Tom McAlindon. Shakespeare Minus ‘Theory’. London: Ashgate, 2004. xii+198pp. ISBN 0 7546 3981 9.

Tom Clayton
University of Minnesota

Tom Clayton. "Review of Tom McAlindon, Shakespeare Minus ‘Theory’".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.1/Special Issue 18 (May, 2008) 12.1-13<URL:>.

  1. This good book by a distinguished scholar is a necessity, not a luxury, for those in search of exemplary scholarship and criticism, with much to say of value on the subjects of both Shakespeare and ‘theory’, the former primary, the latter less a means of understanding than an obstacle to insight, as he convincingly demonstrates. Shakespeare’s himself again, here, and the book will reward the reading of anyone interested in what and how Shakespeare’s plays mean, even if he or she is less interested in how and by whom they have been made to mismean (= Shakespeare plus ‘theory’), a topic to which McAlindon gives persistent, lucid, refutative, and corrective attention, and in which many will be interested. And this antidotal part (chs. 1-2, 5) is integral to the whole, because much of what has been said and printed, and presumably often even thought, about Shakespeare in recent decades has been steeped in theorism; so that seeing Shakespeare steady and seeing him whole—ever worth the effort, even if ultimately impossible—requires disentangling of what is relevant from what claims relevance.

  2. As most readers of this review know, Tom McAlindon has devoted a long, productive, and successful professional life to literary scholarship and criticism, concerned with Shakespeare especially but by no means exclusively; and to the larger contexts, the lived, social, and intellectual history—as opposed to the fashioned, or fashionable, ‘history’ of new historicism—that enhance and deepen understanding of Shakespeare and of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, among other subjects. This book is in effect something of a summing–up and crowning work, one in which the author regularly, legitimately, and necessarily invokes a number of his earlier writings, because they are an important and inextricable part of the literary history that illuminates its subjects and will persist. Three notable representatives of the canon are Shakespeare and Decorum (1973), English Renaissance Tragedy (1985), and Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos (1991).

  3. The distinction of the essays is attested by the journals and books in which seven of the nine appeared originally, and they fully deserved to be translated into a book—accompanied by two essays not previously published (chs. 1 & 3), a public service to contemporary scholars and students of literature generally. As McAlindon notes, ‘Three . . . essays [1, 2, 5] are critiques of the claims and methods of radical, postmodernist criticism (new historicism and cultural materialism especially)’ (vii). These are ‘Taking Stock’: Radical Criticism of Shakespeare’, ‘Testing New Historicism: [Stephen Greenblatt’s] “Invisible Bullets” Reconsidered’), and ‘Cultural Materialism and the Ethics of Reading; or, the Radicalising of Jacobean Tragedy’. The remaining six are ‘interpretative studies, all but one of which involve challenges to radical readings of the plays involved’.  Chapter  3, ‘War and Peace in Henry V’, is the longest because McAlindon is ‘here challenging a traditional as well as radical views of the play’. Chapter 4 is on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (‘Perfect Answers: Religious Inquisition, Falstaffian Wit’), 6 on ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’, 7 on Coriolanus (‘an Essentialist Tragedy’), 8 on The Tempest (‘The Discourse of Prayer’), and 9 on Doctor Faustus (wittily ‘Marlowe Plus and Minus “Theory”: the Case of’). One of his three sound reasons for including Doctor Faustus (two being its concern with ‘theatricality’ and new historicists’ ‘obsession’ with it) is that ‘it highlight’s Marlowe’s (serendipitously) ironic perspective on a famous scholar’s fatally selective reading of a key text’ (emphasis added)—an allegory of Theory’s abortive and aborting encounters with literary texts.

  4. Minus “Theory”’ is hard to write about because it speaks so well for itself that one is tempted to quote to back up every assertion (or, indeed, to quote in lieu)—a practice that the author himself observes temperately and those he analyzes observe not at all or misleadingly, presumably because quotation, unless carefully screened, cannot be prevented from speaking for itself, whereas a work unseen and unheard ‘says’ what the critic says it says. At the same time that McAlindon elicits irresistible enthusiasm for the kind of Shakespearian study he himself practices, one is made keenly aware that the practice is far less common than it once was, and may in fact be doomed altogether. Or is it? The good old days, whatever and whenever they were, always look better because out of focus, by comparison especially with the rampant abuses of more recent times, of which one is forcibly reminded many times a day. But the not-so-old days had their own, if lesser, limitations. The New Criticism practiced a form of close reading that was especially attentive to ambiguity, irony, paradox, and figure—and given especially to analyzing the lyric and other expressively complex works that lent themselves to the same kind of attention—while they had rather less to say about the larger orders of meaning, form, and significance, including genre. They were vigorously corrected, complemented, and in effect filled out by the ‘Chicago Aristotelians’, but those came and went in the 1950s without much disturbing the currents of the mainstream and by many are unknown or no longer remembered, although Wayne Booth was until recently (2005) and Richard Levin still is with us as members of the second Chicago generation. And the British counterparts of the New Critics, good as they were, had their own limitations, Leavis with his moralizing that could be dogmatic, Empson with his ambiguities that could defy intelligibility and coherence, for example. But all of these were—and the living are—unquestionably devoted to literature, scholarship, and reasoning: not to oracles, not to historicisticizing (sic), not to haut carrièrisme. All of these are worth not only remembering, but (re)reading, because at their worst they were attempting to enter into the depths of literature and making it live for students and non-specialists generally. It is the worse for us and for our culture that many of their successors are not interested in literature at all or, in some cases, in anything except giving an ideologically-conformist performance, mainly for fun and profit, it often seems, since nothing is propagated by it but attitude and process.

