Leonard Barkan. Reading Shakespeare Reading Me. New York: Fordham University Press, 2022. 256 pp.
Review by Claire McEachern
Enthusiastic readers know what it feels like to have an author speaking directly to oneself, as if a text was written specifically for them. Reading Shakespeare Reading Me is a bibliomemoir and personal intellectual bildungsgroman in which Leonard Barkan explores a number of Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of his own personal history and academic preoccupations, and vice versa. This is not a traditional piece of critical analysis; there are no footnotes, and the bibliography, such as it is, consists of a number of books that Barkan has found inspirational. Many of the puzzles Barkan seeks to illuminate through the accounts of his own experience are longstanding and familiar ones: what lies behind Cordelia’s “nothing”; the opacity of Gertrude’s character (and Shakespeare’s mothers in general); the source of Antonio’s sadness in Merchant of Venice, for instance. Woven into his accounts of eleven plays and the Sonnets are biographical excursions into his own upbringing and family history as a child of immigrants bent on assimilation and aspiration.
The mixture is oddly mesmerizing, especially if one has one’s own secret affinities for correspondences with Shakespeare (and who doesn’t?). Barkan writes well, in an essayistic fashion, both about Shakespeare and his own family romance. His account of King Lear, for instance, explores the puzzle of Cordelia’s explosive response to Lear’s request in the dowry contest in light of his own experience as a favored youngest child in a complicated family: “this is the moment when Cordelia is being expected to repay everything she received, material and immaterial, throughout a lifetime of receiving preferential love. Such a repayment is impossible. The only answer when you’re asked for infinity is to respond with zero” (p. 19).
Barkan is fully aware of the heresy in reading through one’s own biography even as his example insists we all do so; this is nothing if not a self-conscious work. Some of his correspondences are more strained than others: his sense of the centrality of the changeling child to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“he is in point of fact the dreamer who has dreamed the midsummer night’s dream. . . . Everything orbits around him.”) feels a bit overwrought by being indebted to his own sense of himself as such (“I had a mother who was somehow separate from me just when our relation ought to have been most absolute”) (pp. 49, 46). The sixth chapter on Richard II and Ru Paul’s Drag Race with which he concludes is the weakest; chapter five, titled “Queer,” in which he explores the sexual politics of the sonnets, Merchant, and Twelfth Night is, to my mind, the strongest. Though the pleasure and payoff of his accounts of the plays lie in their familiarity, he is an exquisitely sensitive reader both of them and his own biography.