The fact that Shakespeare wrote close to a million words that have survived into print is one reason for the multiple uses to which his words have been put in the four centuries since he first began to make them available. His forty major works are a massive corpus of invention by any standards. Writing so many different pieces of the highest quality has meant that he can accommodate a massive body of analysis, and the widest possible variety of critical approaches. His oeuvre therefore stands not just as a quarry for every generation to dig new wonders from, but as a reflection of the widest possible range of human preoccupations.

Shakespeare is a mountain into which one tunnels. No two tunnellers find quite the same ores, and, like a magic mountain, whatever ores are extracted they are still there for the next tunneller. This is one way of conceiving the great oeuvre and its benefits. A quite different concept, also a half-truth, is of the Shakespeare canon as a kind of mirror, which reveals its readers and their preoccupations much more immediately and vividly than it shows what it really is in itself. These two ways of thinking about Shakespeare have their uses today. They illustrate some of the main turns of modern critical thinking, and they help to explain both the strengths and the weaknesses of modern approaches to Shakespeare.



The oldest critical approach of all, and the one most derided today, is the biographical. Its weaknesses, most clearly expressed in a famous essay by Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ ([1968] 1977), are chiefly that it directs attention in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. It may be perfectly proper, for instance, to take the view that Shakespeare’s choice of the name Arden for the forest in As You Like It ought to prompt speculations not only about the mythical significance of the Ardennes but also the possibility of more private and personal references to Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden. Any return on the second speculation is, however, likely to be unrewarding because it turns biographical speculation in on itself, in a circular argument. The Forest of Arden is a private reference of the author’s for the author’s own satisfaction, if it is one. Even more dubiously, when Prospero says farewell to his art (of theatrical illusion) in The Tempest and promises to drown his magic book (not burn it, as that other magician Faustus did), it might excite a similar sort of romantic curiosity about Shakespeare making Prospero an image for himself. Such speculation might be intensified by the knowledge that The Tempest was probably the last play Shakespeare wrote solo. The trouble is that such ideas are really only interpretations, conjectures, aimed at identifying the elusive author, and that every such interpretation embodies an unsupported presupposition about what the author’s thinking really is. Biographical speculation of this kind is now seen as idle, and a distraction, since the author is not only long dead but completely irrecoverable. To focus on the will of the dead author is to appeal to a fixed though also rather hypothetical source of authority, an authority which inevitably restricts and reduces meaning and significance. We apply our attention instead to what the words he has left can give to readers.


This kind of evidence is found most securely in the sonnets, where the author might be thought to be speaking in his own voice, rather than in the multitude of voices in the plays. It has been suggested, for instance, that some of the sonnets were written to a ‘dark lady’ called Emilia Bassano, daughter of a Venetian Jewish musician at Elizabeth’s court and mistress of Henry Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, who became the patron of Shakespeare’s playing company in 1594. The Bassano coat of arms had a silkworm moth as its crest, and three moths on a mulberry tree on the shield. The Italian for mulberry is ‘moro’, which also means a Moor, or black person. Thus the identification of Emilia as the mistress in the sonnets supplies a new range of connotations to the ‘black’ aspects of the mistress and the many uses of ‘more’ (‘All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more’, complains the poet in Sonnet 40 to the young nobleman who has stolen his mistress). It also adds nuances to the Jewish presence in The Merchant of Venice and the Moorish presence (and the Emilia) in Othello.


The question is really in what way this information should be directed. Traditionally attention has been focused on Shakespeare’s biography out of curiosity about the life of the greatest wordsmith and inventor of plays. But since Barthes insisted that the author cannot be used as a unifying concept, a justification for fixing meanings immovably, this direction has been reversed. The hypothetical life or lives of the hypothetical author and the connotations supplied by that story direct our attention instead to the multiplicity of meanings inherent in the words. The modern focus is not on the fixative author, but the variable reader. The implicit criterion is a heuristic question of value. Does the reader learn more from the life of a single individual, from the immediate circumstances of his writing, the engagement of minds in discourse at that long-dead time, or should the reader rather engage himself or herself in the exercise of analysing the interaction between that dead discourse and the discourse of the present?


