Review of The Stranger in Shakespeare

by Leslie A. Fiedler. London, Croom Helm, 1973.

British Journal of Psychiatry, 124, 1974, p. 312.


   We English cannot guess all that we owe to our national Bard. Heavy doses of Shakespeare have been inflicted on English graduates in our universities for many generations; and schoolteachers in their turn have indoctrinated their tender charges with Shakespearean history, psychology and ethics. Even now we are only beginning to escape from a co­ordinated system of ideas which has been a strong foundation for our isolationism, our puritanism, our one‑time anti‑semitism and our continuing anti­feminism, and our pruderies 'with their mirror reflections in bawdy schoolboy puns.

   Shakespeare had a fascination and a horror for the stranger, who appears in his plays again and again as an archetypal figure of demonic power. Lady Macbeth was a real witch; Joan of Arc virgin, witch and whore. Joan was guilty of what was for Shakes­peare the ultimate treason, betrayal of a father: 'Dost thou deny thy father, cursed drab? / Oh, burn her, burn her! Hanging is too good.' In nearly all the plays daughters betray their fathers, even the best of them such as Cordelia, Desdemona, Juliet. Shakespeare, struggling against his own female part, would spit it out if he could. In Cymbeline, Posthumus exlaims:

   Is there no way for men to be, but women
   Must be half workers?...
                                     Could I find out
   The woman's part in me! For there's no motion
   That tends to vice in man but I affirm
   It is the woman's part. Be it lying, note it
   The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;
   Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers.

As adumbrated in the Sonnets, the true nobility of love is shown only between man and man, most nobly in the reciprocal faithfulness of father and son. The love between man and woman is always flawed; and to disguise the taste of it and make it palatable Shakespeare has his boy actors playing the parts of girls who play at being boys.

   Equal fear, fascination and hostility are provoked by other strangers, the Moor, the Jew. Bit by bit over the centuries Shylock has been transformed from a monster to a sympathetic victim, and indeed with half his ambivalent soul Shakespeare recognized his common humanity. But Shakespeare also felt his presence as the archetypical ogre, who lusts for human flesh; and Professor Fiedler picks out the cannibalistic metaphors that reveal him.

   Professor Fiedler pursues his quarry, this frightened beast in Shakespeare's unconscious, in a fox‑hunt that takes him over wild country in checks and starts and gallops. Hares, rabbits and even field‑mice start up at every turn to divert us to new insights. This is no orderly disquisition, but something more like a brilliant after‑dinner conversation; the fresh ideas springing up on every page are often scarcely brushed before, the point made, the chase goes on again. Anyone who loves Shakespeare, or is horrified by him, should read this book.