Shakespeare as "Minor Theater": Deleuze and Guattari and the Aims of Adaptation

By Fortier, Mark | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1996 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare as "Minor Theater": Deleuze and Guattari and the Aims of Adaptation


Fortier, Mark, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The practices and standards of literary interpretation have changed in the last quarter century. In the area of Shakespeare studies, critical collections like Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary? (EIsom, ed.) and Shakespeare in the Changing Curriculum (Aers & Wheale, eds.) indicate the current emphasis on contextualization and the concomitant movement away from a narrowly textual focus. Nevertheless, academic literary interpretation remains inevitably and perhaps rightly haunted by notions of textual accuracy--as can be seen, for instance, in the debates (over the appropriate roles of politics and careful reading) between Richard Levin and others in the recent Shakespeare Left and Right (Kamps, ed).

Standards change, however, when the medium of interpretation is altered. Interpretation in the form of theatrical conceptualizing or performance, for instance, can and sometimes must take license in ways that literary criticism narrowly defined does not: at the end of Measure for Measure, Isabella's response to the Duke's proposals must be staged in some way, in any case working necessarily beyond textual evidence. Theatrical adaptation, especially radical rewriting and restaging of an existing work, goes one step further: although adaptations of Shakespeare's works may be driven by a belief in fidelity to something about Shakespeare, and although in large measure they are forms of critical and interpretive practice, questions about the accuracy of the adaptation have little practical meaning.

Because theatrical adaptation is less constrained than other modes of interpretation, it offers more opportunity for the kind of unraveling of fixed, hegemonic meanings that has been advocated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and which they associate with the concept of "minor literature." My purpose in the following essay, therefore, is first to outline the major components of their theory and then to explore how various theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare provide instances of what I will call "minor theater." In the process--and in keeping with the emphasis on challenge involved in the concept of "minor"--I also hope to suggest how these adaptations (and the politics that inform them) serve to question some of the positions assumed by Deleuze and Guattari.

It was in their 1975 study of Kafka that Deleuze and Guattari first mapped out what they call "a minor literature," defining it as the kind of work constructed by minorities within a major literature (16): e.g., the German-Czech-Jew Kafka within German literature, the French-Canadian singer within French literature, the Black-American within American literature. A major literature is a literature of masters: oppressive, founded upon transcendental justifications, it is hard and ungiving. A minor literature, in contrast, is a project of de-territorialization: in the place of the exclusive rights of the privileged "majority," a minor literature gives free play to the disenfranchised, to minorities--women or people from developing countries--who comprise in reality the majority. Nevertheless, the project of "becoming minor" (the unraveling of hegemonic structures of identity) and the machinery of "minorization" are open to everyone and not restricted to specific or actualized minorities. Although minor literature arises from the reactions of the minority within a major literature and culture, its literary and sociocultural project points toward a "becoming minor" of the whole world, in which all structures of hegemony and privilege give way.

Therefore, a minor literature is a collective project. While it undermines the author as master and, in turn, the stable, despotic subject of which the author is one manifestation, it puts forward a new paradigm for literature and authority, open to multiplicity, difference and variation. A minor literature is political and revolutionary; it invokes another possible community, one without masters, literary and otherwise. …

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