It has long been recognized that every age rewrites its Shakespeare. Samuel Schoenbaum prepared the way for his ‘documentary’ life, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1977), which is an assemblage of the material evidence for what Shakespeare did and who he was, by writing Shakespeare’s Lives (1970), a history of previous attempts to write biographies of the man. The ‘logocentrism’ that Derrida sees as the central feature of all Western thought demands a fixed identity for an author, his individuality giving him his authority. By the same need the concept of a settled culture and Fish’s ‘interpretive community’ (1980) of readers has traditionally insisted on having the fixed set of texts which have been produced from the original editions by the labour of generations of meticulous editors. Both of these concepts are now under question. Current challenges to the biographical impulse extend far beyond the question of the dark lady.


We have a hugely rich inheritance from the logocentric tradition, though like many bequests it has also proved something of an embarrassment. The idea of ‘sacred Shakespeare’ as a cultural tradition and the consequent quasireligious devotion to the Shakespeare ‘canon’ (a term taken from biblical studies), both stand as manifestations of that concern for the fixities of the written word and a hierarchy of settled values which Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ and post-structuralist thinking generally have set themselves to deny and demolish. An essay by Terence Hawkes, ‘Telmah’ (in That Shakespeherian Rag: essays on a critical process, 1986), is about the principles lying behind the edition of Shakespeare which John Dover Wilson conceived in the First World War and the early days of the Russian revolution. It gives a vivid account of the fixative logocentric impulse which critics usually now see as negative and reductive. Studies of Shakespeare today cover the entire range, from the continuing efforts of editors to ‘fix’ the text and the material facts about the Shakespeare oeuvre at one extreme, to the most deconstructive attempts to dismantle the hierarchy of values found in the work by centuries of traditionalists at the other. It is worth looking at both the historical spread of different approaches to Shakespeare through the centuries, and the present geographical (and political) spread.


Historically, Shakespeare’s work first rose to fame on the stage. Stage performance was evidently the only form of publication that the author wanted for his plays, and if his fellow-players had not put together an edition of the surviving play-texts for the press seven years after his death, in 1623, most of them would not be available for reading now. Early in the eighteenth century the first edition designed for the reader rather than the playgoer appeared, a process which reached its height with the appearance of Dr Johnson’s edition in 1768. For two centuries there were alternative Shakespeares, the versions presented by the theatres of the time, often in quite radically altered forms, and the texts for the study and the scholarly reader. Not until the twentieth century, and the firm lodgement of Shakespeare as a subject in education syllabuses, did the two alternatives begin to be reconciled.


With the rise of Romanticism and the predominance of the novel as the chief literary form in the nineteenth century, the tendency was to treat Shakespeare as a novelist. Character and plot, and the emotional forces generated by the major tragedies, were the main focus of attention. A.C.Bradley’s lectures on what he called the ‘central’ tragedies, published as Shakespearean Tragedy in 1904, are the finest example of this approach. His treatment of the plays as novels led him to express qualms about such non-realistic features in King Lear as Edgar writing a letter to his brother when both lived in the same house, but he was finely sensitive to plot structure and emotional power. The same qualities, together with a much more theatre-orientated concern for the movement of the story in the short time of performance on stage, were demonstrated in the succeeding years by Harley Granville Barker in his Prefaces to Shakespeare (1927–48). These essays were strongly influenced by William Poel and his experiments in staging Shakespeare in a simulacrum of the original conditions by the Elizabethan Stage Society of the 1890s. Poel tried to ‘rescue’ Shakespeare from the static and scenic staging of the Victorian theatre tradition represented by Henry Irving and Beerbohm Tree. He staged the plays without sets, giving his audiences speech rather than spectacle. Poel and Granville Barker were both ruled by the assumption that Shakespeare was far greater than his successors, and that faith in his work demanded the restoration of the original conditions for which the plays had been composed.


This loyalty to the ‘historical’ Shakespeare lost some of its impetus in the 1930s. By then the rise of modernism had directed attention away from the realism of the nineteenth-century novel towards symbolism. Shakespeare in the theatre lost favour once again, and it came to be seen that the plays could be read as if they were poems or imagistic constructs. G.Wilson Knight’s books (especially The Wheel of Fire, [1930] 1949) embodied this fresh approach from the beginning of the 1930s, though the classic statement of the principle was made in an essay of 1933 by L.C.Knights, satirically putting the question which might have bothered Bradley in his title, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’ (reprinted in Explorations, 1946). The approach to the plays as poems gained some impetus from the discoveries by Caroline Spurgeon (1935) and Wolfgang Clemen (1951) that some of the major plays made consistent use of particular clusters of images. This led to the ‘holistic’ analysis of plays as complex image-patterns.


