The Criticism of Close Reading
Criticism of Shakespeare in the first half of the 20th century focused on “close reading” rather than character. The whole critical practice of close reading was virtually a side-effect of analysing individual sonnets. The English poet and writer Robert Graves turned Shakespeare into a Modernist. The influential critic William Empson used the Sonnets to illustrate his famous theory of “seven types of ambiguity”. The Russian pioneer of semiotics Roman Jakobson turned Shakespeare into a semiotician.
ALL ONE NEEDED WAS A “COMMUNAL” TEXT.
This rarefied aesthetic activity was already being challenged by Shakespearean directors like the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). Brecht was a Marxist whose plays and adaptations were actively anti-capitalist and anti-fascist.
MY FAVOURITE TECHNIQUE WAS TO “ALIENATE” AUDIENCES FROM THE CHARACTERS AND ACTION ONSTAGE TO PREVENT EASY IDENTIFICATION AND SYMPATHY.
Jan Kott (b. 1914), a professor of literature in Warsaw, adapted Brecht’s ideas in his influential book Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1961). Kott reads Shakespeare in order to memorialize the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin, rather than lose sight of them in Elizabethan researches or self-indulgent close reading. Shakespeare’s universal genius becomes apparent in the immediate solutions he could offer in current political affairs. If Shakespeare is immortal, Kott reasons, then he must be as relevant today as he was in the 16th century.
Kott’s deliberate humanitarian policy of reading topical problems into Shakespeare inspired a generation of theatrical productions and prompted numerous critical revaluations. Postmodern theoreticians tend instead to do the opposite and situate the works of Shakespeare in political, economic, ideological, gendered and sexed, or colonial and post-colonial contexts, either to reveal their suppressed radical subversions, or to expose their unsound presumptions.
THE READER IS THEREFORE READING DOUBLE … … BOTH ENGAGED WITHIN THE PLAY, BUT AT THE SAME TIME OUTSIDE IT, JUDGING THE PROTAGONISTS BY OUR OWN CONTEMPORARY STANDARDS. THIS MAY BE EXCITINGLY ICONOCLASTIC, BUT IT IS IDéE FIXE CRITICISM.
Denis Donoghue has suggested that “literary critics of our time are lunatics of one idea, and … are celebrated in the degree of the ferocity with which they enforce it”.
Ironically, even this reductive attention to Shakespeare tends to universalize him further.
THEY PRIZE TEXTS THAT CONFIRM THEIR PRECONCEPTIONS … BUT THEY NEVER SEEM TO WONDER WHY THEY ARE READING ME IN THE FIRST PLACE.