Felperin, Howard. Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Thesis: "This is a book about the modernity of certain older poets and the way that modernity is realized in the work of one of them" (3). This is the opening sentence of Felperin's "Preface," and the beginning of a series of highly subtle arguments.

The "one of them" is, of course, Shakespeare, and Felperin first attacts literary critics who attempt to explain Shakespeare in terms of the history and culture of his own time, referring to such efforts as "archeological or conservative or pious criticism, with its basis in assumed cultural difference and its aspiration toward a nostalgic or antiquarian recovery of 'original' meaning" (5). Felperin believes that the present meaning of Shakespeare is as valid as the so-called "original" meaning.

On the other hand, Felperin also attacts the idea that Shakespeare is "modern" in the ordinary sense of the word:

Yet neither is Shakespeare's perennial modernity to be located in some unique or special affinity between this playwright or this or that of his plays and contemporary readers and theatergoers. Some congruence of this kind is usually what is being argued for or assumed when critics write of Shakespeare as "our contemporary" or of one or another of his plays as "in our time" — as if he were more our contemporary than some other audience's, or other plays of his were less of our time that this or that one. Such elective affinities and special relationships are usually based on alleged resemblances between the theme or mood of a given Shakespearean play and the themes and mood which are supposed to characterize modern, i.e., twentieth-century literature — the by now familiar complex of such informing ideas as absurdity, nihilism, alienation, Angst, and so on.   (5)
Felperin then asks, "In what, then, does this elusive but apparently ineluctable modernity of classic authors consist if it is not a matter of chronology or period?" (7). In answering his own question, Felperin first deals with the idea that mimesis ("holding the mirror up to nature," in Hamlet's words) is fundamentally opposed to modernity, "since modernist and post-modernist writing is often said nowadays to have taken leave, or to be in the process of taking leave, of mimesis as a bourgeois and atavistic fetish, in favor of a more purely intransitive or reflexive activity emptied of external reference" (7). However, says Felperin, the nature of mimesis has been misunderstood:
For mimesis, the illusion of reality traditionally ascribed to literature in general and epitomized in Shakespeare's plays, arises not from the direct imitation of "nature" or "life" or "experience" but, as I try to show, from the re-presentation, with a difference, of inherited models or constructs of "nature," "life," and "experience." For the notion of "re-presentation," as something distinct from a presentation on the one hand and from a copy on the other, depends, like the notion of modernity, on the idea of difference . . . . It designates precisely that impulse within the greatest literature of every age to depart from all such prior reconstructions of experience, to leave behind its own literary and conventional mediations . . . . The most truly modern work would thus, in theory, also and simultaneously be the most truly mimetic, since both modernity and mimesis seek ultimately break through or away from the mediations of art and become spontaneous and unprecedented "life." It is in this sense that Shakespearean tragedy can fairly be called "modern" and "mimetic" without contradiction, at least as modern and mimetic as literature has ever succeeded in becoming.   (8)
Applying his general theory to Macbeth, Felperin makes many comparisons of Macbeth to medieval plays, especially what he calls "tyrant plays," in which Herod responds to the prophecies of the advent of the Messiah with the "self-defeating course of attempting to defy the prophecies through promiscuous slaughter" (124). In general, Felperin's point is that the medieval plays were models which Shakespeare both used and transcended. The medieval plays provided patterns of human behavior which are followed by the minor characters in Macbeth, but which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can only try to follow, thus emphasizing their more fully developed humanity. For instance, King Duncan conforms exactly to the image of the saintly king, but, "Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both have to strain very hard to play out their respective roles, and neither is completely successful in doing so. Lady Macbeth cannot fully become the fiend she tries to be, and Macbeth cannot fully become the strutting and fretting Herod he thinks he is" (131). Thus Shakespeare's play is "modern" because it both recreates and breaks the mold of an older dramatic tradition.

Evaluation: Felperin's general point is indisputable, and that's a weakness. It has long been generally recognized that one of Shakespeare's great accomplishments was to make the flat characters that he found in his sources into the round characters he gives us in his plays. And long before Felperin wrote his convoluted arguments, it was generally recognized that Shakespeare was perennially modern.

Bottom Line: Overly subtle.