Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance

Article excerpt

Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance, by W. B. Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xiii + 274. Cloth $58.00, paper $21.00.

For the past two decades W. B. Worthen has been the leading theorist of the contemporary performance of Shakespeare. Together with a handful of other scholars he has transformed the study of Shakespeare in the contemporary theater from the last bastion of Bradleyesque character criticism to one of the most sophisticated barometers of the relationship between "Shakespeare" and contemporary culture. He has done so in part by refusing to consider Shakespeare in performance in isolation from the material conditions through which meaning is produced in the theater and in cultural production more generally, and in part by refusing to accept traditional understandings of the theater as merely an interpretative tool for the realization of an idealized and authoritative text.

Worthen' s earlier work in this area was primarily concerned with the question of the relative authority of "Shakespeare," "the text," the author function, and performance. Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance concerns itself with issues of textuality defined more broadly, and with the performativity, or what Worthen calls the "force," of a broader range of contemporary performance practices that include the theatrical but extend into cultural tourism, film, video, e-mail, and the Internet.

Given these expanded definitional fields, it is surprising that Worthen's latest book's first sentence makes the modest and apparently retrogressive claim-within the field of performance studies-that "this is a book about a small slice of performance: the stage performance of scripted drama" (1). Indeed a central part of the book's stated project is the recuperation of "the stage performance of scripted drama"-particularly Shakespeare in the theater (focusing on the latter's conventions and regimes of behavior)-as performance, with performative force in the contemporary world. This recuperative project directly confronts what Worthen sees as a new anti-theatrical prejudice deriving from a perhaps surprising source: the emerging scholarly hegemony of performance studies grounded in a renewed interest in the work of J. L. Austin (How to Do Things With Words), and manifesting itself in that of Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick (Performativity and Performance), Judith Butler (Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter, Excitable Speech, and Antigone's Claim), Sue-Ellen case (The Domain-Matrix), and a host of other recent volumes.

In his introduction to Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance Worthen convincingly traces the ways in which "the extension of Austin's performativity has tended to rehabilitate the study of performance while reiterating a familiar antipathy toward dramatic theatre" (4). But perhaps surprisingly Worthen himself engages here in detailed analysis of only two theatrical performances, both at the new Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London in the summer of 2000, in the context of such things as the Plimoth Plantation, military reenactments, conference paper presentations, and Internet performativity-more familiar objects of study for performance studies scholars than for Shakespeareans. And Worthen's analysis benefits significantly from performance studies, especially when he turns his attention to the Globe Theatre itself, its citationality, and its regimes of behavior. This is entirely appropriate, since Worthen's fundamental argument is the materialist one that "dramatic performance is conditioned not only from within the theatre, requiring an understanding of the conventional performance practices of a given culture, but also from without: the institutions of performance arise in relation to social and cultural factors, other institutions which define the categories and meanings of performance" (1-2). Worthen is variously strong on conditions within the emerging professional theater and the emerging printing and publishing industries that conditioned the production and dissemination of Shakespeare's plays in his own age-he has discussed elsewhere the regimes of performance that produce meaning in the contemporary theater-but he is at his best here on the contemporary conditions and institutions that shape historical, (inter)cultural, and hypertextual performance and its meanings, or "force. …

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