Introductory note/disclaimer: all of the Shame in Shakespeare stuff was written without reference to any other sources (except Shakespeare, of course), and deliberately so. I will restate that this is a criticism of Fernie’s work, not his person; and apologise to my dear friend for having abused her most innocently given recommendation. It is important to me, and I do not do it lightly.
I haven’t forgotten Ewan Fernie. This weekend I finally finished Shame in Shakespeare. For a while there, it all went quite well. The book and I, we had a moment. We sat in the park together and it was lovely. We were starting to think about the future, and all the things we could apply this to. All such worldly victories are, of course, Pyrrhic.
At first, I thought it was amusing. Take the bit where Fernie dismisses the now classic interpretation of Gertrude and Hamlet’s relationship as oedipal: “It is true that Hamlet dwells uncomfortably on his mother’s sexual arrangements, but disgust in such matters is as obsessive as desire.” I am not being flippant when I describe this as amusing; he offers no substantiation for the statement, but what really makes me smile is the fact that obsessive disgust so often masks fascination and desire, and that Fernie seems to make the above statement unselfconsciously. Shortly after that he talks about Hamlet showing the right kind of shame, and I wonder again when he will explain what that means, and how it compares to the wrong kind of shame.
Yes, I admit that when the book, a propos of a critical description of shame as “penetrative”, describes Antony as “sodomized by shame” I giggled. But seriously, what is the point of using such an image? What does it do for my critical understanding of the text?
It wasn’t until I got to the conclusion, though, that you could start to see the smoke come out of my ears as Fernie relapses into his fun unfounded speculating. “Shamelessness is excellently natural: shame approaches the divine” is the last sentence of his text analysis. From the context, it is not clear to me that he draws this conclusion from the texts; but surely it is – ah, favoured critical adjective! – problematic in any Christian context, especially a Renaissance one, to say that nature and divinity are at odds?
On to the conclusion though. On shame after the Renaissance, following an overview of the literature and its mostly secular nature, he says this, somewhat out of the blue, though there is a cursory reference to queer studies (best field name ever, can I just say that?)
“And yet, recent history conspires to make it increasingly hard to turn aside from shameful truths. In the deforming and tragic face of AIDS it is difficult for at least gay male writers to deny shame and the bitter fragility of the self.”
This raises some of the same problems we have seen before. He fails to say why AIDS, more than any other disease, is shameful. He fails to explain why gay male authors should be more ashamed of AIDS than any of the millions of heterosexual suffers. If it is the disease that is shameful, then why AIDS, and not, say, cancer? But I think that the real source of shame here is supposed to be homosexuality. Why else ascribe a disease that in 2002 already affected more heterosexuals than homosexuals to gay men? Why else pick this disease over any other? Why not syphilis? TB? If that is what he was trying to say, I wish he had the gall to do it. Perhaps that will be my conclusion: if Ewan Fernie thinks that homosexuality, infidelity (Bill Clinton’s) and provocative/con artist art (Damien Hirst’s) is shameful, he should have the guts to stand up and say it, and bear the consequences. Instead he points, nods and winks, and wiggles his nose suggestively. This will not do. It will not do as scholarship, it will not do as ethical behaviour. I am ashamed – yes, us non-fundies do have shame – that this is a part of the discipline I devoted five perfectly good years to. I am ashamed that Routledge published it. And most of all, I am most crushingly ashamed that this is considered good work. It could have been so good; I think Fernie is absolutely right about the self-centredness of our society and the redemptive power of shame, of the mirror it holds up to us, and that makes it all the more excruciating.
I have more quotes and more points but I’m going to give it a rest. References available upon request. I invite whoever cares to disagree, and to prove me wrong. I hope that I am wrong. Think of me as Joe in In the Bleak Midwinter asking what the fucking point is.
This is where you say “Rachmaninoff”
If there is Rachmaninoff.
Here, without need for any comment or giggles from your host, are the last sentences of the book: “In spite of a desperate, delusive tendency to sustain the imprisoning idol of selfhood, we must let it explode from its own internal tensions and contradictions, and adventure beyond the self. The spiritual and political health of our species depends on it.”