Deconstructing Shakespeare

[This review article first appeared in E. Coli, Volume I, No. 1]

Earl Courtenay, Playing With Willie (NY: Viking Press, 1999)
Reviewed by Ian Johnston

                                    My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use. (Macbeth 3.4)

The world of literary criticism, long accused most unfairly of silly, pontificating, jargon-ridden nitpicking in the form of a vast vulgar academic wind, has been shaken up lately by a ground-breaking new study of the recently deposed head honcho himself, William Shakespeare, in a book which clearly builds on and advances the best that has been thought and known in the world.

In Playing with Willie, Earl Courtenay, faculty member at a nearby university-college, argues that the entire Bardic canonical corpus is an exploration of joys and tribulations of masturbation as symbol of the colonialist imperative of Tudor-Jacobean England in the Early Modern period. This neo-Lacanian, post-post-structuralist account combines riveting insights from recent New Historical scholarship with more traditional modernist textual analysis mediated by the pertinent contributions from Continental philosophy, all interpellated with spicy introjections from Adorno, Benjamin, Habermas, and (Groucho) Marx.

Courtenay takes as his cue Halpern’s illuminating insight that Hamlet’s troubles stem from the inability of his penis to function as a writing implement suitable for inscribing his ghostly father’s instructions on the palimpsest of his mother’s flesh (which is, in any case, too flabby to hold any impression), an early anticipation of Freud’s metaphor of the children’s Wunderblock toy for the conscious/unconscious axis of psychic life.

By establishing some fertile links between Hamlet and Shakespeare and bringing to bear a sophisticated understanding of the erotic slipping and sliding of signifiers, Courtenay probes deeply beneath the apparently calm surface of the text with both a seminal fluidity and a fluid seminality, in a proleptic deconstruction of the mantra for Hamlet-as-wanker: "There is a destiny which shapes our ends/ Rough hew them how we may."

Shakespeare, according to Courtenay, was so obsessed with the functioning of his organ that the very titles of his plays reflect the different stages of his attitude to the one-eyed trouser snake ("the serpent of old Nile"), from the youthful bragging of the Taming of the Shrew, to the more mature acceptance of a normal length in As You Like It, and finally to the passionate despair at the insignificance of his limp unviagrated member (Much Ado About Nothing). Too much shaking of the spear and the sharpest of knives, it seems, doth indeed lose its edge.

"Masturbation," Courtenay insists, "is a central image of imperialist practice in the early stages of capitalism, for it turns the oppressed other back onto his or her own body as commodity object to be poked or diddled without any initial public discourse about the cultural ramifications of the practice; it’s a reflex response to the onset of mass culture as a tool of oppression, forcing the prole to undergo autodetumescence and turn the rising energies of erectile revolt into a limp post-onanistic wad for the rulers to stomp on."

On the basis of this finely nuanced reading, Courtenay has some significant editorial emendations to suggest, particularly the opening of Othello’s final speech, which Courtenay reads as a last desperate prayer to the hero’s penis rather than as the traditional speech to the assembled ambassadors. With the insertion of question marks, Othello’s speech now becomes, "Soft you? A word or two before you go? . . ." The change helps to insist upon Othello’s alterity; he’s so savagely mocked by the assembly of oppressive white Venetians that he just cannot get it up one last time and must therefore kill himself in an impotent rage.

Courtenay offers an insightful comparison between this moment and Cardinal Wolsey’s "a long farewell to all my greatness," stressing that Wolsey’s greater power here stems from the fact that he is a white male and therefore by definition a sexist, oppressive, patriarchal, colonial egotist with nothing to curb his erotic aggressiveness. Such suggestions (and there are many of them) leave one wondering why no one has ever thought of Courtenay’s approach before.

Scholars will be debating this book for years. Already three conferences are in the works, and Courtenay’s classes have all been cancelled so that he can tour the continent and continue his writing. Asked what future texts he has planned, Courtenay gushed, "Well, I’m just dying to sink my teeth into Moby Dick."

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