Oxford University Press advertises its Past Master series (of which this book is one) as being “a noble encyclopaedia of the history of ideas” in which “lucid and authoritative” modern critics introduce us to the best of what has been thought and written. Oxford seems to have dropped a brick on this one. Lucid? Here are some passages which may help the reader decide:

The public duty of the playwright was to bring the caviare of his angelic intellectual exercise within the grasp of those savage hordes. . . .

The godlike power of the creators of illusory worlds, the irresistible tendency of man to debauchery rather than improvement, the blindness and self-indulgence of intellectuals, has cropped out, as the defrocked hierophant begs our intercession to save his soul.

The language ranges from Victorian prissy to the imitation of—i.e., “the unsynthesized manifold of everyday life”—a kind of Minimalism.

Authoritative? When Greer talks about Desiderius Erasmus, she identifies him as one of the “schoolmen” and explains that they were philosophical antagonists of Shakespeare. The greatest “schoolmen” had been safely dead for more than a century before Erasmus’ birth. And by no stretch of the imagination was Erasmus a medieval. When she analyzes the winter song in Love’s Labours Lost

When all aloud the wind doth blow.

And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,

And birds sit brooding in the snow,

And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl.

Then nightly sings the staring owl,


Tu-who, a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot—

—she jams it into a theory about Elizabethan marriage, converting both Marion and Joan from farm-girls into housewives for whom (there is zero about this in the text) “love has to ripen into friendship and tolerance.” I note that standard Shakespearean practice is to identify scullions like Joan only by their first name. “Greasy Joan” is all of this character that there is in the play: She exists only in this line. But, for some reason, Greer needed a housewife and an argument that marriage requires mutual toleration.

When she attacks Old Capulet for being married to a woman too young for him, she says that “he has not danced since before his wife was born.” In fact, Capulet says to his cousin (Act I, Scene V) that he has not worn a “mask” for some 20 years—which is to say that he has not disguised himself in order to chase women. All he says about “dancing” is that he is now past the right age for it. But, again, it is important for Greer to insist that he is criminally older than the woman he married, and she even does some fancy arithmetic which the text disproves.

Here is Greer’s opinion of Iago:

Iago is still serviceable to us, as an objective correlative of the mindless inventiveness of racist aggression. Iago is still alive and kicking and filling migrants’ letterboxes with excrement.

There are some problems here—not least of which is Greer’s preceding remark that “it is futile” to pursue the issue of Iago’s motivation. As for the passage itself, that is simply critical bad faith. Greer would like to find a passage in Shakespeare that confirms her opinion on racism. So she invents a playwright who has foreseen Teddy Boys and Rockers. But that word “still”—is that what she thinks Iago has been doing in Othello?

So far as Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest are concerned, both are hidden commentaries on things that Greer dislikes. They are models of a “sick society.” Prospero, for example, is a monster of capitalism who condemns Caliban “to brutish toil and keeps him at it by torturing him with cramps, side-stitches, and bone-aches, in much the same way that those who enslaved the Brazilian Indians forced them to work every day without pay by the use of the bludgeon.” I don’t get this: Can one give cramps and stitches? Is Shakespeare anti-Portuguese? What is the point of all this? Possibly, that Caliban is “really” a version of the “labouring poor” of London with whom Shakespeare sympathized. But if that were true, why didn’t he say so? Isn’t Greer remotely aware that the great divines of 1610 had no fear whatsoever of accusing monarchy and aristocracy of neglecting the poor? That no allegories were needed by anyone for a subject weekly exposed in sermons, homilies, and religious warnings? But it is necessary for her to believe in Shakespeare as a secret hater of Western culture—a modern who, like Mark Twain, was stuck among the medievals and who finally, in a code until now secret, has communicated with her.

This comes very close to crank literature. One has to say that the facts of this book give us no confidence in its ideas.


[Shakespeare, by Germaine Greer (New York: Oxford University Press) $13.95]