Saturday, June 13, 2009

Book Review: "The Tainted Muse"

Robert Brustein, a theatre director and noted drama critic and author, tries to tackle the inner mind of Shakespeare in The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare and His Time (Yale University Press, 2009). He examines six areas of Shakespeare's works (what he calls misogyny, effemiphobia, machismo, elitism and mobocracy, racialism and intelligent design), proposing that cases from each, "admittedly without conclusive proof ... may be the result of his personal convictions and experiences," as well as (in addition to) the cultural zeitgeist of his time.

Brustein notes at the outset that he "fully realize[s] the dangers of such an endeavor," recognizing A.D. Nuttall's frank conclusion in Shakespeare the Thinker that "we do not know what he [Shakespeare] thought, finally, about anything." But, he says, this doesn't stop us from speculating. It certainly doesn't in his case, as Brustein goes on to attempt to "draw a psychic biography of the man, examining how the obsessions of his characters and himself may have changed over the course of his career" (p. 9).

Through his six chapters, Brustein offers up examples which he suggests portray Shakespeare's personal feelings: toward faithless women, cowardly courtiers, manly soldier-types, the dangers of democracy and mob rule, racial minorities, and religious opinions. What he does not do (with the exception of alluding to Shakespeare's strained relations with his wife, and to Greenblatt's suggestion that Shakespeare's father might have been a Catholic) is connect these examples from Shakespeare's works with the biographical experiences which supposedly informed or shaped them. This is hardly surprising, since we don't know enough details about Shakespeare's life to make these connections. Tracking the changes in the author's views over the course of his career is interesting, but to prove his point, Brustein needs more confirmation than the historical record can provide. To his credit, he doesn't go further than the evidence warrants.