The attempt to grasp the plays whole, the ‘holistic’ principle upheld by Wilson Knight, involves what has become known in critical theory as the hermeneutic circle. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century identified the essential problem of interpretation as the need to know the parts before the whole can be known, at the same time as we need to know the whole in order that the parts can be understood. This circularity could, it was thought, be overcome by a grasp of the systematic patterns of imagery evident in Shakespeare’s major tragedies. The plays were poems, and could be understood as coherent artefacts organized through their imagery.


This way of reading the plays as poems was consistent with the Russian Formalist approach and the New Criticism which flourished especially in the USA in the years following the Second World War. Both these approaches were broadly structuralist. They existed at least in part as a reaction against political readings and critical postures. The New Criticism devoted itself to close reading of the text alone, free from any moral, political or social postures.


The problem of the hermeneutic circle is now seen as one which extends far beyond the confines of the written text itself. A whole text is itself only a part of a much larger whole, one which the human consciousness can only grasp by relating it to the whole of its own consciousness, its personal and cultural identity, and even then only transiently and as part of an infinitely larger whole. The structural hierarchies in which societies exist are in a state of permanent flux. Every form of words is relative, contingent on the whole social structure within which it is composed and inside which it is read or heard. Thus in modern thinking the texts of Shakespeare are to be thought of as contingent, whether they are approached as word-games by the semioticians or as hierarchical structures to be challenged by the deconstructionists. It saw paradox or significant ambiguity as the finest kind of poetry, a form of expression which embodied the inherent complexity of any meaningful statement. Poetry, as W.H.Auden put it in one of his characteristically throwaway remarks, is the exact expression of mixed feelings. The New Criticism became a popular way of reading texts for several reasons. One was that at the height of the Cold War literature was thought to be really accessible only if the reader was politically and socially neutral. Another was that the moralistic values which literature was expected to teach (and of which F.R.Leavis was the increasingly influential exponent) were matters of sensitivity and sensibility for which paradox and ambiguity were the best form of expression. Thus Shakespeare’s plays had to be approached as poems expressing the paradoxes inherent in their ruling image-patterns.


The semiotic approach to literature is presented with its greatest test by Shakespeare’s plays. Semiotics as a study of signs and codes of communication undergoes by far its toughest challenge when it has to deal with performance texts in the theatre. A signifier in semiotics needs both a speaker and a hearer. A phrase spoken by an actor to an audience intimately familiar with the actor, his text, his author and the shared culture of the day is a contribution to ahugely complex interchange of signs and signifiers. Subsequent analysis, restricted to working only on the printed record of the words that were spoken by the actor, cannot easily retrieve much from the original complex of communication, with its many non-verbal signifiers. This difficulty extends from the purely verbal to the whole culture in which the exchange between actor and audience is embedded. And Shakespeare’s plays were all composed as performance texts, for a specific company of actors to perform in a specific theatre to a community of audiences that he knew intimately, and most of whom knew his work equally intimately. In the face of such intimate and intricate exchanges, the work of reconstructing the historical conditions in which the plays were originally performed becomes an almost impossible one. Only a continuing belief in the unique value of the magic mountain has sustained the most recent studies at this end of the present geographical expanse of different approaches to Shakespeare.


Modern work in reconstructing the original Shakespeare has been tackled in various ways, most notably by the linguistic semioticians and by the ‘New Historicists’. They work at opposite ends of the spectrum, the semioticians dealing with words and the New Historicists with society. This spectrum is not in any significant way political. Marxist criticism does occupy some of the same territory as the New Historicists, and uses similar terminology. In general, and rather flippantly, it might be said that most British New Historicists are left-wing in their politics, while most of the Americans are carefully neutral or implicitly right-wing. This range is evident in, for instance, Dollimore and Sinfield (1985), Greenblatt (1980) and Goldberg (1983). But they all share similar techniques and to some extent a similar approach to historical evidence. If there is a basic division of principle it probably lies between structuralism on the one hand (or wing), associated as it is with Formalism and the old New Criticism in its pure concern with the text, and the various post-structuralist positions on the other, which prefer to concentrate on the subtext (semiotics) or the context (New Historicism and Marxism). Semioticians, by their close focus on the words themselves, often seem to operate as structuralists, although their principles, coming largely from Saussure, give them some affinities with the post-structuralists. New Historicists and post-structuralists share some principles, including the assumption that the modern reader should be the focus, rather than the original author. Both parties deplore the fixity of hierarchies and settled convictions of any sort. In some sense deconstruction can be seen as the most anti-conservative of the current theories, since it resists the idea of any sort of fixed and durable structure, though its position is in no way ostensibly political (see Miller, 1977).

