Putting Shakespeare in his time and place
Robert Brustein, the former head of the American Repertory Theatre, used to rail against critics who championed accessibility as a primary virtue in art. So it’s more than a touch mischievous to call his investigation into the personal prejudices of Shakespeare and the societal prejudices of Elizabethan England a wonderfully accessible piece of writing.
Accessibility, it’s true, only gets you so far, so let’s add that “The Tainted Muse’’ is as imaginative and scholarly as it is readable. Brustein takes issues that have been chewed upon for ages - do we take Shakespeare to task for the anti-Semitism in “The Merchant of Venice’’ or praise him for the groundbreaking portrait of Shylock - and enlivens the debate with his own smart combination of humanism and humor.
He also wades into less charted territory with discussions of Shakespeare’s machismo, misogyny, and “effemiphobia’’ - his distaste for courtiers such as Osric in “Hamlet’’ and his abiding respect for warriors such as Hotspur in “Henry IV, Part 1.’’ Here, for example, is how he differentiates between contemporary and turn of the 17th century sensibilities - “ ‘Make love, not war’ was the primary motto of protesters against the Vietnam conflict. Elizabethans would have reversed this axiom, for moral reasons . . . but also for physical ones - making war, not love, was believed to improve one’s health’’ and he goes on to compare how copulation was considered deleterious.
Not all of Brustein’s ruminations are convincing. Throughout the book he warns us of the dangers in comparing how characters feel about matters - Hamlet’s horrible treatment of Ophelia - to how Shakespeare feels. It’s a danger that Brustein avoids for the most part, but there are times that you wonder, “Was Shakespeare really that fond of Hotspur?’’ And, anyway, shouldn’t we be trusting the tale not the teller?
Brustein acknowledges that issue, too, which could lead to a lot of dog-chasing-its-tail scholarship. But the author - a significant critic, himself, of course - moves his thesis forward by showing how themes repeat themselves from one play or sonnet to another, and how they evolve over the course of time.
Or, at least, how they evolve in Brustein’s interpretations. Brustein has never been a fan of politically correct spins on Shakespeare. But a measure of Shakespeare’s genius is that his plays, like the Bible and the United States Constitution, have the ability to evolve over time and transcend the authors’ original, often elusive, intentions. I thought, for example, the more politically correct interpretations of “The Merchant of Venice’’ and “The Tempest’’ at Shakespeare & Company and New York’s Public Theater, respectively, were far more provocative, memorable, and maybe even more Shakespearean than their contemporaneous productions at ART while Brustein was artistic director.
That bugaboo aside, one of the great charms of “The Tainted Muse’’ lies in its celebration of Shakespeare’s genius in holding opposite points of view - Falstaff’s cowardice and common sense, Shylock’s penury and humanity - and molding those opposites into unforgettable characters pliable enough to yield to myriad interpretations.
Brustein goes to great lengths to make his interpretations text-based and historically accurate. Even when he adds some existential spice to the abyss that Lear confronted and Iago exploited, he doesn’t stray from the plays. Of all the book’s virtues, Brustein shows how Shakespeare’s prose and poetry speak to both his time and ours.
Freelance writer Ed Siegel is former theater and television critic for the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.