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Beatrice and Benedick ‘never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them’ (1.1.60–1), we are warned, and their encounter a few lines later does not disappoint:
Ben. What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Bea. Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain if you come in her presence.
Ben. Then is courtesy a turn-coat: but it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted…
This greeting brilliantly captures the ceremonial idiom central to the social politics of Much Ado About Nothing. Both characters overplay deferential formality in their use of titles, ‘Lady Disdain’ and ‘Signor Benedick’, while simultaneously flouting the code of politeness in their insults. The satirical effect would be increased by appropriate courteous gestures of greeting: a formal bow from Benedick and an answering curtsey from Beatrice traverse the space between their bodies. Their ‘skirmish of wit’ immediately establishes Messina as a high-risk environment for face-to-face interactions, something that the tragi-comic extremes of the plot go on to demonstrate.
In the public, courtly environment of Leonato's household, identity is highly dependent on superficial signifiers and interactions. Benedick draws attention to both verbal and non-verbal surfaces in the play, pointedly warning his friends ‘The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and the guards [decorations] are but slightly basted on, neither’ (1.1.268–70).
It is ironic that the Bard voted ‘Man of the Millennium’ in Britain has simultaneously been increasingly associated with a subversive Catholic minority in early modern England. This year has seen a growing tide of interest in Shakespeare’s connection with the culture of the Counter-Reformation. Biographical studies by Honan and Holden note that the theory that Shakespeare spent time in Lancashire in the service of the Catholic de Hoghton family is the most likely explanation for the so-called ‘lost years’. Manchester University Press has reprinted Honigmann’s Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’, the pioneering book that revived the theory in the mid-1980s. The new edition is very welcome, as this remains the best book-length collection and analysis of the evidence; it was frequently cited at Lancastrian Shakespeare: Region, Religion, Patronage and Performance, an international conference held at Hoghton Tower and Lancaster University (21–4 July 1999). Honigmann’s new edition contains a second preface, citing Richard Wilson’s recent research on the Lancashire theory. In ‘Shakespeare and the Jesuits: New Connections Supporting the Theory of the lost Catholic years in Lancashire’, Wilson draws striking links between John Cottom, schoolmaster at Stratford Grammar School, the de Hoghtons, and the Sodality of young Jesuit priests who were recruited by Edmund Campion.
“You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” (Hamlet 3.4.19-20) Peter Holland concludes his book English Shakespeares by praising foreign productions for 'rightly showing us that not everybody's Shakespeare is the one we possessively think we know' (p. 269). Several recent publications show the effects of Shakespeare's transposition within German, French, Russian and Irish cultures, past and present. In Redefining Shakespeare: Literary Theory and Theatre Practice in the German Democratic Republic, J. Lawrence Gunter and Andrew M. McLean have brought together an illuminating range of essays and interviews with theatre practitioners which chart the changing production styles in the former East Germany in relation to their political contexts. For me at least, much of this was undiscovered country. A useful chronology of key productions and events from 1945 to 1990 sets a historical framework for the development of a tradition in which the German Shakespeare Society, and the work of Brecht and Robert Weimann are shown to be important influences. Weimann's own lucid essay gives 'a personal retrospect' of how 'Shakespeare' has been redefined over the period, assessing the 'uncanny threshold between unorthodoxy and complicity' (p. 137) unique to theatre practice in the GDR.
Reactions against the term ‘early modern’ to describe the times in which Shakespeare wrote are gathering momentum. In spite of its title, The Project of Prose in Early Modern Europe and the New World aims to prioritize continuities between Renaissance and medieval culture rather than ‘early modern intellectual history and modern humanism’ (p. 12). In Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, Margreta de Grazia offers an ‘anti-Early Modern’ (p. 21) reading of King Lear, remarking that it is dangerous to focus exclusively on the Renaissance as the nascence of the modern and to make Shakespeare, if not our contemporary, then an early version of ourselves. De Grazia’s fine analysis shows that such an approach does not mean abandoning the theoretical sophistication which has characterized so much recent work on the ‘early modern’.
Richard Hillman takes an equally theoretically inspired 'backwards' look in Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modem English Drama, an exciting study of subjectivity on stage, using key aspects of Lacan. Proposing a 'middle ground' between the extremes of historicist and humanist ideas of selfhood, Hillman traces a dramatic history of inwardness which stretches back to the medieval tradition. The mirror and the book serve as key representations of Lacanian models of selfhood, and theoretical positions are usefully signposted throughout. God, conscience and the slippery medium of language are all fundamental to the constitution of the fragile speaking subject, Hillman argues, but at the very moment of self-speaking on stage, subjectivity is threatened by aphanisis, a tendency to face away.
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