Review by Dr. Thomas Metscher, Prof. Emeritus, University of Bremen, Germany


Jenny Farrell, Shakespeares Tragödien. Eine Einführung. (Shakespeare’s Tragedies. An Introduction), Neue Impulse, Essen 2016, 207 pp. ISBN# 978-3-910080 91 1 EURO 12,80. The book is available in English entitled Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies. A Comprehensive Introduction, published by Nuascealta. It is available from Amazon, the Book Depository, and Barnes & Noble, as well as from Connolly Books, Dublin.

Here we must allow for the superlative: no author in world literature is performed and read as much as Shakespeare, and there is also no other about whom so much has been written in the past four hundred years.

Literature on Shakespeare has reached a global magnitude, which is almost impossible to estimate. And yet books on Shakespeare continue to be written without the feeling that such an undertaking might be superfluous. Why this is so can only be suggested here.

A crucial fact is that this work, consisting of at least thirty-eight plays, possesses in its entirety a quality of world experience which no other work of dramatic world literature parallels in scope and depth. The sum of historical content, the totality of real and potential world experience created in them, is so comprehensive that the plays of Shakespeare have become indigenous in all cultures.

The globe, as Heine aptly put it, is the place where Shakespeare’s plays are played out, humanity its hidden hero. “How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/ In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” is stated prophetically in Julius Caesar (III, 1). Different to the literatures of classical antiquity or the Middle Ages, an art arises with Shakespeare that is historically self-aware, conscious that the reality which it represents, as well as the act of representation itself, is historical, and thus perceives its own historical nature. Shakespeare’s protagonists, male and female, as well as the conflicts in which they are placed, are, in a very real sense, psychologically and socially historical.

The essence of historicity is change – the challenge, to make visible the dramatic themes and conflicts and grasping them in changing perspectives at both playful as well as critical-scientific levels. This applies to all art, but to none as much as to Shakespeare. Historical change is rooted in him. Interpreting his work changes it in the sense that hitherto concealed perspectives are recognised and opened up playfully. The infinite variety of interpretations is therefore located in the work itself. It passes out of historical distance into the present – not by simple modernisation, but in recognition of potential that these plays possess due to their historical nature.

This should not and must not imply that Shakespeare’s works are randomly updateable ‘stage texts’ or even ‘open works of art’ (Umberto Ecco), which change their meaning in line with the fancies and follies of directors, fawning to the fashions of the market and the power of ideologies. Wherever and whenever this happens, their authenticity is betrayed. They most definitely have a substantial core, a psycho-social historical conflict from which they are built, whereby this core can be highly complex and multifaceted in Shakespeare.

Indeed, the incredible variety of his work arises precisely from the plurality and diversity of the core conflicts underlying his plays. This is what defines the singularity of his dramatic work. Each of these works, however, contains such a substantial core – which alone confers identity and coherence to these works. Such core conflicts override the boundaries of genre, distinguishing certain groups of works – as is the case with Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The task of interpretation – in both theatre and criticism – is to grasp the basic thematic constellation expressed in the conflict. Here, beyond purely subjective judgment, there are objective criteria for the validity or otherwise of interpretation, the success or otherwise of a production. This insight is not to deny that Shakespeare’s works are multi-layered and may be interpreted in different ways, but always only within a certain, broad framework.

Looking at current treatments of Shakespeare in criticism and theatre, a high degree of confusion and disorientation can hardly be denied. At present, there are few, if any, analyses or productions that are able or willing to grasp Shakespeare’s plays – not least the tragedies – from their substantial core. There is only rarely talk of a core conflict, or where there is, it can barely be surpassed in triviality. Thus it can happen that Hamlet appears as a pubescent youth, or Romeo and Juliet (as I have seen done) is transposed into a random petty-bourgeois setting. The conservative variant is to reduce the court of Denmark to costume drama, or to present Hamlet as James I, the Scottish successor to Elizabeth, an idea peddled by fascist state theorist Carl Schmitt, who is once again gaining in currency. Even Kenneth Branagh did not shirk from including scenes of the Danish prince in bed with Ophelia in an otherwise quite passable Hamlet film.

In Germany, we have come up with the unfortunate expression ‘director’s theatre’. This stands for a dramaturgical concept, which denies a stable and identifiable core conflict as a matter of principle, and places a director’s notions at the centre of the theatrical event. Shakespeare’s dramas then become ‘stage texts’ devoid of objective and inherited meaning. What Hamlet means is entirely at the discretion of the director. The understanding that this play is concerned with questions of life and death, problems that are anything but arbitrary, has not yet found its way into these circles. If there are any conflicts at all, they originate solely from the head (or the psyche) of the directors, and which may be judged by psychiatry. The result is an aesthetic randomness that degrades theatre to a piece of cultural industry, depriving the works of their old and new – historical as well as contemporary – meanings. It goes without saying that the state of research and criticism largely corresponds to that of the disorientated theatre. There are of course some exceptions, and we should be grateful that they exist, but the general condition is, unfortunately, the rule, confirmed by the exception.

