Home / Reviews / William Ray reviews Unreading Shakespeare by David Gontar

William Ray reviews Unreading Shakespeare by David Gontar

Unreading Shakespeare by David P. Gontar

New English Review Press, Nashville, TN, 2015, 550 pp. (available in paperback or in a Kindle edition)

Reviewed by William J. Ray

Review first published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter

Unreading Shakespeare coverProfessor David Gontar has traveled far from the beaten path. He teaches at Inner Mongolia University in China, as distant from American academe as an airplane can reach. While there he has contributed to China’s cultural life by applying to UNESCO to help protect the Xanadu site.

Gontar’s intellectual approach has been to step away from Criticism’s authority-based status quo and to read with an open mind, distancing as much as possible from the presuppositions, unstated sub-doctrines, and mandatory guidelines that define and constrict current Shakespeare studies.

For readers skeptical of a Stratfordian authorship position, the book’s paradigmatic sentence is: “The imposition of biographical fables on these plays is the most common and insidious way to miss their meaning.” He applies this maxim to alternative as well as mainstream views, preferring to read anew what has always been on the printed page. He does not make a systematic effort to support the Oxfordian case. Instead he takes it for granted as a reasonable alternative to the ongoing tradition, which he views as clogged with stultifications and insupportable assumptions.

Such a literally critical position finds expression in a good deal of woodshedding on any number of respected critics, followed by Gontar’s own interpretations. Dollimore, Appleford, G. Wilson Knight, Kermode, the poet-critic Ted Hughes, even T.S. Eliot get no obeisance from Dr. Gontar. Northrop Frye comes off rather well in the reckoning, however.

For readers skeptical of a Stratfordian authorship position, the book’s paradigmatic sentence is: “The imposition of biographical fables on these plays is the most common and insidious way to miss their meaning.”

The twenty essays in Unreading Shakespeare are not related and need not be read in order. A concluding statement assists to sum up each argument. In general, the essays are entertaining and energetic, with copious quotations from Shakespeare texts in large readable print. Gontar assumes the reader is familiar with the given play, allowing him to lecture via present-tense syntax about the action, accompanied by declamations in a personal, informal writing style.

Some of the essays focus on the texts, while others examine theoretical matters. The latter deal with the interpretive mechanisms, or methodologies, of mainline critics––in almost every case, questioning their validity. As for getting the biographical sequence wrong, we know before the first page that traditional critics, from Knight and Eliot to Shapiro and Greenblatt, had to be wrong when it came to relating author to text. The officially accepted narrative was packaged fiction, but it resulted in an institutional aversion to even delving into the past. The mythology seemed sufficient, and questions about it would not be tolerated.

Though there is no shortage of individual blame to pass around over the years, in my view T.S. Eliot deserves some credit for writing of the Sonnets, “This autobiography is written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue, which can never be translated.” At least he had the integrity to admit being stumped by such a work being associated with the presumed “Shakespeare.” Hank Whittemore and others have given us ample reasons to consider connecting it to someone else.

Obviously, writer origin—i.e., attribution of the works to the correct person—went missing in Shakespeare studies from day one. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, I wonder if Gontar’s complaint that his fellow scholars misread the text because they have avoided the biographical point might be better approached as an institutional failing rather than a series of personal intellectual handicaps. Human groups are herd animals. The shifts and grunts from the forward co-ruminators usually determine in what direction the herd moves.

Gontar goes on to put Harold C. Goddard on the hot seat for also readjusting the Twelfth Night characters to suit his program of virtues. He could play a Victorian morals game, too.

The Shakespeare detour to Stratford began as a political strategem, the Herberts’ publication of the First Folio in 1623. That publication’s elaborately sanctified, but wholly fallacious, “front matter” set the trap for generations of academics to try to make sense of what was really no more than a cleverly constructed Everyman fable. Rarely did any individual scholar question the doctrine of immaculate Stratfordian conception. Those who did paid the martyr’s price. Cairncross, Feldman, Hughes, Ogburn––the list is not long because it is plain that non-conformists would be, and were, dealt with (as a bureaucrat I once knew put it) “immediately and in an appropriate manner.”

