Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture
Catherine Belsey
London: Palgrave, 2001.
£11.99, 203 pages, ISBN 0-333-80184-9.

Frédérique Menant
Université de Rouen

For the reader not versed in recent Shakespearean literary criticism, the title may read as yet another thematic approach to Shakespeare’s plays; it may suggest that the book will consist in a re-reading of the plays along Biblical lines or an analysis of the interactions between the plays’ stories and that of Genesis. But that is immediately contradicted by the juxtaposed subtitle (“The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture”), which belies any thematic reading since it suggests, on the contrary, a reading anchored in the critical practice of cultural history: Shakespeare’s plays will be not studied as the locus of “themes” but as “the location of cultural history”. For that reason they will therefore be reinscribed in their socio-historical background.

Perhaps we should not read too much in the juxtaposition of the title and the subtitle, but this very juxtaposition reflects Catherine Belsey’s aim and critical approach, and provides an explanation for the construction of her book. Since, according to her, the analysis of the historical background of Shakespeare’s plays has often taken to the foreground in recent Shakespearean criticism (often at the expense of a close reading of the plays themselves), her approach favours juxtaposition: Shakespeare’s plays and other written (and visual) material are analysed side by side, so that the close reading of the plays is not superseded by the analysis of the cultural background and the depiction of other cultural artefacts.

The aim of the study is threefold and the book is constructed as a triptych, so to speak: Belsey traces representations of the family in three interlocking fields: Shakespeare’s plays, the Reformation idea of Adam and Eve as founders of the first nuclear family and the visual imagery that decorates the cultural artefacts of the period, such as furniture, tapestries, and tomb sculpture. In her analysis sixteenth- and seventeenth-century visual representations of the Eden myth, with their emphasis on the Fall and on images of death and violence, reveal the unease that shadowed the construction of the idealized image of a loving marital union as a kind of earthly paradise.

Belsey begins with an analysis of the construction of family values in early modern England and a study of the emergence of the loving, supportive nuclear family as both the site of intense propaganda and the seat of unprecedented anxiety. She highlights the link between the creation of a set of family values and the increasing perception of the family as a place of danger with possible contradictory readings of the Bible, i.e. discrepancies within the given model itself.

Indeed a structural paradox appears to lie at the very heart of the Biblical story of the first couple, Adam and Eve: they seem to represent the ideal of the marital institution and are heralded as the paragon of conjugal bliss. However that story is also one of catastrophic results: it leads to betrayal and exile. It is succeeded by sibling rivalry between Abel and Cain and the ensuing first murder.

So Belsey undertakes a reading of Shakespeare’s plays alongside a study of the discrepancies in Genesis itself. Chapter II focuses on two comedies (Love’s labour’s Lost and As You Like It) and on Genesis (especially, Adam’s naming of the animals). With numerous references to contemporary sermons and an analysis of the woodcuts illustrating that episode in the early editions of the Bishop’s Bible, she investigates the structural paradox of Adam’s deficiency: at the heart of God’s creation lies not plenitude but void, a lack of something. It is not good for Adam to be alone, so there must have been a lack in Paradise before the Fall, a gap which the creation of Eve would fill. The problem of Adam’s deficiency had troubled several generations of clerics eager to explain to the laity why the Reformation valued married love so highly, whereas medieval romance had tended to locate sexual desire outside marriage. The project of the Reformers was to extol desire as divinely endorsed, and marriage as the gift of God to further creation. Married love then becomes the basis of civil society. All the same Shakespeare’s comedies set romantic love leading to marriage at the centre of the action; Shakespeare is thereby the first to put romantic courtship on the popular stage for the first time. In the comedies many characters appear quite sceptical about the newly forged ideal of marital union, venting their deep-seated anxieties through bawdy wordplay and threatening its newly sacred character with sexual innuendoes. Early modern culture, which embraced marriage as the divinely endorsed remedy for desire, and family as the source of civil society, also recognized passion as potentially dangerous and destructive. So that, although in Shakespeare’s comedies marriages are equated with happy endings, married love is shown to give way to murderous jealousy, and sibling rivalry leads to violence and death.

Radically heterogeneous in itself, the biblical account invoked by the Reformers to authorize the new ideal of the loving family also exposes deep misgivings about conjugal and sibling relationships; these misgivings are foregrounded in Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale as Belsey’s analysis successively shows.

Chapter V is even more convincing. Belsey’s readings of the visual art and artefacts are sensible and almost always illuminating, especially in her use of images of the Dance of Death to chart the liminal terrain that Hamlet inhabits. She draws a parallel between Hamlet and the first murder: the fratricide which inaugurates the plot of the play explicitly echoes Cain’s crime and propels the next generation into a Dance Macabre which recalls the sequential violence chronicled in the remainder of the Old Testament. Analysing how the Fall was represented in woodcuts of the period and the conventional visual sequence of events she draws a link between the Expulsion and the first murder. The first family is seen to be the location of the first murder, and the murder takes place within the family unit as a result of sibling rivalry. The story duplicates that of fathers risking their sons’ lives and souls in the name of filial love.

Her reading of Hamlet is much more satisfying than the traditional psychological reading of Hamlet as suicidal. Yet, however perspicacious her analysis of Hamlet along biblical lines (to wit, the Ghost’s appeal to Hamlet in the name of filial love as example of the deep-seated anxieties at the heart of family values), the link she draws between Hamlet, the Dance Macabre as topos in traditional iconography and Freud’s ‘fort-da’ theory seems somehow slightly far-fetched.

Richly illustrated and written with great perception and wit, Catherine Belsey’s latest book is a lively, provocative and thought-provoking one for readers interested in state-of-the-art theoretical literary criticism. It might prove an arduous read for students, yet it might stop some gaps in their perfunctory knowledge of the Bible. They might be willing to skip the first chapter entirely devoted to the theoretical grounding of her study, even though it summarizes the recent theoretical debates among Shakespearean scholars and provides a necessary introductory explanation of her position. Some of her arguments could be turned against her: while she advocates a close reading of a text, her insightful reading is not quite as close to the text as a French ‘explication de texte’.

She has reservations about gender or post-colonial readings because they tend to reintroduce thematic readings, yet her reading of the discrepancies in Genesis could be interpreted in the same way. The very construction of the book does not belie the thematic reading the title implicitly suggested: the book rests on an a thematic organization of chapters around a series of topics – desire, marriage, parenthood and sibling rivalry – successively analysed in Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet.

Catherine Belsey’s latest book is witty and provocative, as well as disconcerting and intriguing... and therefore of great interest.