It is not easy to describe in a discursive account what these tangled webs of theory look like. If we were to try to make an image for them all, it might best be conceived of as a circle across which is drawn a rather randomly disposed set of diameters, like an irregular bicycle wheel. Each of the diameters represents two opposed positions, though none corresponds neatly to the old left wing/right wing opposition, and no one diameter lines up with any of the others. The centre of the circle, the crossing-point for all the diameters and the central position where traditional British pragmatism usually likes to put its nest of twigs, is just a blackened mess of crossed lines.

The problems of modern theorizing about how to approach Shakespeare are at their clearest with deconstruction. Its firm opposition to hierarchical structures which maintain settled value-systems makes its advocates fundamentally hostile to the concept of a ‘sacred Shakespeare’, with a holy ‘canon’, and all the minutely detailed editorial labours on the text which go with that concept. This position the deconstructionists share with all the poststructuralists who focus on the responses of the modern reader rather than the original compositions themselves. It seems a little ironical that Shakespeare himself should show himself to be a perfect deconstructionist in at least one of his great plays, Troilus and Cressida. It is a play notable above all for the way it takes the oldest and most famous of all literary stories, Homer’s Iliad, and undermines everything it has traditionally been taken to stand for. The play questions all the traditional value-systems by giving them a broad context which subverts what they seem to uphold. The Greeks are mercantilists, valuing Helen as a commodity, and scheming to sustain their system of authority by fighting for the rights of property. The Trojans are chivalric fools, who value Helen for romantic rather than commercial reasons, and will fight for the pleasure of fighting as readily as they steal wives for the pleasure of loving. Troilus argues for valuation according to personal pleasure (‘What’s aught but as ’tis valued?’ he argues in the Trojan council in Act 2 Scene 2), and Hector tacitly admits the point when, after arguing that ‘these moral laws/Of nature and of nations’ insist that Helen should be returned to the Greeks, he tells the Trojan council that he has already sent a ‘roisting challenge’ to the Greeks to come out and fight. Hector values the war because he likes fighting.


The play counter-balances one set of values against another, at the cost of faith in either. Commercial Greeks think of wives as property, while romantic Trojans think of them as the basis for all other valuations. Helen is worth fighting for as a love-object, not Menelaus’s possession. There is a sweet fool, Pandarus, who thinks everything is lovely, and a bitter fool, Thersites, who thinks everything is foul. The play sets up no absolute values. Time is the ultimate test of everything, including not only Cressida’s durability as a value for Troilus, but all the traditional valuations of the Homeric heroes themselves, seen in this novel way across three thousand years of myth-making. Nothing is left undamaged. Words are used to reflect the different applications of value, and are themselves damaged as instruments of durable meaning. Every speech, seen in context, becomes merely an expression of the speaker’s values. Every assertion is contingent. The play exemplifies all the principles of inevitable misreading, the contingent nature of every statement and the changeable values of every context, which the deconstructionists maintain is true of all speech. When Troilus despairingly says ‘This is and is not Cressida’ he speaks like a deconstructionist. The play provides a perfect exemplar for Derrida’s ingeniously intricate concept of ‘différance’. Even the post-structuralist concern with identity, closely explored in its manifestations in Troilus and Cressida by Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy (1984), can be seen represented there at its most sensitive. Contemporary concern for critical theory can too easily lose sight of such points. It is not so much a matter of not finding the needle in the haystack as not seeing the haystack for the hay.


Post-structuralist and deconstructionist approaches to Shakespeare are by no means all negative. In particular the feminist approaches, examining gender and role-playing, have given substantial insights, particularly into Twelfth Night and As You Like It, where the possibilities of an Elizabethan boy actor playing Rosalind as a girl who then plays a boy playing a girl offer the same kind of riches for the question of identity as Troilus and Cressida (see Dusinberre, 1975, and Belsey, 1985). It is in the nature of drama, and above all Shakespeare’s plays, that it examines identity, social and sexual, and roleplaying, in the subtlest and most complex forms.


A similar use, rather more strangely, lies in the concept of reflexivity, the idea that a written construct is a wholly subjective composition, and that a writer writes chiefly about the problem of writing, reflecting himself in his work. Since plays put the writer’s words into the mouths of distinctly identified characters interacting on stage, this is a concept we might think would be less readily available to the dramatist than to the poet or novelist. None the less it has been explored through the idea of ‘metadrama’. The sequence of history plays from Richard II to Henry V, for instance, has been thoroughly examined in this regard by James L.Calderwood (1979) as a study of the ways in which the plays show language devalued, and how putting thoughts and actions into words alters them. A broader concept of metadrama is of course latent in Shakespeare’s own frequent and various presentations of the ‘All the world’s a stage’ idea.