Unreading Shakespeare gives us an excellent example of how a wrong reading became a long-lived, nearly ineradicable fixture. Essay 5 discusses Charles Lamb (1775-1834) propounding Malvolio in Twelfth Night as being not all that bad a sort—loyal, straitlaced, respectful of his liege, etc. We might reinterpret these praises as rationalizations for a dramatic dupe in the play, probably based on Christopher Hatton, the craven but courtly kiss-up to Queen Elizabeth. Sir Toby Belch, said to be based on Peregrine Bertie, Oxford’s brother-in-law, contrasts. He is manly and vital, insouciant, renegade in temperament but capable of understanding, in short a soldier and courtier to reckon with in a rich barbaric state.

Gontar goes on to put Harold C. Goddard on the hot seat for also readjusting the Twelfth Night characters to suit his program of virtues. He could play a Victorian morals game, too. Malvolio gets a positive character report—he is not at all laughable (to which we add that the play itself needs the stooge to be just that). Thus, critical history curves and smooths the way to give status quo representatives a virtuous reading. Ipso facto, Shakespeare literature becomes co-opted for educational and ethical purposes. Twelfth Night’s critical history serves as one example of Gontar’s thesis, that “Unreading” the work, rather than actually reading it, has taken over.

English criticism has… neglected the obvious fact that the author of the plays was an astute, brilliant, rhetorically gifted and classically trained historian of governments, in the tradition of Thucydides.

Gontar’s discussion of “Shakespeare in Black and White” is a significant addition to the literature, how the English felt and dealt regarding slavery and the Other, the Black being. The essay is lively and informative. In something of a parallel, in the introduction to the book Gontar puts Abraham Lincoln himself under the magnifying glass. He is not deified as the usual Christ-like figure, caught in the American version of The Iliad, but is excoriated as a kind of tyrant who denied the South its constitutional states’ rights. Though this struck me as an intemperate reading of history, never have I read Lincoln compared to, or consciously comparing himself with, Bolingbroke. Gontar offers a persuasive case that Lincoln studied Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, in particular Macbeth. It was Julius Caesar, played and studied by another reader, John Wilkes Booth, that became the model for the tragedy of Abraham Lincoln, the man and President.

English criticism has somehow managed to neglect such prodigious real-life reverberations of the Shakespeare canon. It has likewise neglected the obvious fact that the author of the plays was an astute, brilliant, rhetorically gifted and classically trained historian of governments, in the tradition of Thucydides. It was through the Bard, using the Thucydides model for high rhetoric, that the rough-hewn Kings of England strangely produced some of the most masterful speeches and soliloquies in any language.

The essay on Montaigne, whose language and philosophy is said to have affected “Shakespeare” considerably, shows the trained philosopher Gontar at work. Though he characterizes Montaigne as a Skeptic, equanimity places him as a descendant of the Stoics, those who saw that life is frequently a tragedy, for which there is no remedy but practicing Honor, to endure travail with grace. This seems to congrue with  Shakespearean heroic forbearance. The Shakespeare concordance lists “honor” 690 times. A pertinent sidelight in the essay about Montaigne versus “Shakespeare” is the reference to Plato, who had an enormous influence on Shakespeare’s philosophy. Its effect, apart from specific thematic influence such as in Timon of Athens, was to convey the model of the Philosopher King, in whom Knowledge serves Truth. But in the Machiavellian world of the “wolfish earls,” Knowledge served Power. Amidst such ruthless conditions, the “Shakespeare” author got eaten alive before final physical death.

A brief review cannot capture the content of twenty essays, but one can see from the foregoing discussion that David Gontar is not afraid to say some unpopular, indeed impolitic, things. He has his opinions. I quote from Essay 16, “Shakespeare’s Sweet Poison”:

That which calls itself “feminism” today is anti-wisdom, dogma masquerading as thought. One of its most common symptoms is blindness to more holistic outlooks and the evidences that support those outlooks. Feminism is a species of faddism, the assumption that what is new and popular is better than anything in the past. As “ye olde Shakespeare,” the “dead white male,” is blithely tossed in with the dinosaurs (he didn’t have Twitter or an iPhone, did he?), he is the bogeyman, the perfect target.

Gontar is also able to discuss Shakespearean texts with great familiarity and convincing power. Readers will find it another lively example, akin to Ricardo Mena’s Ver, begin, of a new wave of “post-Stratfordian,” emphatically anti-doctrinal, English criticism.

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