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Theater Of Envy: William Shakespeare Paperback – January 1, 2004
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Bringing such proocative and iconoclastic insights to bear on Shakespeare, Girard reveals the previously overlooked coherence of problem plays like Troilus and Cressida, and makes a convincing argument for elevating A Midsummer Night's Dream from the status of a chaotic comedy to a masterpiece. The book abounds with novel and provocative interpretations: Shakespeare becomes "a prophet of modern advertising," and the threat of nuclear disaster is read in the light of Hamlet. Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is a brief, but brilliant aside in which an entirely new perspective is brought to the chapter on Joyce's Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus gives a lecture on Shakespeare. In Girard's view only Joyce, perhaps the greatest of twentieth-century novelists, comes close to understanding the greatest of Renaissance playwrights.
Throughout this impressively sustained reading of Shakespeare, Girard's prose is sophisticated, but contemporary, and accessible to the general reader.
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- Publisher : St. Augustines Press; Reprint edition (January 1, 2004)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 376 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1587318601
- ISBN-13 : 978-1587318603
- Item Weight : 1 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #643,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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violence and mimetic desire or the desire from imitation. This book illustrates those dynamics through
the works of Shakespeare and the traditional deadly sin of envy. To a great extent, he is offering an
alternative and a contrast to the Freudian interpretation of Shakespeare or anything else.
It's interesting for me to see our greatest English writer, read through a French perspective. For Girard,
mimetic desire leads to ego-centric actions that are the origin of violence and many other problems
in our world. This is a question that has always interested me, where all this violence in different regions
comes from. Most of us have felt violent impulses at some point, but not on the scale that atrocities
occur in different parts of the world. Girard shows the connection between the feelings of envy and
self-doubt and their outward manifestation. Basically, it's when a man desires a woman, or vice versa,
or whatever, not mainly for the person's own desirability, but in order to compete with the desires of
some other person. For instance, Helen of Troy is desirable because everybody else seems to think so.
This is today called advertising, as Marshall McLuhan and others have shown.
Girard looks primarily at Troilus and Cressida and Midsummer Night's Dream, offering a variety of
genres, one focusing on the men and the other on the women. But what I found most helpful,
because it was most familiar to me, was Julius Caesar, from sophomore year. In Girard's view, it
is not primarily about Caesar, or Brutus, or any other character, and it's not mainly about the political
value of the republic, or the empire, or any other form of rule. It's about the cycle of mimetic violence
itself, as it escalates and spirals out of control. The characters and political theories are secondary
to the events themselves, as they manifest this phenomenon.
Girard also discusses the Merchant of Venice, proposing that Shakespeare knew his different audiences
of varying sophistication, and of course Hamlet, the revenge tragedy that was limited by the expectations
of the genre. Girard's analysis is similar to that of Harold Goddard, in that the audience demands revenge,
but that doesn't reflect Shakespeare. There's a digression on James Joyce's allusions to Shakespeare in
Ulysses. Of course there's Othello and Iago, and King Lear and Richard III. Girard closes with a lot of
reflection on A Winter's Tale, offering a more hopeful addition to the end of Lear.
At Girard's recommendation, I read Racine's Phaedra and Moliere's Tartuffe, along with Balzac's Cousin
Bette and Gide's Pastoral Symphony. I have found it remarkable how, when you're looking for it, mimetic
desire is at the root of so many of the conflicts of our various plots.
Romeo and Juliet is mentioned only in passing.
Girard has a few devoted followers and very few adversaries. His bold interpretation of western literature (lets put aside his entire mimetic theory for a moment) is so far away from everything else in literary theory that other scholars find it very difficult to elaborate a refutation - they would have to re-examine too much that is taken for granted and that is the basis for all literary criticism, old and contemporary. So most of the disagreement with Girard is short and dismissive, rather than a careful critique.
This is indeed a very regrettable situation. Girard`s study is too decisive to be treated as a footnote, and too persuasive to be dismissed. If he is correct, than he found the key to interpret all great western literature. We know that Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Cervantes, not to mention the Greek tragedians, are somehow set apart from other writers in that they provide a superior portrait of human condition, but little has been done to explain why. Why are Don Quixote and Hamlet so outstanding? I think only Girard elaborated an answer. And it is a very disturbing one. Scholars and non-scholars have a natural reaction to dislike the idea that the characters in great literature are so universal because they show how non-autonomous people are, rather than the opposite.
But one must take Girard`s ideas seriously. In the case of this book, how can one dismiss the mountain of evidence Girard presents to prove that Shakespearean characters are slaves to other people's desires? How can one read this book and not treat this hypothesis seriously? Because if you do, and if you end up agreeing with it, you may feel like a fool - all the literary critics you ever read, and their respective schools of thought, and the institutions to which they belong - become almost redundant and peripheral, and this relatively little-known dude from Stanford acquires an immense importance. Even the individual reader feels like silly because he missed something so ubiquitous. So in a way, Girard`s mimetic theory explains Rene Girard's relative obscurity.
So there is greater benefit in reading Theater of Envy if you are NOT an English major, and have read a lot more Shakespeare than commentary about Shakespeare. You will have a lot less prejudice, and you will be flabbergasted by Girard demonstrating over and over again what that body of work is about.
One other thing of interest is: if you are already acquainted with the mimetic theory (and I strongly recommend you read Deceit, Desire and the Novel before tackling this one), you already know a lot of what the author is going to say (assuming you are acquainted with the Bard`s plays). For example, much of what the Chapter on Hamlet contains I already knew would be there, just by applying Girard`s theory to a play I knew well. And I could probably write myself a couple of extra chapters to this book, tackling Henry VI parts II and III, two very "mimetic" plays Girard left out for some reason. Actually, it is interesting that there is only one chapter on Hamlet, a play that corroborates so much of Girard`s theory, and two on As You Like It, a play where the mimetic desire appears little. Girard wants to go for the difficult stuff, the elements in Shakespeare that apparently contradict him, so that we will be all the more persuaded. Why insist on Hamlet and Othello if the reader will easily be convinced himself?
One last reason to read this book. Girard is a great writer, period. His prose and his clear presentation make it a delightful read. The only obstacle to reading this book is complete unfamiliarity with Shakespeare - I skipped the chapter`s on Winter`s Tale because I know nothing about that play other than the title. Other than that, reading Deceit Desire and the Novel first is a very good idea, but not indispensable if you are a Shakespeare buff. I suspect you will probably jump to reading more Girard afterwards anyways.
It's hard to know if Girard's theory is right, but in the very least, it gives great insight into life. Once you read about mimetic desire, you won't be able to stop seeing it in other books and people around you!