  5. The sophistries of theorists are deftly and devastatingly anatomized by McAlindon, and for a rigourous and discerning readership such theorists could hardly recover without reforming. But where is such a readership—by the numbers, at least—to be found? It will obviously not have been educated by the sophists in methods of detecting the fallacies of sophism, a natural corollary of understanding the resources of literature. One of the ironies of the ascendancy of ‘literary’, ‘critical’, or just-plain ‘theory’ is that one may no longer claim to be a theorist without seeming to be either of the tribe or an imposter, whereas to be a real theorist in the scientific or philosophical sense is to be not a ‘theorist’. Hence McAlindon makes no claim to being a theorist, but in his sensitive and scrupulous analyses he is both philosopher and aesthetician, and shows who and what wears the emperor’s not-so-new motley. He wears his essentialism with confidence and displays it with vigour and joy. He makes no apology for believing as Shakespeare did that many an articulation was of an age but also for all time (as Jonson of course said of Shakespeare), and that it is disingenuous to say or demented to think otherwise. We read the Greeks because they live and speak to us, and likewise the playwrights of the Renaissance—or ‘Early Modern’ period.

  6. Three orders of scholarship and insight readily available to support the essentialist, liberal-humanist, literary-critical position of McAlindon are contemporary biology, social history, and—with application to theorism—the analysis of bullshit by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. The first two support McAlindon’s position directly, the third seems to characterize accurately a certain amount of theoristic discourse—although we cannot always be sure of the motives behind it—of the kind McAlindon analyzes in his own terms.

  7. By ‘biology’ I mean not the discourse of the ‘body’ as extensively exploited for two decades at least, but current scientific understanding of the (socio)biological bases of human anatomy and behaviour, of which universalism, however evolving, is an attribute. If anything ever convincingly gave the lie to anti-essentialism, it is biology. While science still has a long way to go to explain all of human behaviour, it continues to make great strides in that direction; and it is now absurd to claim that there are no human universals and all human behaviour is culturally determined (according to socio-biologists, cultural behaviour is biologically determined, and much of it surely is). Of course, the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are performed and appreciated in translation all over the world is enough to give the lie to such fatuities, even if the proponents are prepared to claim that such popularity is due to cultural colonization; some may be, but all cannot be. Persons who travel among the peoples of other cultures invariably learn that not only are some practices radically different from culture to culture, but also that some are the same; among the better are forms of altruism like hospitality and the kindness of strangers, and these are to be found virtually everywhere, as part of our shared genetic inheritance; what makes Polyphemos the absolute inhuman other is not his ocular peculiarity but the guests he has for dinner.

  8. And by ‘social history’ I mean that kind that is not restricted to published books and substantial manuscripts, and narratives of the prominent lives and events, of the period, but the archival and archaeological records of the lives of all the people of the period, real people, about whom a great deal has been brought to light since Lawrence Stone opened this vein of enquiry and many subsequently rushed to contest—often supplementing without confounding—his ideas and discoveries; he was the father of a numerous, distinguished, and invaluable progeny. One of the better introductions to this goldmine of behaviour analogous to, the source of,  and in some cases very much the same as ‘our own’, is still Keith Wrightson’s English Society 1580-1680 (1982), reissued in 2003 with a new introduction and updated bibliography. I suspect that the neglect of this area of enquiry by many students of literature is due to the relatively fugitive and cloistered lives of many critics, scholars, and theorists, for whom the lives of non-academic and common people, even of the ‘middling sort’, are relatively remote, even when they are living among them. From works of this kind much is to be learned of importance for understanding the drama—and all other writings, and the comprehensive life—of the period.

