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September 13, 2007

Shakespeare studies is where the bird-brained would-be academics of our time roost in prodigious numbers - Tony Nuttall performed an important role as a sane, sceptical teacher, argues David Womersley: Shakespeare the Thinker - A. D. Nuttall

Posted by David Womersley

Shakespeare the Thinker
by A. D. Nuttall
Pp. xii + 428. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007
Hardback, 19.99

For just over twenty years Tony Nuttall was a charismatic tutor of English at New College. His sudden death at the beginning of this year, when he had only just begun what would undoubtedly have been a fruitful, and should have been a long, retirement, has robbed us of many stimulating conversations and sane but sensitive critical studies.

Nuttall's background was distinctive. His professional life was spent in the teaching and study of English, but his training was in classics and philosophy, and his critical work (he seems never to have been tempted to stray into the fields of commentary or textual editing) was always enriched and disciplined by that background. In a recent book, Dead from the Waist Down, a study of the image of the scholar in English literature from Browning onwards, he referred memorably to linguistic scholars as the gunslingers of the academic world. There was never any aggression in Tony; but nevertheless he was certainly capable, when the need arose, of a quick draw.

So Nuttall was an interdisciplinary critic, but always in a slightly special way. More often than not, scholars become interdisciplinary because they have exhausted the resources of their original discipline in the pursuit of a question to which they have become committed; in a sense they are driven to become interdisciplinary as an expedient - in order to make further progress. For Nuttall, however, because of his academic background, the option of moving into an interdisciplinary mode was always there, always available.

This contributed, I think, to the quality of ease in his work. At every stage in the argument, a variety of options seemed to be open to him. At other times it perhaps gave rise to the sense of the writing flitting between modes rather than pursuing a single disciplinary tack for as long as possible. Sometimes options represent temptations to be resisted, rather than opportunities.

Nuttall's theoretical position was humane and balanced. He wrote A New Mimesis (1983) in protest against the formalism of deconstruction: a formalism he diagnosed with practical shrewdness, but which he argued for with a surprising conceptual coarseness which meant that the feline sophisticates of deconstruction could simply shrug off his attacks on their position as rejoinders which had not truly taken the measure of what they were arguing against.

Shakespeare the Thinker shows him taking aim against what he saw as an equal but opposite heresy, namely the contextualism of the New Historicism. If the watchword of deconstruction had been Derrida's slogan, "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" (which Nuttall translated in a somewhat rough-and-ready manner as "there is nothing beyond the text" - a translation which makes Derrida's insight seem both less interesting and more vulnerable as a proposition than in fact it is), then for Nuttall the New Historicists (whose French deity was Foucault, rather than Derrida) were guilty of an equal but opposite error, which could be summed up in the rival slogan, "il n'y a pas de hors-contexte". In this view, as Nuttall succinctly puts it, Coriolanus is "about" corn-riots in Jacobean England. The alternative, as he explains it, is both sensible and methodologically productive (pp. 23-24):

Where "Historicism" means expending all one's attention on the immediate historical circumstances of composition and seeking to explicate the work in terms of those circumstances, I am opposed. The argument of this book is that, although knowledge of the historical genesis can on occasion illuminate a given work, the greater part of the artistic achievement of our best playwright is internally generated. It is the product, not of his time, but of his own, unresting, creative intelligence.
This, then, is the theoretical stand-point of Shakespeare the Thinker. What does it produce? The form of the book is, at first glance, rather old-fashioned: we are given a survey, more or less complete, of all Shakespeare's drama, in for the most part chronological order. What about the word "Thinker" in the title: is Shakespeare's affiliation to some mysterious early-modern sect or cult going to be divulged? No. What Nuttall means by "Thinker" is "intelligent person", not "originator of an intellectual system". His Shakespeare has no philosophy - perhaps, has no beliefs at all - but is just endlessly, restlessly intelligent, and it is that in a way which reinforces the book's premise:
Shakespeare's response is, precisely, intelligent rather than a mere cultural reflex.
Does the Shakespearean example therefore vindicate the theoretical premises of Shakespeare the Thinker? Or is Nuttall's whole enterprise simply a massive petitio principii, an attempt by a critic to haul himself up by his own bootstraps?

Shakespeare the Thinker may be theoretically vulnerable, but it nevertheless contains nuggets of commentary which are of real value, even though (perhaps that should read "because") it does not advance any all-encompassing explanation of Shakespeare's intellectual life. Different readers will have their own list of especially insightful or valuable moments. I found the discussions of Julius Caesar and Timon of Athens particularly memorable.

The abstention from advancing any final explanation of Shakespeare, as well as revealing Nuttall's good sense, also shades into another pleasing feature of Shakespeare the Thinker, namely the way it commemorates Nuttall the teacher. The book is dedicated to three of his former students, and in the course of his commentary Nuttall frequently recalls, and even defers to, the opinions of others. One way of looking at Shakespeare the Thinker is that it is a record of the engaging and capacious conversation which for many years students of English at New College were lucky enough to have more or less on tap.

Because Nuttall is not concerned to advance some mono-causal theory of Shakespeare's works, he can appreciate the insights of others. Such openness is always refreshing in academic writing, but it is hardly ever encountered in Shakespeare studies, that favourite locale of the obsessive, the blinkered, the straightforwardly mad. This neck of the academic woods is where the bird-brained would-be academics of our time roost in prodigious numbers. Here Nuttall's sane, sceptical tones are of particular value.

So Shakespeare the Thinker is an excellent book to buy for the intelligent general reader who has a more than elementary interest in the plays, but who has no appetite for the bizarre extravagancies of academic fashion. It is also a good book to place in the hands of bright A-level students, or those about to go to university to read English. There is nothing here to warp or cramp their own intelligence, and many welcome reminders of why, despite the malign efforts over many years of those who should have championed its cause, the study of English literature can still be a liberal discipline.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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