Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Imaginary Anti-Theatricality: Harry Berger's Drama of Passive Aggression

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Imaginary Anti-Theatricality: Harry Berger's Drama of Passive Aggression

Article excerpt

IN IMAGINARY AUDITION (1989), Harry Berger (in an imaginary dialogue with the imaginary Gary Taylor and Richard Levin) responded to a kind of criticism that is often called theater-orientated. This criticism usually (a)claims that the response of an "innocent" spectator is the most valid guide to a play, and therefore (b) disallows some readings (such as the one Berger wanted to offer) on the grounds that they cannot be performed and therefore cannot be intended. The pendulum swing between those who think that criticism is too complex and those who think that it isn't complex enough has been going on long enough to be called a perpetual motion. In suggesting that Shakespeare's plays are both theatrical and anti-theatrical (and that the second quality enriches the first), Berger was not so much attacking the theater as setting himself on the side of complexity as opposed to what he sees as reductive criticism.

Making Trifles of Terrors, selected and edited by Peter Erickson, is a collection of fourteen of Berger's Shakespearean essays; many of these predate Imaginary Audition; three are published for the first time in this volume. Nearly half are on what used to be called the Second Tetralogy and will probably be subsumed in a forthcoming book, to be called Harrying. Two are on the Lear and Gloucester families in King Lear. There are also two essays on Macbeth and one each on Much Ado, Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure. While Erickson (or Berger) might perhaps have gone further in reducing repetition between essays, I can see why they did not. For one thing, not many people read this kind of book from cover to cover; for another, Berger's argument is complex, constantly developing, and benefits from reiteration.

As Erickson says in his perceptive introduction, Berger's approach is "moral" and "political." But it is moral in a special sense. That is, it is concerned with characters' perceptions of good and evil, but whereas moral criticism usually involves seeing the characters in the same terms that they themselves use, Berger's essays complicate the study of morality in two major ways: first, by a concept of performance that has only the speaker's self for audience, and second, by insisting on the complicity between villains and victims. There is a victims' discourse, as there is a villains' discourse, and in theatrical terms one is as powerful as the other; thus, both types of characters are participants in a competition, although perhaps they are not fully aware that they are competing. It is important to realize that Berger is eager--if not, I think, always able--to avoid inviting us to take part in what he calls "the voyeuristic power of divine judgment" (279).

Berger's two essays on the comedies, which come first in the book, show how easily manipulation of the victim's role--suffering and forgiveness--comes to women. Portia's words to Bassanio about the ring she gives him, the loss of which will "be my vantage to exclaim on you," become one of the key phrases of the book, a character's unconscious admission that she (like many other characters) is seeking occasion to suffer wrong so that there can be no doubt that she is in the right. Much Ado ends with Hero recognizing the advantage she gains by forgiving Claudio, and thus proving that comedy is "an experience that ends in the nick of time" (24). Obviously, these essays are influenced by feminist writing. In some ways, they are a welcome relief from the usual insistence that (fictitious) women can do no wrong, since Berger starts from exactly that position and shows how deadly it is. However, anyone who thinks that this study of manipulative victimization sounds misogynistic need only turn to the essays on the tragedies and histories, which occupy most of the rest of this volume, to find numerous men who carry the art much further.

All do offend, he says--all. One might think Lear already a cruel play, but Berger's reading makes it even more cruel. …

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