  9. Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit is very relevant to the assessment of many examples of literary theory.[1]  According to him, the bullshitter’s
    focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art, Hence the famil­iar notion of the ‘bullshit artist’ [52-53] . . . .  The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides . . . is that the truth-values of his statements are of no cen­tral interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is nei­ther to report the truth nor to conceal it, This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are [55] . . . . His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. (56)
  10. One thinks of ‘New Reductionism’ and ‘Creative Vandalism’, terms invented by two of the practitioners (43, 104), of which McAlindon says, ‘the first term is preferable and deserves widespread acceptance. It tacitly acknowledges that political criticism which sees its end as justifying its means cannot claim to be a form of serious academic study characterised by consistency of principle, analytical rigour, and intellectual honesty. Such criticism inevitably slides into the propagandist mode’ (104).  It is noteworthy that when Frankfurt gave his lecture on this subject at Yale University twenty years ago, ‘one physicist, keen to take a jibe at the influence of philosopher Jacques Derrida who was popular at Yale at the time, told Frankfurt it was highly appropriate because "Yale had become the bullshit capital of the world"’ (Guardian, 12 May 2005). The editor for philosophy at Princeton University Press, Ian Malcolm, explaining how Frankfurt’s book became a bestseller, said that "There was no one trigger. It was partly because it had lasted so long. But when I got a couple of reader reports back about it, it was clear that the issues it raised seem more alive now than it was before. People related it to the debate in Britain about spin" (Guardian, 12 May 2005).

  11. There is a striking implicit tension in this book between the author’s conviction that what he is about, expounding literature, is of crucial importance to the life of the individual and collective mind, and his concern that this practice may not continue for much longer:
    The gravely defective methodology employed in “Invisible Bullets” is not confined to Greenblatt’s readings of Shakespeare, nor, of course, to himself alone; some indication of its impact on others has already been given. . . . Its professional acclaim, I believe, justifies some pessimistic reflection on the current state and future prospects of scholarship, criticism, and teaching in the field of English literature. (42-43)
    And so it does. Nevertheless, ‘This collection of essays seeks to defend and demonstrate a method of close reading and historical contextualisation of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that it has been customary of late to describe  (most often derisively) as traditional and liberal humanist, and which’ is ‘still widely practised’, although it ‘seldom advertises itself as such.’ And the ‘numbers are few’ of those who deplore the ‘marked decline in standards of analysis, interpretation, and argument’ that are the effects partly of theorism. The ‘few’ is inevitably reminiscent of ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, and Milton’s ‘fit audience, though few’ together with his beleaguered Abdiel, ‘Among the faithless, faithful only hee’ (Paradise Lost 5.897).

  12. A strong implicit theme of McAlindon’s investigations is expressed in Measure for Measure, where in answer to Escalus’(and Shakespeare’s) leading question, ‘What news abroad i' th' world?’ the disguised Duke replies, with perennial relevance to the human condition in most places if not all,
    None, but that there is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it. Novelty is only in request, and it is as dangerous to be aged in any kind of course as it is virtuous to be constant in any undertaking. There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but security enough to make fellowships accursed. Much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world. This news is old enough, yet it is every day's news. [2]
    (Shakespeare uses novelty only three times, once each in the so-called Dark Comedies, AWT, MM, and Tro., interestingly enough.)  

  13. The most assiduous—wittily exposed and condemned—disciple of novelty in Measure is of course Lucio, the creature of fashion and master of inconstancy, who asks Pompey, under arrest, ‘Is the world as it was, man? Which is the way? Is it sad, and few words? Or how? The trick of it?’ (3.1.316-18; or 3.2.44-46). Condemnation of following the shifts and turns of fortune and the world’s way is as Western and Biblically essentialist—not to mention Shakespearian—as is the valuing of constancy ‘in any undertaking’. Of the tribe of Lucio arguably are those who repudiate these attitudes and values as banal, anachronistic, and bourgeois. They are the many to the one Abdiel.

  14. The ‘implied authors’ of criticism and theory are perhaps never to be confused with the historical writing persons behind the books and articles, but they differ as much from each other as we not necessarily more real but more material personae do. Reading theory, one often doubts whether the author can possibly believe what he says and cannot but think that he must be a fool if he does and a knave if he doesn’t, to say it. But whatever the various ethoi or characters of cultural materialists, deconstructionists, new historicists, and their kindred –ists, the ethos that seems to stand behind the work of Tom McAlindon is not unlike the Duke’s as described by Escalus in response to the disguised Duke’s question, ‘of  what disposition was the Duke?’ Escalus: ‘One that above all other strifes contended especially to know himself’  (3.1.486-89; 3.2.198-200). Sneer at that who will, it has Shakespearian—and real—value with a singular pedigree, since it was found in neon lights over the entrance to the shrine of the Oracle of Delphi over two-and-a-half-millennia ago—and therefore long since obsolete? Or not.


[1]See the review in the Guardian, 12 May 2005; Guardian Unlimited online at,6109,1482202,00.html?gusrc=rss

[2]3.1.477-86 in Bawcutt’s 1998 individual Oxford ed., although like Wells and Taylor’s Oxford he reads “inconstant” after Hudson; 3.2.190-97 in act 3 two-scene editions including Gibbons’s New Cambridge, revised edition, 2006; emphasis added.

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