The main preoccupation of the New Historicists is a broader version of the question of sexual identity which the feminist critics have taken up so well. Identity for the New Historicists, however, operates on the social rather than the individual scale. Patriarchy, for instance, is not seen as a feminist concern but as a question about authority in political life, and its manifestations in the subtext of the plays. This approach, while its ultimate interest is in the individual psyche or subconscious, is similar in many ways to that of the Marxists. Marxist historians work within an overarching programme of economic and social process, a relatively settled patterning which the deconstructionists reject for being too structured and therefore facile. The Marxist view, like many others, is subject to the problem of the hermeneutic circle, needing to understand the whole before the parts can be understood and vice versa. In a limited sense the New Historicists avoid or at least minimize this problem of circularity by limiting their concern to individual texts and individual manifestations of the Questions of identity, in a world which they accept as fluid and everchanging. The avoidance of assumptions involving fixity of any kind is now a fairly standard feature of modern critical thought.


The problem which these theoretical debates leave most obviously unresolved is the need to be comprehensive, a new version of the hermeneutic circle. For all the concern with the modern reader as the basic focus, the original text has to be known, too, if anything valid is to be obtained from it. With Shakespearian drama this returns us to the problem of the performance text. Saussure’s concern for the semiotics of the interconnections between play and audience, the distinctive nature of theatrical discourse, ought to sit at the heart of any modern ‘reading’ of Shakespeare. The trouble is that most modern approaches to this problem are frankly inadequate. Debate has settled itself into an unresolvable choice between different kinds of modern approach, Shakespeare on the stage or Shakespeare on the page. The facile answer is that Shakespeare is much more accessible on the page, given the extra leisure for study which a reader has, and our loss of knowledge about Shakespeare’s original staging conditions. That is too facile, indeed too defeatist, an answer, because it shuts off investigation into a convenient capsule, one drily sealed off (like the New Criticism approach to texts) by the loss of any fresh input.


The approach to Shakespeare as a performance text involves some obvious losses, in the opportunity to analyse the semiotic intricacies in the words and in the loss of immediate access to footnotes and similar information about the word-games, the echoes of famous phrases, reiterated images, even the use of once-familiar Elizabethan proverbs. All the editorial aids to understanding are lost, or at least put aside, when the play is seen in the theatre. Equally, though, the approach to Shakespeare as a written text involves losses. The collective experience of laughter and other emotions is not an insignificant element in the growth of a play’s story. Laughter in a theatre is much more coercive than the private amusement which happens in reading. The intimate cohesion of the performance, the flow of feeling which accompanies the brief but compelling surge of the story on stage, the very substantiality of a drama enacted by living people in a theatre, are likely to evaporate when it is taken in private.


The challenge is to try to combine the assets of both approaches. Each process, seeing and reading the plays, can strengthen the other. One example may help to clarify the profits and losses. In Act 3 Scene 1 of I Henry IV, Prince Hal and Falstaff entertain their idle hours by acting out the confrontation where the prince is to be reproved by his father the king for associating with Falstaff. The joke reaches its climax when Falstaff, playing the prince, pleads with the prince, who is playing the king, not to banish Falstaff: ‘banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.’ The prince’s reply is ‘I do, I will’. The reader can contemplate a variety of ways of taking this exchange. Beneath the play-acting there is a real plea from Falstaff, which the prince answers with an equal awareness of the reality they are talking about. Falstaff paraphrases the marriage service by presenting himself as the world (implying the flesh and the devil too, which candidates for marriage are expected to renounce), and the prince’s answer parodies the same service, with ‘I do’. But is he firm and grimly concise or is he hesitant, deferring the positive assertion of ‘I do’ to some vague future with ‘I will’? Why does he need two different phrases for his answer? Is he wholly and firmly serious, taking up the reality behind the comic plea, or does he pause and pull back from the brink? Is he speaking in his father’s voice or his own? The reader has a variety of intriguing choices, each one of which has implications for the rest of the play and the relationship between the two speakers.


