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Shakespeare, Dissent and the Cold War

Shakespeare, Dissent and the Cold War by Alfred Thomas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 265 pages, ISBN: 978-1403911643 (hardback) £55.00

About the reviewer: Dr Erica Sheen teaches and researches in the Renaissance and in cinema, especially American and European cinemas in the Cold War. After taking a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College London, she began doctoral research on Shakespeare, and also pursued a hitherto covert interest in film at the British Film Institute. Her book, Shakespeare and the Institution of Theatre: the Best in this Kind (2009), is published in Palgrave’s Shakespeare Studies series. Edited collections include Literature, Politics and Law in Renaissance England (with Lorna Hutson, Palgrave 2004) and The Cinema of David Lynch (with Annette Davison, Wallflower 2004). Her next book is titled Cold War Shakespeare. She is co-organiser of the Cold War Cultures network, and of the NWO-funded international network Shakespeare in the Making of Europe 2014-16.

Shake-DissentAlfred Thomas’ study is described in Palgrave’s online catalogue as ‘the first book to read Shakespeare’s drama through the lens of Cold War politics.’ What follows suggests an innovative, even exciting, critical method – ‘Rather than simply exploring how Shakespeare’s plays were appropriated for political purposes in Communist Central and Eastern Europe, the book uses the Cold War experience of dissenting artists in theatre and film to highlight the coded religio-political subtexts in Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale’ – and attentive textual analysis: ‘Combining close readings of these plays with their adaptations by dissenting artists in the twentieth century, the study reveals the deep ideological struggles within Shakespeare’s drama and within the playwright himself during a period of state oppression and religious violence.’

Unfortunately, the book itself does not live up to this description. Thomas states in his Introduction that ‘I shall argue that the origins of [such] Cold War suspicions and intolerance derive from the rise of Protestant fundamentalism and the persecution of religious dissenters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ (p. 12) – a position which encourages suspicions of its own. Cold War scholars find it hard enough to account for the origins of the Cold War within the immediately preceding decades of the twentieth century, so this leapfrog over nearly three hundred years is alarming. The way the subsequent discussion develops doesn’t assuage these fears. The connection between the two historical periods is addressed almost exclusively in terms of ‘similarities’ or ‘anticipations’ based broadly on parallels between episodes of oppression and victimisation. Thomas relies to a high degree on unhistorical assertions that no Shakespearean scholar would find acceptable. In the Introduction and Chapter 2, for instance, he offers a parallel between Shakespeare and Pasternak based on the idea that both are attempting to ‘negotiate […] the hazards of articulating dissent’ (17): ‘unlike Jonson, who later in life spoke of his incarceration under Elizabeth […] Shakespeare has left no record of his private thoughts [ …]. Similarly, Pasternak left little by way of an archive’ (18).  This and the fact that Shakespeare ‘sends mixed messages in his plays’ apparently justifies the assertion that ‘he was anxious to avoid the fate of those who paid the price for overt dissent’ (18). In fact, when the parallel is developed in Chapter 2, it turns out that Shakespeare isn’t the only one ‘like’ Pasternak: so too is Thomas Wyatt (‘like Wyatt writing under the tyranny of Henry VIII…’) and Thomas More (‘Similarly Sir Thomas More’s last great work, written while in prison….’) (65-6)  Even on his own terms, then, his frames of reference are unstable. Occasionally, there’s an acknowledgment of this which seems almost parodically self-evident: ‘Th[e] fundamental difference between Stoppard’s and Shakespeare’s political situation may help explain the very different trajectories of their plays.’  Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

As this suggests, the presentation of the relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and the chosen adaptations is deeply problematic, and it pays little attention to critical literature in either field of scholarship that could have helped prevent this. Thomas relies too frequently on conjectures about what something ‘might have brought to an audience’s mind’ (109). Lady Macbeth’s lines about Duncan’s bloody death at her own hands whilst a guest in her house ‘might have reminded the play’s audience of the butchered priest’ (Henry Garnet, publicly executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot; 144). A real close reading would have to attend to more than the fact that both were old men.

To a certain extent, the discussions of the two Kozintsev films are more satisfying. There are points where an illuminating commentary is sustained:

… Kozintsev invokes the nightmare of the gulag to visualize the post-apocalyptic world of Shakespeare’s King Lear, a world in which the corruption of power has reduced the entire populace to a state of penurious servitude. This is Stalin’s Russia thinly disguised as pagan Britain.

– but even here, as throughout, Thomas’ analysis could afford to have drawn more fully on the medium specificity of film , as well as institutional approaches to both cinema and theatre, and to have considered their implications for his comparison.  General questions of organization leave similar reservations. The title of chapter 2 offers a discussion of ‘The Hidden Language of Dissent in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Grigori Kozintsev’s Film Gamlet’; it makes no reference to the discussion of Pasternak’s translation of Hamlet that is also part of this section. Within the chapter itself, however, the transliteration ‘Gamlet’ is used only to refer to Pasternak. All in all, a disappointing study, and, with regret, not one I can recommend for the study of either Shakespeare or the Cold War.

Dr Erica Sheen

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