John Lanchester

Humanists versus Theorists

Signifying Nothing: Truth's True Contents in Shakespeare's Text

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Shakespeare and the Question of Theory

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In English culture, Shakespeare has become an impossibly bland and reassuring figure – a kind of continuation of the Queen Mother by other means. This makes it easy to forget how strange Shakespeare is. ‘Gild the faces of the grooms withal,’ says Lady Macbeth to her husband, ‘for it must seem their guilt’ – you can get so used to puns like that that they lose their shocking oddness. Certainly that pun shocked Dr Johnson: ‘Could Shakespeare possibly mean to play on the similitude of gild and guilt?’ he asked, horrified. Johnson’s Shakespeare criticism remains essential because of his ability to be affronted, annoyed, upset by Shakespeare; his well-known inability to re-read King Lear is just the most famous instance of a continually heightened sensitivity. This strangeness of Shakespeare needs always to be rediscovered, by readers and by the theatre. Those productions which present King Lear as a senile brewery magnate, or perform Twelfth Night in full samurai regalia – that’s what they’re trying to do.

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