On stage the actor has to make his own choice. The prince has declared in his early soliloquy (at the end of Act 1 Scene 2) that he is only using his low companions so as to make his eventual reform look the brighter. In the event he does not banish them until the end of the sequel play, nine acts after he has said that Falstaff is only a temporary entertainer of his light moments. The length of this interval raises doubts about the prince’s resolution, doubts which come to a head with the exchange in Act 3 Scene 1. The actor has to know what specific relationship he is to develop with Falstaff, and in what ways it shifts through the two plays. How Prince Hal is played will determine which of the many possible ways of speaking the four words of his reply to Falstaff’s plea can be used here. The stage prince’s attitude must be clear, and (one hopes) consistent with his presentation throughout the play. The poignancy of that moment when the doubts and tensions between the prince and Falstaff come to the surface is there whatever kind of reading the performance offers. The prince’s answer is perhaps the most intensely revelatory moment in the play. The actor has to choose his role.


From this rough summary of the possibilities it might be thought that the reader of this moment will be the gainer because reading makes it possible to take up all the different possible interpretations and try them against one another. In the process, however, the reading will lose all the intensity and momentum which a good performance, experienced in a receptive company of playgoers, is unique in its capacity to give. The single reading of a performance draws its strength from the context of the entire play. The emotional intensity of the confrontation between these two mighty opposites, witnessed by an audience focusing its attention and responses exclusively on their struggle which comes to the surface only here, is gathered and concentrated by the sweep of the play’s action into this one crucial moment. A performance carries the audience through its version by reducing all the many alternatives to one single and potent experience.


Of course if any single performance is taken to be the definitive version of the play by any playgoer it will become as reductive as any other fixed reading. That is one of the many grounds for post-structuralist hostility to the approach which conceives the plays as theatre texts. A performance invites consideration of a play as a whole, an organic unity, and semioticians, New Historicists and deconstructionists all prefer to deal with plays in or as fragments. The idea of the work of art as an organic unity carries with it the undesirable assumption that the author is an authority on his or her own work. To engage with a performance, particularly one composed as what is sometimes called ‘director’s theatre’, where the director’s interpretation reshapes every component of the performance into a particular ‘reading’ of the play, is little better than facing a surrogate author. Semioticians and post-structuralists are all readers, not playgoers. What they lose by that is not insubstantial.


Before structuralism began to take over British thinking about critical theory, the standard defence against the invasion was eclectic. It ignored the attempt to establish a single controlling principle, preferring to make a selection from amongst the more appetizing isolated ideas. This approach is usually known as pragmatism. Among philosophers it is sometimes also known as the British disease. To a large extent pragmatism is a defensive posture, designed for protection against the rigidly doctrinaire positions of the theorists and allowing the believer to enjoy a relatively casual and unhindered romp through the daffodils of literature. Consistent adherence to theory is distinctly strenuous by comparison. Pragmatism is the selective middle position implied by the evaluation of reader’s text against performance text and the calculation of the losses entailed in the adoption of either as an exclusive position. It is not, however, a comfortable position. One of the major troubles with any attempt such as this one to grapple with conflicting theories is that each theory seems to contradict its rivals, the result being that the increasingly despairing reader is drawn more and more towards a central position and the classic posture of the pragmatist. That central position may seem like the still point in a turning world, but it might equally well turn out to be a whirlpool which will drown the reader. It is certainly a black tangle in the middle of the circle of intersecting and diametrically opposed theories, a no-man’s-land where everyone on the surrounding perimeter is your enemy. In the end its difficulties become a version of the hermeneutic circle. To be a successful pragmatist you have to know all the theories, and the postures they put you in. To know all the theories properly you have to believe in them. If that seems more like Catch-22 than the hermeneutic circle, it is because they are versions of the same difficulty.


Every theory is in some degree reductive. A theory provides a system by which experience can be organized and made into sense, or at least into something which the hopeful student will find comprehensible. All theories are constructed against the threat of chaos, which is the absence of system or organizing principle. We need theories, organizing principles, to make sense of what comes at us, however provisional and imperfect that sense may have to be. That is the basis for all dogma, religious and political alike. What applies to experience in life also applies, in a smaller way, to Shakespeare. We need some theoretical basis for any coherent approach to the plays, but any theory is by its nature reductive, and the temptation sometimes to stray beyond the bounds of system and the coherence provided by system is unavoidable. Different people will in any case find different theories to fit their different needs, and even in a single individual the theories may change as the needs change. Critical apostasy, like religous or political apostasy, is not a rare phenomenon. The one essential is to know where you are in the circle at any given time.