Interview by Rob Shore
Rob Shore: Using the lens of social science on Shakespeare seems at once radical and—after having read the book—obvious. Tell me about how you conceived of the project and summarize the main argument you are making.
Bradd Shore: The book was written to bring together convincingly the two most important sides of my intellectual life: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and (2) anthropologically grounded social theory. My interest in Shakespeare began when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley back in the early 1960s. I was an English major and had the good fortune to study with some brilliant Shakespeare scholars in Berkeley’s distinguished English Department, at the time the best place in the world for studying Renaissance English literature.
As I studied Shakespeare, I took several excellent courses in political theory. As I read thinkers like Locke and Hume and Plato and Rousseau, I was struck by surprising overlaps between the concerns of political philosophers and Shakespeare. Of course, Shakespeare expressed himself through drama rather than philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, I saw in Shakespeare’s work a theoretical genius paralleling his poetic and dramatic skills.
Shakespeare’s approach to theory was not always immediately apparent in the plays. He had found a way to embed a theoretical perspective in his plays without dislocating or disrupting the theatrical and poetic power of the drama. I became interested in his plays as fascinating and often underappreciated reflections on many of the same issues that I would study in my later career as an anthropologist, issues like the theatrical nature of political power, the creative and procreative power of art and nature, dilemmas of sex and gender, reconciling love and marriage, life as performance, the power of ritual, the relation between language and reality, and the human effort to make meaning.
I also wanted to understand how Shakespeare did all this by telling stories. So I began to study the literary techniques he used to manage this marriage of story-telling and theory. Imagining Shakespeare as an anthropologist, it was as if he had figured out how to write vivid ethnography so that it reflected theoretically back on itself. His remarkable techniques relied on new ways of imagining perspectives emerging in both early Renaissance painting and optics.
Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to shine a light on Shakespeare as a theoretical mind through new readings of six of his plays. However, it is equally an attempt to account for his craftsmanship through studying historical changes in representing perspective that allowed Shakespeare to stage self-analyzing dramas.
Rob Shore: Your analysis reveals texts full of multiple, playful, and often deceptive meanings. Some of them are compelling and quite clear. But others are hidden under layers of abstraction and misdirection. What methods do you use from anthropology to unpack meaning, and how did you find the process of translating those tools to literary analysis?
Bradd Shore: Clifford Geertz famously compared the data of cultural anthropology to a text, a comparison that has been both admired and criticized over the years. For both literature and human behavior, the text analogy points to the need for interpretation, a requirement as troublesome as it is necessary for making sense of things human.
One of the problems an interpreter faces is that the meaning of something—the meaning affordances of its internal structure and coherence, is not the same thing as the meaning for someone, which is a process of imaginative engagement of a mind with the world. For an anthropologist, the meaning for someone requires emic analysis, how the locals understand their world and actions: what matters to them. The meaning of something requires etic analysis, an attempt at an objective account of the meaning-making properties inherent in an act or an object. We struggle to do both kinds of analysis and reconcile them, but the reconciliation often proves challenging. Often anthropologists end up choosing one or the other perspective.
In approaching Shakespeare’s plays, we have no privileged window into Shakespeare’s mind and intentions. We only have his texts and the complex patterns that he weaves with his language and play structure. The closest we come to an emic perspective in the absence of a Shakespearean literary memoir are the social historians’ reconstructions of the culture of Shakespeare’s day and the kinds of ideas and things of interest to Elizabethan writers and artists.
Fortunately, there is no need to read meaning into Shakespeare’s work. We only need to read his work, carefully and repeatedly, alternating our study of the plays with a study of the evolving cultural, political, scientific, and artistic of Shakespeare’s world. When Shakespeare wanted to make a theoretical point, he left plenty of clues in his work: clues in his choice of language, his virtuosic wordplay, his characters’ names, his way with tropes (especially metaphors), and the messages he built into his manipulation of literary and artistic conventions. Careful reading and attention to his use of irony can help uncover those patterns.
Interpretation is built up from evidence found in these repeated patterns throughout the play. Thus, my analyses of the plays are extensive and based on very close readings of Shakespeare’s words, accompanied by historical explications of Elizabethan culture. A satisfying interpretation makes sense of otherwise anomalous and puzzling aspects of the text. That sense-making looks inward to the language and structure of the play and outward to the institutions and culture of Shakespeare’s day.
To be convincing, an interpretation does not have to be the only possible account of a play. In their miraculous richness, Shakespeare’s plays are irreducible to a single meaning. Still, some readings make more sense than others. A satisfying interpretation leaves the reader with a sense of having a light illuminate something that was always there but had eluded both sight and insight. Good interpretations produce aha moments for the reader.
Rob Shore: You advocate for a “close reading” approach to texts that were intended to be staged. What does that tell us about Shakespeare’s intent?
Bradd Shore: Shakespeare was both a thinker and a theatrical producer. He understood what his primary audience wanted to see, and he gave them plays that were exciting, engaging, terrifying, funny, all the things that great theater can produce.
I think I present enough textual evidence that my readings of the play will stand as credible interpretations of what is actually in the plays. However, these are not interpretations that Shakespeare intended for the immediate consumption of the Globe’s audience. Instead, I think they were written as look-again-readings of the texts for a more sophisticated audience. Shakespeare’s theoretical voice was intended for readers rather than viewers, by those interested in the play of great ideas rather than drama’s more immediate experience. As a result, Shakespeare wrote plays that were both compelling dramas and effective theoretical treatises. The only other writer I know who regularly pulled off the same kind of double-dealing magic was Plato in his Socratic dialogues.
Rob Shore:In a book so concerned with double meaning and wordplay, you must have felt some pressure in coming up with a title. How did you approach the task?
Bradd Shore: I like playful titles that encourage multiple meanings. So my initial title was Shakespeare and the Play of Great Ideas. However, my editor at Routledge found that title somewhat vague and wanted a title that would attract both social scientists and literary types. So I agreed to the more straightforward title and was happy that the press allowed me to keep “The Play of Great Ideas” as a subtitle.
Rob Shore: If Shakespeare’s play of ideas was a reflection of a technological and cultural paradigm shift in perspective, how do you think Shakespeare would adapt his work to reflect our current moment: 24/7 digital transmedia omniscience, hyper-irony, double-talk, fake news, a deep bench of Shakespearean political figures, and all the rest? Does that reality make his texts more, less, or just differently relevant today?
Bradd Shore: I have no idea what modern technology Shakespeare would exploit were he to write today. But he would likely be attracted to the possibilities of modern theater and film for playing up the problems of representation and perspective.
Shakespeare can be thought of as modern in three senses. First, he is modern in being concerned with universal themes, as relevant for today’s audiences as those of his time. Second, he is modern in being ahead of his time. In my book, I show how his plays anticipate psychoanalytic theory, exchange theory, modern metaphor theory, performance theory, political theory, cognitive anthropology, Queer Theory, and structuralism in more sophisticated ways than we ever imagined.
Finally, Shakespeare is modern in his radical interrogation of the world and his awareness of the influence of perspective on how one views reality. While traditional critics like E.M.W. Tillyard tried to convince us that Shakespeare’s work was essentially an extension of medieval political and social thought, they overlook Shakespeare’s characteristic irony, attraction to paradox, and relentless questioning of orthodoxy. Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to highlight the radical character of the plays.