis to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho as an example of that director's "privileging [of] the lower-class world to reveal its inhabitants as social victims of institutional power" (302).

  7. Weimann writes that "any reception of Shakespeare has to come to terms with the difference between historically used signs and a later code of their appropriation" (186). The essays in Shakespeare and National Culture respond admirably to this dictum (with the emphasis decidedly on the "later code of their appropriation"), though one notes the continued over-reliance on Anderson's Imagined Communities (to the exclusion of other theorists of nationalism and the nation-state such as Charles Tilly, Ernest Gellner, Anthony Giddens, and Perry Anderson, to name just a few). There is also the curious lack of any sustained analysis of gender and nation in the book. For the North American reader, there is little on the "culture wars" on this side of the Atlantic. The collection of essays is invaluable, however, to anyone interested in current literary critical practice, Shakespeare studies, or contemporary British and European cultural debates more generally (particularly Left responses to right-wing nationalism and nationalist appropriations of Shakespeare).

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(JD, LH, RGS, 29 January 1998)