Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Discourse and Authority: The Renaissance of Robert Weimann

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Discourse and Authority: The Renaissance of Robert Weimann

Article excerpt

In the final sentence of a chapter contributed to Ivo Kamps's recent collection, Materialist Shakespeare: A History (1995), Fredric Jameson observes that there is no need to return to matters of greatness, continued relevance, or indeed to posterity as such, "in order to suggest that it is political commitment to the historical originality of late capitalism which is most likely to spur contemporary readers of `Shakespeare' in new and exciting directions."(1) We may detect here a certain feeling of resignation born. out of the realization that the capacity of capitalism to effect endless self-transformation has raised serious questions about any narrative predicated upon the linear and rational progression of history. As a consequence Jameson is forced to accept a revisionist Marxism through what he now acknowledges to be a "world of multiple causalities" (324). This shift into a more supple form of Marxist criticism is one that we need to keep firmly in mind when considering the impressive body of work produced by Robert Weimann over the last thirty years (including an essay reprinted in Kamps's collection), except that for Weimann, this observation is not entirely without irony. His monumental Shakespeare and The Popular Tradition in the Theatre first appeared in German in 1967, but since its translation into English in 1978, it has been enthusiastically rediscovered in the 1980s in Britain and the United States as a seminal work of materialist criticism. This is all the more remarkable at a time when from the point of view of a practical politics as well as theoretical orientation, classical Marxism with its emphasis upon the role of collectivities such as class in the making of history is thought by some to have entered a period of terminal decline. It is also a matter of no little inconvenience to Weimann himself, who is now forced to divide his time between the recently "unified" Germany and the West Coast of the United States, where, paradoxically, the intellectual cachet of Marxism as a developing discourse continues to command serious and sustained, although, as Jacques Derrida has recently indicated, somewhat nervous attention.(2) There has, of course, been a significant increase in historical research in Renaissance culture during the last two decades, despite proclamations of "the end of history" and of the alleged triumph of liberal democracy.(3) This context has proved to be more important than ever for Weimann, since in his own work he has continued to engage in a rigorous self-reflexivity in the face of an increasingly feverish circulation and exchange of professional intellectual capital, refusing to be swayed by fashion, yet receptive to the questions that advances in critical theory have opened up.

In an early essay that Weimann contributed to Arnold Kettle's Shakespeare in a Changing World (1964) he had already begun to question a critical practice that was indifferent to "the facts of economic and social history."(4) Moreover, some three years later, and at a time before English translations of Bakhtin had appeared, Weimann demonstrated in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre that he was already attuned to the multivocal nature of theatrical representation and to an implicit politics of signification, and also to the limitations of a positivist model of the theater as an artistic phenomenon that merely "reflected" its environment. For Weimann, and very much in keeping with his commitment to a vibrant Marxism, art was a special mode of production, and this led him to insist from the outset that "Shakespeare's theatre and his society were interrelated in the sense that the Elizabethan stage, even when it reflected the tensions and compromises of sixteenth-century England, was also a potent force that helped to create the specific character and transitional nature of that society."(5) Indeed, he perceived in what he called "the receptivity of the audience" and "the consciousness and artistry of the drama . …

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