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Paul Cefalu. Revisionist Shakespeare: Transitional Ideologies in Texts and Contexts

Rainer EMIG
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Paul CEFALU. Revisionist Shakespeare: Transitional Ideologies in Texts and Contexts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 212 pp., €48.27, ISBN 1-4039-6464-X.

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1Paul Cefalu, Assistant Professor of English at Lafayette College, offers five essays, three of which have previously appeared in different versions in periodicals, in this stimulating, but also sometimes puzzling and even frustrating book. That he aims for a revision of the core of Shakespearean Studies is already evident in his choice of objects for his analysis: The Tempest, Coriolanus, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and Hamlet. Yet “revisionist” is only implicitly applied to Cefalu's own approach. It is a stance that his book wishes to postulate for Shakespeare's plays themselves. He wants to prove that they do not conform to historical models of transition connected to “a Whig-Marxist account of the rise of capitalism” (1). Instead he wishes “to describe the ways in which Shakespearean drama allegorizes functional contradictions that are specific to a range of early modern institutions and belief systems” (5). That this is largely a sophist distinction that wishes to reanimate the old scholarly chestnut of “historical irony” is a suspicion that the often laboured introduction generates in the reader. It is confirmed in the essays themselves, some of which nonetheless offer interesting alternative or complementary readings, though rarely the revision they aim for.

2Cefalu's first essay on “Rethinking Colonialism in Economic Terms: The Tempest, Captain John Smith's Virginia Narratives, and the English Response to Vagrancy” is, unfortunately, a rather unprepossessing example of such a methodological and ideological overkill. Although the essay is undoubtedly correct (but hardly original) in coupling The Tempest's utopian negotiations with anxieties about as yet masterless new worlds, and while there may be useful ways of tying these concerns back to debates about vagrancy in Britain at the time, one cannot help but feel that Shakespeare's play is hardly used for more than an illustration of some ideological themes, while the essay never convinces the reader that these themes are really the play's central concerns.

3Coriolanus fares much better in the second essay on “The Ends of Absolutism: Coriolanus and Jacobean Political Irony", largely because power is indeed noticeably at the core of the play's debates. Here, Cefalu's introductory focus on the play's framing conflict of feeding the poor in the context of contemporaneous debates and events indeed adds a welcome element to the analysis of the play's politics. Comparing it to the expansionist ideology embodied in Coriolanus' mother Volumnia, he indeed reaches a contrastive and conflictual reading of the ideologies of the play.

4The third essay on “Shylock as Homo Sacer: Mercantilist Fallacies and Subjective Demand in The Merchant of Venice” also hones in on the central economic themes of Shakespeare's play, but then diffuses its potential by aiming to include too much. Indeed it wishes to address economy in all its senses: from sacrifice via gift to investment and debt. By finding all of these in The Merchant of Venice, it succeeds within its own framework of approach, but leaves the reader puzzled as to how such a play can possibly function as a dramatic text. Once again, the artistic text is relegated to a historical illustration, one of the “allegories” that Cefalu's introduction wished to assess.

5The penultimate essay on “The Early Modern Veil of Ignorance: Natural Rights Theory in King Lear” shifts the debate from the historical materialist ground to the philosophical and theological one. Nonetheless, it retains the diffusionary and inclusionary tactics of its predecessor in sifting the play's interchanges for references and allusions to contemporaneous philosophy and theological orthodoxy in the shape of catechisms. This provides plenty of interesting insights that add to the conventional understandings of the play's multiple conflicts of allegiance. Yet when the essay then uses these to attack materialist and Marxist readings of the play, one cannot help but feel that it once again abuses a Shakespearean play for its own self-positioning, a dubious one, since its own stances and those it attacks are clearly not mutually exclusive, but simply the result of different perspectives.

6This is also noticeable throughout the book's intended coup de grâce, its concluding re-reading of Hamlet in the chapter “‘Damnéd Custom... Habits Devil': Hamlet's Part-Whole Fallacy and the Early Modern Philosophy of the Mind”. It sets out to prove that Hamlet is a deficient philosopher who muddles his positions towards the central concept of “habit”. Indeed, the essay makes its point again. Yet when one asks in how far this is really important for the play, in how far this would have been crucial to the play's contemporary audience, or in how far this should concern today's reader and spectator, one feels at a loss. The essay itself seems to suspect that it has driven its intended “revision” too far when it suddenly exempts the character of Hamlet from the list of allegories it has employed so far and declares “that he is the one character whose primary function is precisely not to operate functionally in terms of mediating plot in relation to historical allegory” (171).

7Remarks like these explain the frequent frustration that the reader of Cefalu's book experiences — together, however, with many moments of stimulation, provocation, and frequently enlightenment on some of Shakespeare's plays' less obvious planes of reference.

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Rainer EMIG, « Paul Cefalu. Revisionist Shakespeare: Transitional Ideologies in Texts and Contexts », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 1, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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