It is therefore unsurprising that the remaining stock of an educated audience, which occasionally still goes to the theatre, is generally at a loss and therefore without criteria for solid aesthetic criticism. This, too, applies to school and undergraduate students, as well as their teachers and lecturers who professionally deal with Shakespeare (often reluctantly, one fears), who no longer understand him. Little help comes from the institution of theatre criticism, which in the past provided some orientation, at least in the bigger feuilletons.
In view of this fact, it is a pleasure to present here a book that goes against the tide with courage, intelligence and decisiveness: Jenny Farrell’s Shakespeare’s Tragedies.

The book is exactly what it claims to be: an introduction to the four great tragedies of Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. It is not directed at the professional world, but aims to achieve something that nowadays, despite the mass of literature published, only few books do: It addresses all who are interested in Shakespeare, text and theatre, and who have been neglected. At the centre of the interpretation is the text: its close reading, a method with a sound philological tradition, the knowledge of which is also of central importance for so-called specialists. Shakespeare’s text, however, the four great tragedies, is placed, in Marxist tradition, in the historical context from which it emerged: the ‘context’.

The book is structured based on this insight. Thus, the first chapter deals with this context: the early modern period as a time of epochal upheavals, the formation of the first phase of bourgeois society, the Renaissance as a European phenomenon, Tudor absolutism as the national epoch in which Shakespeare’s theatre originates as a cultural institution.

In highly concentrated form, the trajectory leads to Shakespeare’s life, about which much has been written, but little known. It is regrettable that Farrell can only give a sketch here – no more than 20 pages are at her disposal for this period; however, those who wish to know more about it have at their disposal an extensive body of literature, including the Marxist perspective.

For people who are concerned with this epoch for the first time, the historical framework is given at least in outline, without which an accurate interpretation of the texts is impossible. Chapters II to V contain the heart of the book, specifically a close reading in terms of an introductory analysis.

A final, concluding part, which due to its brevity is not marked as a chapter, provides in highest concentration the outline of an overall interpretation, for which I would have welcomed a little more space. For here the intellectual substance of the book becomes evident – in all its simplicity of expression – its essence goes far beyond the introduction suggested by the subtitle. What Farrell exposes is precisely the substantial core of Shakespeare’s tragedy, from which the individual works are built – the very thing missed by mainstream highfalutin research.

At the centre of the book are the four textual interpretations. The author adopts a both simple and illuminating structure: questions of plot, characters, themes and problem constellation, the consideration of the aesthetic and dramatic means (stylistic devices), the question of the ending and, as a conclusion, the issue of tragic content. The method is plausible, not just for the purpose of an introduction. What Farrell practises is the tried and tested method of New Criticism: the art of close reading, which reveals the meaning of the work from the consideration of the text, understood here as a method of philological-historical analysis.

The strength of the reading, as Farrell practises it, consists in its success in revealing, from the texts themselves the substantial core underlying the tragedies and determining their conflict potential. Unlike other authors, such as André Müller, she refrains from approaching the plays with a big thesis (in Müller’s case it is Shakespeare’s support for the absolutism of Elizabeth I, which is not implausible, but cannot be deducted from the texts themselves). Instead, she grounds the substantive core in the conflicts developed in the tragedies. These are, according to her convincing interpretation, the expression of a fundamental conflict of opposing historical forces that arose after the collapse of the medieval world and the rise of the early bourgeoisie.

If, on the one hand, there is a liberating humanity, whose values ​​are peace, justice, the welfare of all, essentially the concept of human equality, we see on the other hand the will to power (as Nietzsche later calls it), the drive for power and submission, the very plundering, finally, of our planet. Farrell names these opposing forces – terms taken from the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s own time – humanism and Machiavellianism; Humanism in the sense of an Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, Machiavellianism after Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the famous breviary on the gaining and retaining of power.

A third force involved in the basic constellation are the representatives of the old order, the mediaeval-feudal world. The fourth player in this overall constellation is the plebeian element, the working people, who are given a voice for the first time in Hamlet’s gravediggers. These forces are the basis for the conflicts of the four tragedies. Perhaps other terminologies might be possible for these forces – encompassing psychological, socio-cultural and economic dimensions – however, this is not the issue here. The fact is that the conflict of the tragedies originates within these forces. The four tragedies then depict the conflict of these forces in a variety and diversity of configuration, which is peerless in world drama.

This is not the place to trace them in detail. And no review can replace the fascinating reading of the four interpretations.

This is a translation of the German original, “Entschieden gegen den Strom,” published in Unsere Zeit (Essen), 1 July 2016.