Sunday, May 31, 2009

Doug Eskew: “Shakespeare and Paradox”

Doug Eskew
Colorado State University, Pueblo

Book Review

Peter G. Platt, Shakespeare and the Culture of Paradox, Ashgate Publishing (Farnham, England, and Burlington, VT, 2009), ix + 251 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0754665519. $99.95 (USD).

1> Reading Peter Platt’s Shakespeare and the Culture of Paradox, I find it hard to imagine a more sure-handed and thorough treatment of the figure of the paradox, not to mention one paired with intelligent and fascinating criticism of Shakespeare’s plays. The reader will certainly learn much about paradox in this volume; she will learn quite a bit about Shakespearean drama, too.

2> In the short introduction and the full-length introductory chapter, “‘New, Strange, Incredible, and Repugnant to the Opinion of the Hearer’: The Power of the Paradox in Early Modern Culture,” Platt provides a comprehensive overview of paradox, meticulously citing relevant texts and theorizing their participation in ideological structures. Rosalie Colie’s definitive Paradoxia Epidemica (1966) plays a role here, for it is a work of such lasting influence that it cannot be ignored. Rather than defining himself against Colie, Platt identifies himself with her; in a deft rhetorical move, he makes her part of his own camp by defending her against critics of Paradoxia Epidemica like Francis Yates, whose dismissive review of Colie’s project is resurrected here. For the most part, Platt argues that his own book is needed only because of the intervening forty-something years, which have brought us from the modern age into the postmodern one. He therefore wishes to address early modern paradox from a post-structuralist perspective—a perspective that treats doubleness similarly to how it was treated by the early modern culture of paradox.

3> Another rhetorical position Platt assumes concerns detractors against the paradox itself. Specifically, he quotes scholars such as Gary Taylor who argue that the figure of paradox “removes from history and contemporary politics the authors who use it and the critics who write about them” (47). To these critics, the both/and logic of the paradox “requires one to focus on the universal and timeless instead of on the material and contingent” (47). Platt’s dismantling of this position is masterful. After noting, via Louis Montrose, that paradox during Shakespeare’s time could have “‘consequential ideological valence’” (51), he goes on to argue that paradox during our time is similarly, but not necessarily, an impediment to political action. It is only a facile reading of deconstruction, he argues, that comes to such a conclusion. Platt goes on to cite Derrida, Barthes and Bourdieu on the radical critique delivered by post-structuralist criticism, paring these with Colie, who argued that “paradox is always somehow involved in dialectic: challenging some orthodoxy. The paradox is oblique criticism of absolute judgment or absolute convention” (Paradoxia Epidemica 10). From this perspective, the paradox isn’t opposed to contingency; in many ways, paradox is contingency itself.

4> Platt’s second chapter, “‘The Meruailouse Site’: Shakespeare, Venice, and the Paradox of Place,” is an important one, relating how paradoxical thinking influences early modern geographical thinking. I say important because few have made this connection, despite how salient the phenomena were in early modern ideological constructs. Here, Platt shows how Venice is the perfect site to talk about paradoxical geography due to its extraordinary hybridity: both on the land and of the water, both Western and Eastern, both authoritarian and republican, etc. Shakespeare uses the doubled scene of Venice, Platt argues, to question other doubled phenomena—the “complexities of love, law, and cultural doubleness” (58) in The Merchant of Venice and Othello. In the former play, Platt sees “uncertainty” as a primary preoccupation, both in the merchant economy invigorating the state and in the erotic economy invigorating the title character. Moreover, Shylock’s liminal status as a Jew is at odds with his single-minded view of the world. In the latter play, Platt sees epistemological and erotic doubleness at issue. More to the point, it is an epistemological doubleness voiced by Iago, “I am not what I am.” Platt claims that Iago uses the contradictions inherent in Venetian society to fuel his strategies against Othello. Iago “play[s] parts of the myth of Venice off of one another” (86-7): devotion is turned into dishonesty, knowledge into unknowing, integration into expulsion, the intimate into the Other. Ultimately, Platt argues that the play is riddled with irresolvable mysteries for its audience, which “remind us of our uncertainty even as we watch characters suffer under theirs” (93).

