Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Communist's (Humorless) Take on the Works of William Shakespeare

Even though I’m an English doctoral student, I’m not very energized by the many post-modernist theories of literature floating around in the academy. It’s not that I think they are invalid or incorrect; I simply feel that ninety percent of theorists are more interested in what they are writing instead of what they are writing about. I suppose my discontent is more a matter of how these critics write than how they think -- many of them have perfectly reasonable ideas, but getting to those ideas requires excavating several dumpster-loads’ worth of cluttered, imprecise, and dogmatic jargon, witticisms, and contortions. And, of course, very often the ideas presented by the theorist turn out to be politically motivated and, as with so many things that are politically motivated, more invested in propping up and endorsing the critic’s subjective, partisan perspective than in saying something related to the text at hand.


Now that I’ve vented my disclaimer, let me give you an example in this week's book. I should point out that though I confess to being slightly left-leaning in my politics, I own this week’s book for expressly collecting purposes. Don’t read anything into it beyond that.

The book is Shakespeare: A Marxist Interpretation by Soviet scholar Aleksandr A. Smirnov (1883-1962), one of the influential “socialist realist” critics of the mid-30s (Mikhail Bakhtin, in 1924, referred to Smirnov’s 1923 essay “The Paths and Tasks of the Study of Literature” as a “splendid article”). It was published as Number 2 in the Critics Group Series, a series put out by the Critics Group (96 Fifth Avenue, New York) in the 1920s and 1930s to provide “Marxist analyses of our cultural heritage and contemporary trends. The editorial board of the Group was chaired by Angela Flores and its advisory board included Georges Friedmann, André Gide, and D. S. Mirsky. Smirnov’s book was originally written in Russian, with the English translation prepared by Sonia Volochova, with the assistance of Sidonie Kronman, A. Goldstein, A. Morais, Zena Rautbort, and the Series’ editorial committee. The book’s design was laid out by Ben Ossa. According to the spine, it retailed for 35-cents (or about $5.17 in today's U.S. currency) when it was published ( a trial subscription was available for $1 [or $14.77 in today's currency], which would result in the subscriber receiving four titles from the Critics Group Series by post).

My copy was published in 1937 and is the fourth printing of the book; it first appeared in 1934, with the first English editions in 1936 (the second printing for the New Theatre League); subsequent editions appeared in 1957 and 1970 (Folcroft Library Editions) and most recently it was published in full-text online by Sally Ryan in 2000. The edition that I have is assessed at about $30-$50. It is in reasonably good condition, with some slight tearing and wear to the top and bottom of the spine. The binding is (appropriately) a faded red heavy-stock paper; the paper of the pages is a fairly cheap paper (sadly, not acid-free) common to mass-produced paperbacks of the twentieth century. The pages measure 14cm x 20.5cm. The first three pages (half-title; title-page; table of contents) are not paginated, but the title-page and table of contents are intended as [1]-[4], the rest of the book is paginated 5-[94], thus it consists of 48 leaves, bound into six gatherings of 8 leaves (16 pages) each. The gatherings were stapled together with two staples (now rusting) visible on the half-title page and pulling through some of the pages toward the end; the cover was then pasted onto the spine and folded over the book.

The book’s contents are divided into sequences more or less structured on the course of Shakespeare’s career. A “Chronology” of the dramatist’s works is provided on p. 4; a summary of “The Epoch” of Shakespeare’s time on pp. 5-16; an essay on “Shakespeare and Humanism” on pp. 17-28; a chapter on the “First Period” (1590-1600) on pp. 29-60; the “Second Period” (1600-1609) on pp. 61-82; the “Third Period” (1609-1611) on pp. 83-88; and a final chapter on “Shakespeare’s World Perspective” on pp. 89-93.

Smirnov's book touches on all of Shakespeare’s plays, using their depictions of materialism, class conflict, and Hegelian structures of historical progression to demonstrate that Shakespeare was “the humanist ideologist of the bourgeoisie of the time.” Not surprisingly, Smirnov cites Marx and Engels far more than he cites any other literary critic of Shakespeare (a scan through the book’s footnotes quickly reveals Smirnov’s wide reading in socialist literatures...and his deficit of reading in early modern theater history and literatures). Many of his totalizing claims seem to be based on an inexact understanding of the nature of early modern dramatic conventions and practices. In some places, his claims seem quite simply to confuse and conflate fictive narrative with social reality; for example, he argues that Shakespeare often attacked the very bourgeoisie from which he emerged (and for which he became the token spokesperson) as evidenced by the fact that “the rapacity, greed, cruelty, egoism, and philistinism so typical of the English bourgeoisie--embodied in Shylock, Malvolio, Iago--are...scathingly denounced”. Smirnov does not bother to note that all three of these characters are neither English nor bourgeoisie, and all three evolved from specific dramatic traditions in order to appeal to specific expectations from Shakespeare's specific theatrical audience.

In the end, after touching on the entire canon (very briefly, in the case of some of the apparently “minor” plays, slightly longer, though no less perfunctorily, in the case of others -- see, for example, the extract from his rather reductive commentary on The Merchant of Venice, below), he draws his final telling conclusion:

At a later stage of bourgeois development Shakespeare became a threat to that class which had given him birth. The bourgeoisie have never been able to understand or accept the revolutionary elements in Shakespeare’s works, because these immeasurably transcend the narrow confines of bourgeois thought. They have attempted, therefore, to transform his revolutionary humanism into specious philanthropy and to interpret his concepts of mercy and truth as “tenderness” and “righteousness”; his continued appeals for patience--perseverance in the struggle to attain the ideal--as “submissiveness”; his disregard for religion and metaphysics as “philosophical and religious tolerance.” And so, the bourgeoisie have crowned him with the empty title: “The Universal Man.”

Throughout the book, the term “bourgeoisie” is used damningly of all other critics, but Smirnov never actually spells out who in particular he means by the phrase nor does he quote examples from his spectral adversaries. This generalization of all “other” critics but the Marxists is typical of most politically-motivated theorists who desperately seek to enlist Shakespeare in their particular “cause”; the critic turns from writing about his subject (Shakespeare) to writing about his agenda (Marxism) and because he has already decided upon his agenda, the evidence for that agenda will already exist rather conveniently in the subject (what, in logic, is called a hypostatized proof: finding the result before finding the evidence). Because of the sheer flexibility and copiousness of Shakespeare’s writing, almost any critic from any place on the political spectrum can find something in the 1623 Folio to endorse their opinion.

Christopher Morley’s prefatory “A Letter to a Reader” in W. A. Wright’s Cambridge edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Doubleday Doran & Company, 1936), suggests that Smirnov’s non-Communist contemporaries perhaps felt the same way:

[Shakespeare] keeps pace with the clock. Every new dogma or doctrine can justify itself in him. As I write this, there comes to my table a new book: Shakespeare, a Marxist Interpretation, translated from the Russian of A. A. Smirnov. An able little study, I can see at a glance, but devoid of humor. It proves, I gather, that "Shakespeare was the ideologist of the bourgeoisie . . . but the bourgeoisie have never been able to understand him." Which is, in logic, both eating your cake and having it. Jaggard, Shakespeare's printer, went blind; and most of his thesis-possessed annotators grow curiously cock-eyed. 

Or, to quote from The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” If the subject is sufficiently vast (if it “contains multitudes”, to borrow from Whitman), the commentator can only ever end up revealing more about himself than the subject.

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