W.B. Worthen. Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 255pp. ISBN 0 521 55899 9 Cloth.
Amina Alyal
Trinity & All Saints University College, Leeds


Alyal, Amina.  "Review of Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999): 9.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-3/alyarev.html>.

  1. There are books on different film interpretations of Shakespeare (Donaldson, Berry, Boose and Burt), books that address questions of textual theoretical interpretation (Kott, Drakakis, Holderness), and those that examine the reception-oriented implicit arrogation of Shakespeare (Taylor, Schoenbaum, Vickers). In Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance, Worthen's approach is metatheoretical, his focus on the critics, performers, and directors, rather than on that increasingly nebulous subject, Shakespeare. This is a book on Shakespeare and performance, which yet does something different from the majority of books on the subject. It engages in dialogue with more than one related field. It belongs to the post-modern theoretical school; it addresses canonicity and ideology; it borders on the territory of film studies. There is an introductory chapter on authority and performance, followed by chapters on directors, on actors, and on performance criticism. In each one Worthen examines the concepts of authority, rigorously unpacking the critical subconscious in each case.

  3. In Chapter 1 Worthen introduces his theoretical apparatus: Foucault and Barthes. He draws on editorial theory, quoting Leah Marcus on the print history of the plays: the multiplicity of versions in the Renaissance suggests a ludism inherent to the original production of the play-texts themselves. He also notes the place of dialogue, authorial and editorial, in the construction of a stable base-text after the event. Obviously the Barthesian differentiation between the work (authorial) and the text (ludic) is very useful in unravelling the assumption behind most performance criticism, the search for a single "right" interpretation. In looking at the word "text" alone, Worthen uncovers a quasi-neologistic minefield of qualifications and modified terminology that must be clarified before debate can proceed. This clarification is itself an endless process where the signified is continually deferred. But Worthen deftly choreographs the semantic slippage that results from all this definition and redefinition, tying up the dialogic uncertainty with momentarily conclusive categories, and gracefully achieving coherence even when talking about the slipperiness of transmission. Values are relative, he concludes, but can nonetheless be defined quite precisely in context, once paradigm shifts have been recognized: the basic premise is no longer of an author or a work, but that each text is always already contextually (re)constructed. He differentiates between page and stage views of a play, each claiming a unique "fidelity" to the elusive "Shakespeare," exploding the naivety of both views, both of which disadvantage reader and audience. He notes the troubling "hybrid" nature of drama -- which since the nineteenth century has created inconclusive debate in the separated fields of performance and text -- and notes how Shakespeare is evoked to "authorize" the critic, or the director, or received notions of "theatrical practice."

  5. The director, Worthen asserts in Chapter 2, is perceived as anchoring the slippery text somewhere between "fidelity" and "creativity" (48). He compares the authority of the director with the posited authority of the writer, and challenges the common notion that Shakespeare as "genius" is somehow uniquely interpretable, renewable and relevant. With welcome detail on specific productions and specific directors -- Miller, Marowitz, Sellars -- he deconstructs the assumption that "liberties" can be taken with Shakespeare, quoting Miller on the limitations of contra-textual interpretation. Miller's solution is to see genre as a "constraint," but this too, says Worthen, is a misguided attempt to "stabilize" (57) the text, since the director's notion of genre is also hermeneutically shifting on a continual basis. Even the idea that "modern dress" productions somehow deviate from a truthful kernel betrays a historically created notion of Renaissance authenticity. He examines Peter Sellars' infamous production of The Merchant of Venice, which linked the play, as a postulated archetypal expression of racial tension, with race relations in America. But he sees Sellars as frustrated by his own and the public's need to see the production as "Shakespeare" so that the question is inevitably raised as to why "Shakespeare" was needed as a banner to legitimize contemporary cultural debate.

  7. In Chapter 3, there is some material unusual in books of a theoretical bent, on the short life of stage shorthand such as gesture, and the physicality of some drama training techniques which aim to reach into a space within the actor's psyche which is envisaged as "pre-cultural, pre-ideological" (100). The stimulating juxtaposition of method-acting techniques and the notion of authority has suggestive implications. There is a finely observed tension between "identity and artifice," finding the external, historicised text in the internalized specific psyche. Again Worthen finds the tendency to evoke as authority a Shakespeare who nonetheless betrays a perpetual straying from definition, illustrated even in the practice of acting solely from First Folio texts -- a mode of authorization by historicity.  

  9. The final chapter negotiates the maze of performance criticism, beginning the argument by dissecting G. Wilson Knight's separation of literary analysis, which supposedly uncovers depth and meaning, from the stage, which realizes an inherent, but somehow separate, performance element in the plays. Worthen interrogates performance criticism and especially radical interpretations which claim to transgress the text, since they assume a stable text in the first place -- betraying a universal implicit imposition of contingent ideological values upon Shakespeare. This chapter is lively, revelling in the elusive quality of authority already established in the rest of the book.

  11. Worthen's book is readable, clear, and subtle. The metatheoretical angle makes it an eloquent contribution to the textual interpretative debate, as well as making a suggestive epilogue to performance criticism, one which looks set to become the prologue to further developments. It is, of course, a book designed for an academic, postgraduate audience, and less relevant for the degree-level student. It is full of undercurrents and shadow-references to related theoretical concepts such as canonicity, and dramatic technique. The true Shakespeare exists, like an Ideal Form, as an accepted but ultimately arbitrary hypothesis, of no fixed abode. Worthen does not achieve a definition of this Platonic Shakespeare -- but then neither is that his point. He refuses to say what he thinks Shakespeare is -- he is concerned with what others think Shakespeare is.

Works Cited

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

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).