Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-state

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Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1995 - Literary Criticism - 291 pages
Anxious Pleasures argues for both a historical way of understanding the unconscious and for exploring how the unconscious is constructed as a threatening underside, or "other," of any discursive order. It arose from author Jonathan Hall's dissatisfaction with the separation of psychoanalytical and historical approaches to literature, as well as from a fascination with the continuing capacity of major Renaissance writers to produce both disturbance and pleasure. It also arose from the author's experience of teaching a multicultural history of comic drama to largely non-Western graduate students. Their probing questions make them the coauthors of this book.
Taking its point of departure from Freud's theorization of the joke, Hall argues that laughter marks the moment when the subject's own commitments to rationality or any other order are dangerously exposed, even though this risk is immediately covered up to avoid the anxiety which full recognition of that exposure would entail. The book's opening chapter argues that the pleasure offered by comic discourse as a channel of libidinal release or de-repression is always doubled by the unconscious anxiety, or desire for restored order, which the comic discourse also constructs as its condition of possibility. The chapter later goes on to relate the forms of inwardly divided subjectivity required by the emergent nation-state to the strategies of Shakespearean comedy. The liberating, expansionist, and anarchic desacralization (or Deleuzian "decoding") of previously stable and authoritative discourse through a play with its signifiers, a desacralization that reveals both the arbitrariness and manipulative power of both verbal and visual signs, is characteristic of early capitalist expansion. And certainly Shakespearean wit, coupled with the psychic mobility of character, contributes greatly to this revolution in language.
The main body of the work offers closer and more concrete readings of the comedies in the light of this historical focus upon the production of an inherently schizoid discourse. The first section, which deals with the merchant plays, explores the relationship of mercantile "adventuring" desire to the state's need for both abstract law and territoriality and personal rule. The following sections deal with such themes as the relationship of wit to political and sexual anxiety, the connection of the mobility of signs to an elusive interiority of the subject, and the paradoxically threatening and redemptive mobility of women in relationship to patriarchal control. The final chapter argues that the psychic divisions set up by Shakespearean comedy are continually reproduced in the modern nation-state - a fact that largely accounts for their continuing playability and the psychic "truths" that both construct and address them.

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