Seminal Papers Series
Terry Eagleton is one of the most influential literary critics alive and a prolific writer. This little book was first published in 1986 and at the time of its publication it was lauded as ‘bold and original’ as well as a ‘pleasure to read’. I believe that almost 30 years later, it still remains so. Although I think history has proved that his optimist final comment on the power of the dispossessed has not yet materialized – and I think it never will – his analysis of the relationships between language, body and value in Shakespeare’s major plays is imaginative, lucid and historically sharp. Controversies apart and although I have my own reservations to the line of Marxist criticism that Eagleton spouses, there is no denying that some of his books, as David Lodge once pointed out, are ‘genuine and permanent additions to knowledge’ and I would include this little volume on Shakespeare among them.
The book is divided in six chapters that deal, in this sequence, with language, desire, law, sexuality, value and nature. However, such division is more didactic than real as the dynamic relationships between language, bodily desire, and value permeate the discussion throughout the book. Eagleton’s main focus is on the conflicts generated by these relationships and how they are evident in the plays. He explores Shakespeare’s treatment of the conflicting forces and the internal contradictions manifest by the characters and concludes that far from trying to completely solve them Shakespeare proposes solutions that he knows can only be provisional and ultimately irreducible.
Chapter 1 deals with the contradictions between the stability of language as a system of signs that contributes to the social order and Shakespeare’s ‘flamboyant punning, troping and riddling’ that jeopardises the very language in which it is articulated’ (p. 1). Chapter 2 addresses the complex relationships between love and desire and how the ‘most natural human activity’ is only possible through the ‘high artifice’ (p. 19) of courting and rhetorical wooing. Chapter 3 is one of the most thought provoking ones. It deals with the almost impossible challenge of finding a balance between the ‘general and impartial’, ‘independent and indifferent’ abstract interpretation of the law and its application to the real and unique human circumstances. I found Eagleton’s discussion of the trial in The Merchant of Venice particularly brilliant. Chapter 4 focuses on sexual jealousy and those working on Othello may find it illuminating. Chapter 5 returns more explicitly to language and how it can generate but also rescind value beyond repair. His discussion of language surplus in Lear resonates 30 years on in a time where more than ever digital technology and social media have rendered language inflated and meaningless. The last chapter is devoted to a look at how Shakespeare deconstructs the simplistic perceived binary opposition between nature and culture – something my students coming to As You Like It and The Tempest in the second term should take into consideration.
In fact, throughout the book Eagleton dismantles the view that Shakespeare either ignores or resolves the contradictions posed by life in all the spheres discussed in the book. In 1986, Holquist’s translation of Bakhtin’s Dialogic Imagination had been around for only five years and Eagleton has no more than a brief reference to the Russian philosopher on page 106 but those who are familiar with Bakhtin’s concepts of centrifugal and centripetal forces as the drivers of the dialogical relationships in the Novel can clearly identify the strong influence of Bakhtinian thought in Eagleton’s analysis of conflicts in the plays.
Eagleton’s is an engaging and thought provoking book that strikes by the originality with which he organizes the content, cutting across the common place categorization of the plays and the thematic approach to them. Besides that, if not for anything else, how could a book that opens referring to Monty Python could fail to entice the reader?
Eagleton, T. (1986) William Shakespeare. Oxford: Blackwell.