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The Tainted Muse

The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare and his Time

Robert Brustein
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Tainted Muse
    Book Description:

    This book is a masterful and engaging exploration of both Shakespeare's works and his age. Concentrating on six recurring prejudices in Shakespeare's plays-such as misogyny, elitism, distrust of effeminacy, and racism-Robert Brustein examines how Shakespeare and his contemporaries treated them. More than simply a thematic study, the book reveals a playwright constantly exploiting and exploring his own personal stances. These prejudices, Brustein finds, are not unchanging; over time they vary in intensity and treatment. Shakespeare is an artist who invariably reflects the predilections of his age and yet almost always manages to transcend them.

    Brustein considers the whole of Shakespeare's plays, from the early histories to the later romances, though he gives special attention toHamlet, King Lear, Othello,andThe Tempest. Drawing comparisons to plays by Marlowe, Middleton, and Marston, Brustein investigates how Shakespeare's contemporaries were preoccupied with similar themes and how these different artists treated the current prejudices in their own ways. Rather than confining Shakespeare to his age, this book has the wonderful quality of illuminating both what he shared with his time and what is unique about his approach.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15545-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction: THE HIDDEN IMPOSTHUME
    (pp. 1-12)

    In Hamlet, act IV, scene iv, the Danish Prince reflects on a seemingly purposeless adventure by saying, “This is th’ imposthume of much wealth and peace,/That inward breaks, and shows no cause without/Why the man dies.” I have always been taken by that physiological and metaphorical image of an imposthume—a canker or tumor—that can deeply affect one’s health without showing any outward sign or apparent cause.

    Indeed, it may be a way to describe the workings of Shakespeare’s plays, where an inner pain results in an outer burst of creation, and where certain prejudices, predispositions, and obsessions find...

    (pp. 13-52)

    The quotation belongs to a British king, but the words could have come from the mouth of a Danish prince. Nowhere is Shakespearean sex hatred expressed more openly than in the play he calledHamlet, and nowhere more forcefully than in the colloquy between Hamlet and Ophelia in act III, scene i.

    In this scene, Ophelia has been enjoined by Polonius and Claudius to encounter Hamlet, while they secretly look on, in order to discover the root cause of his mysterious melancholy. The torrent of abuse Hamlet subsequently pours on this hapless woman, and not just on her but on...

  5. 2 Effemiphobia: THE OSRIC COURTIER
    (pp. 53-91)

    By the end of the century, satirists had divided the courtier into two categories, the soldier and the carpet knight, admiring the one and resenting the other. Perhaps the most telling example of this division can be found in the scene from which this chapter’s epigraph is taken, in the contrast between the battle-weary Hotspur and the perfumed, snuff-taking lord who interrupts his well-earned respite from combat with his foppish behavior and fastidious manners. Shakespeare makes this courtier into a creature as awkward on the field of arms as Hotspur would have been at a court masque. Which is the...

  6. 3 Machismo: THE HOTSPUR MODEL
    (pp. 92-133)

    This is Cornwall referring to Kent, after that “saucy” fellow has insulted every face in the room. Although intended as a snarl, it is the most accurate characterization of the plain-dealing soldier we have. It is the way Henry IV might have described Hotspur, or Beatrice Benedick, or Octavius Enobarbus, as a plain downright fellow who takes pride in his refusal to flatter. It describes the way Henry V woos Princess Catherine. It depicts Hamlet at his most dynamic before pretending to be a melancholy madman. It is the disguise assumed by Iago to mask his villainy. It is the...

  7. 4 Elitism and Mobocracy: FROM JACK CADE TO CALIBAN
    (pp. 134-172)

    It is a generally accepted principle of Renaissance scholarship that a prime function of Elizabethan drama, particularly historical and chronicle plays, was to build up confidence in what historians have called the Tudor Myth. Since Queen Elizabeth’s family line had a dubious claim to the crown stemming from the deposition of a legitimate ruler (Richard III), and since her claim to the throne was under dispute by other pretenders, Elizabeth expected poets and dramatists to justify her royal authority through political propaganda exalting her family line. She also expected them to proclaim her wisdom and flatter her beauty—indeed, to...

  8. 5 Racialism: THE MOOR AND THE JEW
    (pp. 173-203)

    Shakespeare’s prejudice toward minorities, as one might expect, was less inflamed than that of other writers of the day. But it existed, even though Shakespeare managed to overcome his preconceptions at times through his special qualities of humanity and compassion. An annotated bibliography by Parvin Kujoory and Bruce T. Sajdak lists essentially five minority groups that appear with some regularity in Shakespeare plays: women, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, and slaves. I have already touched on two of these categories (women and homosexuals). In this chapter I concentrate on Shakespeare’s treatment of Moors, Jews, and other subjugated people.

    Blacks in the drama...

  9. 6 Intelligent Design: LEAR’S ABYSS
    (pp. 204-242)

    In his biographyWill in the World, Stephen Greenblatt makes some controversial speculations about how John Shakespeare might have led a secret life as a Catholic while serving as a Protestant public official, further suggesting that his son, William, may have shared some of his father’s covert Catholicism and overt Protestantism. Whether this is true or not, there exists in Shakespeare’s belief system what Greenblatt calls a double consciousness, and Hamlet is the ultimate example: “He seems at once Catholic, Protestant, and deeply skeptical of both”; or, as Greenblatt describes the melancholy Dane in his earlierHamlet in Purgatory, he...

  10. Afterword: LANCING THE CANKER
    (pp. 243-246)

    This has been a book about a playwright’s prejudices. But I hope it has also been a book about a playwright’s insights, his largeness and generosity, his capacity to change his mind. In tracing six persistent issues throughout the body of Shakespeare’s plays, I have tried to show that Shakespeare’s prejudices are not hardened formulas frozen into place regardless of circumstances—Shakespeare’s spirit is too open, too supple, for that. Nevertheless, they appear often enough and insistently enough to convince us that the poet held most of them personally, even if some eventually evolved into different forms of feeling and...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 247-262)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 263-268)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 269-269)
  14. Index
    (pp. 270-280)