What we say about Shakespeare, and what that says about us

William Shakespeare, by Terry Eagleton. New York: Basil Blackwell. 114 pp. $14.95. Shakespeare: A Writer's Progress, by Philip Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press. 204 pp. $22.50 cloth, $6.95 paper. As with all great artists, one's feelings about Shakespeare often say more about oneself than about Shakespeare.

Developed into an ``interpretation,'' such feelings sort into two easily identifiable camps, which, for sake of ease, we shall call the personal-traditional and the ideological.

First the ideological, and today, specifically, the Marxist variety. Terry Eagleton is fellow and tutor in English at Wadham College, Oxford. His William Shakespeare is what one might expect from the author of ``Literary Theory.'' In that book, widely accepted in universities as an introduction to literary criticism, he tries to define literary theory within the context of ``political criticism'' as among those methods or theories which -- and the prose is not a parody but invites it -- ``. . . will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of `better people' through the socialist transformation of society. . . .''

Shaw complained that Shakespeare's characters seemed to lack ``convictions.'' Eagleton is in no doubt about his own. Eagleton's ideology, like Shakespeare's dramaturgy, can't be separated from the language used to express it. At times, Eagleton seems to compete with the Bard in rhetorical richness.

His favorite figure of speech is paradox, often announced as such. ``The paradox,'' he explains in his discussion of ``The Merchant of Venice,'' ``is that to preserve the structure of the law you must transgress what it actually says.''

And his favorite construction is a logical one, at least on the surface: the ``if . . . then'' sequence. The premise assumed in the ``if'' clause is often absurd or banal or both. ``If identity is always partly `other,' then one can exert no full control over it.''

If you're a student taking Shakespeare 101, then this kind of thing can ruin a whole spring of afternoons!

Professors who bore normal students often inspire so-called gifted ones. I can just see the nervous smile trembling across their faces as they comprehend the professor's intentions when he says, ``It is clear from all this that the `character' of Hamlet would not be the most secure foundation on which to construct a political order.''

This is a characteristic piece of negative understatement, one of Eagleton's favorite modes. It implies more than it says and dares the reader, or listener, to disagree. It also dares us to think of Hamlet as anything more than a product of historical forces.

Such are the insights of fashionable Marxist criticism when applied to Shakespeare. Now for the personal-traditional approach.

Apropos of Hamlet, Philip Edwards, a Shakespeare scholar who has edited some of the plays, says: ``We may be dreadfully mistaken if we say he was dreadfully mistaken.''

The personal-traditional approach turns out to be a lot more open-minded than the ideological approach.

In Shakespeare: a Writer's Progress, Edwards works through the plays and poems, revealing a Shakespeare that fits and deepens the image one has of him from one's own reading.

``You never quite know when he is serious,'' Edwards says definitively.

Whereas Eagleton finds the unity of Shakespeare, as of everything, in light of revisionist Marxist ideology, Edwards tries to see the unity of Shakespeare in ``the interrelationship of all he wrote.'' He maintains a nice balance between general themes (society, the self, etc.) and specific plays. He's excellent on the sonnets, arguing that, taken together, they constitute one of the greatest poems in the language.

Confronted by the complex manuscript tradition and the existence of long, unplayable versions, Edwards argues that while Shakespeare was indubitably ``a man of the theatre,'' he also wrote for ``an ideal theatre'' in his imagination. Shakespeare was his own ideal reader. Those of us who prefer to read Shakespeare, rather than see the plays produced, have our experience confirmed once again by Edwards.

The ``progress'' he sees in the work is, of course, not ideological. It is ``towards the life we actually live.'' And the life we actually live has a religious aspect, to the discomfort of Marxists, although -- and Edwards is helpful here -- Shakespeare shows how irony is always present, too, and imagination.

Comparing Eagleton and Edwards, one sees the differing motives behind their respective books. In Edwards's case, the motive is pious: We owe Shakespeare a lot, more than we can say.

But Eagleton's Marxist rereading of Shakespeare is more Marx (or Eagleton), less Shakespeare. (At one point he asserts that Shakespeare misunderstood one of his own plays.) He can't make Shakespeare into a Marxist, but he does interpret the plays so that they appear to have a Marxist significance.

Whereas Henry James found it intolerable that Shakespeare, aged 50, simply locked the stage door behind him and retired to Warwickshire, Eagleton, after trying to show that ``The Tempest'' exposes ``the glaring contradictions'' in the poet's thought, finds it natural that Shakespeare should take early retirement ``with a considerable amount of money.'' That sounds like Envy speaking.

Shakespeare escapes the ideological net. Eagleton's sense of paradox may not extend to himself, but in his failure to radicalize the Bard, he has written a book that, in the end, strengthens the sense we get from Edwards that it's with good reason that we still place Shakespeare among the eternals.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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