5> The third chapter, “‘To Do a Great Right, Do a Little Wrong’ or Gaining by Relaxing: Equity and Paradox in The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure,” concerns paradoxical qualities in the legal process of equity. Equity functions, Platt tells us, as an antidote to a legal dilemma in which “inflexible law [is] brought to bear on flexible and multiple human behavior. In short, equity acknowledges the tension between the measure of law and the incommensurability of human experience” (95). For Shakespeare, Platt argues, the “paradoxes of equity highlight the difficulties of legal interpretation and the just enactment of law” (97). Platt finds support for his argument in the critical literature on equity from Aristotle onward in which equity “achieves justice by correcting justice” (98). Platt’s account stresses the structure of this paradox, in which a universal is brought to bear on a specific. To this end, the author writes at length on how Christian theology addresses these issues through analogy to the mercifully humane Jesus as a “corrective” (of sorts) to the inflexible and law-obsessed Yahweh.

6> In his discussion of The Merchant of Venice, Platt focuses on Portia’s attitudes toward mercy:

“. . . mercy is above [the] scept’red sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When Mercy seasons justice” (4.1.200-4)

7> Platt argues that Portia ultimately attains equity by evoking its opposite, “hyper-rigidity” (115), and thus we witness how “equity can help reinforce the tyranny of the ruler—or at least the law’s interpreter” (115). Strict interpretation and situational mercy end up being mutually constituting. Platt drives these issues home in his discussion of Measure for Measure. Ultimately, the Duke sets out to make justice manifest in Vienna, but in order to be merciful he must act tyrannically. Isabella, “in a speech that poses as merciful,” remains a judicial conservative to the end, arguing that Angelo should not face the wrath of law because he intended to do wrong but never succeeded in it: “Thoughts are no subjects, / Intents, but merely thoughts” (5.1.445-6). Of the Duke’s final act, “resolving” Isabella’s unmarried status, Platt concludes, “Isabella’s response to the Duke is paradoxical: eloquent silence that testifies to equity’s limitations and possibilities” (137).

8> In his final chapter, “‘Double Dealing Ambodexters’: The Paradoxes of Playing,” Platt pulls back the curtain, presenting the sine qua non of his project: paradox and mimesis share the same logical structure. Quoting Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Platt notes that “‘the logic of paradox is always the logic of semblance, articulated around the division between appearance and reality, presence and absence, the same and the other, or identity and difference. This is the division that grounds (and constantly unsteadies) mimesis’” (142). The theater of Shakespeare’s time, then, was always paradoxical, both for its players and playgoers. Both, Platt tells us, experienced a “struggle not only to know but to determine what is and what is not” (144).

9> This final chapter is the book’s most ambitious, seeking to argue for these kinds of mimetic paradoxes in three sectors: stage practice; boy-transvestite acting; and audience/actor dialectics. This chapter furthermore looks at a half-dozen plays for its argument. As a culmination of the preceding chapters, I think the arguments work here, despite such large claims coming in rapid succession. Regarding stage practice, Platt argues that having dealt with the paradoxes of seeming and being, Hamlet achieves a sort of enlightenment: “Hamlet resigns himself to the powerlessness of being authored . . . . By accepting the paradox of acting—to be and not to be?—Hamlet can be ready for the paradox of being (and dying)” (164). Regarding transvestite boy actors, Platt argues that their paradoxical status between seeming and being participated in a culturally instituted mimetic of instability at the same time that they taught audience members to view the world as essentially uncertain. Finally, Platt argues that the paradoxes of mimesis and culture, of stage and audience are not just related, not just mutually constituting, but “interpenetrating” (194). This penetrating is furthermore part-and-parcel of a culture in which religious worship often reached its apogee in the mystical union of the Eucharist. Thus while the chapter is about the interweaving of paradox and drama (“if drama is paradoxical, the paradox is also dramatic” [206]), it is equally about these kinds of mystical ends. The book ends, in a way, much as Hamlet does, accepting paradox and therefore achieving a mystical or enlightened knowledge of the world. Materialist critics, wary of the universalizing thematics of the paradox, would certainly find no comfort in the final pages. For those of us comfortable with dialectical thinking, Platt’s concluding pages do not answer questions, but they do provide a semblance of resolution

Doug Eskew received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and is now Assistant Professor at Colorado State University, Pueblo. His interests range from critical theory, sovereignty studies, and critical poetics to Shakespeare, early modern theater, and early modern culture. His most recent work is forthcoming in Early Modern Literary Studies.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges

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