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Historic perversions: Shakespeare the Sicilian

By Domenico Pacitti

I segni latenti: Scrittura come virtualità scenica in King Lear [Latent Signs: Writing as Scenic Virtuality in King Lear] by Paola Gullì Pugliatti. Published in 1976 by G. D'Anna, Messina & Florence, Italy, 280 pages.

Shakespeare the Historian by Paola Gullì Pugliatti. Published in 1996 by St. Martin's Press, New York, USA, $39.95, 265 pages, ISBN 0 312 12840 1.

Each of Paola Pugliatti’s two books on Shakespeare is set within a semiotic framework, the first more firmly than the second. Together they provide Italian students of English literature with two excellent alternative ways of perverting Shakespeare. Divided by a span of twenty years, they also help illustrate Mrs Pugliatti’s own intellectual development, or regression, over the same period.

The first of Mrs Pugliatti’s books is, as the title indicates, concerned with latent signs. Before proceeding any further, we should first point out to our non-Italian readers that Italians’ constant preoccupation with latent signs and the concomitant shady, underhand aspects of everyday life in Italy is an unfortunate national ailment. Particularly marked in Sicily – perhaps significantly Mrs Pugliatti’s place of origin (she is the daughter of a former rector of the University of Messina) – the phenomenon is known as dietrologia.

However, while it no doubt pays to occupy oneself with such extra-theatrical Machiavellian plots and sub-plots in Italy and especially within Italian academia, elsewhere and in more “normal” countries the search for such ulterior or latent motives in a person’s words or actions is usually quite unwarranted. Fairly predictably, the ulterior motives generally turn out to be nonexistent while the insistent searches prove to be simply obsessive and even neurotic. All of which perhaps rather explains the enormous success of semiotics in Italy despite its considerable theoretical shortcomings.

Readers should know that semiotics is basically concerned with the nature and role of signs and with the hypothetical laws governing such signs and that the subject is seen by its supporters as deriving from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the US logician C.S. Peirce (1839-1914) and the US philosopher Charles Morris (1901-1979). Semiotic theory was more recently developed in France by Roland Barthes before being imported to Italy by Umberto Eco.

Within this framework Mrs Pugliatti takes it upon herself to act as a sort of interpreter for Shakespeare – the bard being evidently unable to communicate directly – by decodifying the disabled master’s words for the benefit of those readers and spectators who do not possess the same abilities of decodification as Mrs Pugliatti.

The book thus falls squarely into the sausage factory category, which is popular among academics who have nothing substantive to say but who for some reason require to amass pseudo-scientific publications. The idea is as follows: take a semiotic framework, feed in the mincemeat or ill-fated text, in this case King Lear, and boast credit for the sausages that are automatically produced.

Mrs Pugliatti’s wild goose chase begins with her construal of latent signs as what she terms “scenic virtuality”. She defines this dubious undertaking “semiotic analysis”. The text of King Lear that has been handed down to us is, according to Mrs Pugliatti, defective in that it is “merely verbal”.

In due course Mrs Pugliatti makes the momentous discovery that this play and others exist both as written texts and as theatrical performances. Words, says Mrs Pugliatti, may be written or spoken and the theatre may be used for the purposes of persuasion. Semiotics, Mrs Pugliatti concludes, reveals much deception and simulation in Shakespeare.

In the course of her decodifications, Mrs Pugliatti refers several times to a certain Mr Alessandro Serpieri, a professore of English literature at the University of Florence. Mr Serpieri, who at the time seemed to fulfil the role of a sort of mentor to Mrs Pugliatti, had himself previously subjected Shakespeare to similar semiotic mutilation. In fact, his 1973 book on “deep structures” in T.S. Eliot perhaps marks the start of the Italian wild goose chase for “deep structures” in the wake of Noam Chomsky.

Unfortunately this and other runaway trains on a hiding to nothing had crucially misconstrued Chomsky’s “deep structure”, failing to understand that the term was a technical one in context and therefore irrelevant to Mrs Pugliatti and the Italian bandwagon. Such irresponsible Italian wild goose chases were correctly noted and denounced by Umberto Eco in his 1991 The Limits of Interpretation, the title being fairly self-explanatory.

The second of Mrs Pugliatti’s two publications is less semiotically dictated than the first but shares the same grotesque, baroque-style language    the tell-tale customary Italian academic camouflage for unclear thinking and lack of substantive points.

Mrs Pugliatti’s unabashed thesis here is that Shakespeare was in his historical plays rewriting history, lo and behold precisely along the same sort of leftwing progressive lines that Mrs Pugliatti herself happens to advocate.

Support for her hypothesis comes in the form of a number of erroneous factual assumptions presented without adequate support or grounding. Mrs Pugliatti’s indigestible and undigested flood of confused writing also reveals her acutely inadequate knowledge of the relevant contemporary scholarship.

Mrs Pugliatti adduces Shakespeare’s perspectival method of presentation as the key to understanding his subversive history-writing tendencies. But this argument is easily seen to be fallacious since the perspectival method might just as easily have been employed to demonstrate the very opposite. Moreover, large slices of material that Mrs Pugliatti seems to want to present as original actually appear rather familiar.

Although there are points where Mrs Pugliatti seems to revert to semiotics as a sort of safety net, the general direction appears to be away from semiotics. Unfortunately this process occurs in inverse proportion to Mrs Pugliatti’s intellectual development and maturity. For the distinct impression is that Mrs Pugliatti foists her own subversive and progressive tendencies upon Shakespeare, thereby revealing her regression to a state of adolescent narcissism.

It is not clear whether this means that we should now reconstrue Shakespeare as having been subversive in a Sicilian manner and, if so, whether this would have made him pro- or anti-Mafia. That would presumably depend on whether one viewed the Sicilian Mafia as (latently or overtly) subversive of state authority or as the island's status quo.

The best medicine for Mrs Pugliatti is perhaps that prescribed by D.H. Lawrence, a man who, like Shakespeare but unlike Mrs Pugliatti, both had something worthwhile to say and knew how to say it:

“Literary criticism can be no more than a reasoned account of the feeling produced upon the critic by the book he is criticising. Criticism can never be a science: it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotions, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudo-scientific classifying and analysing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon.

A critic must be able to feel the impact of a work of art in all its complexity and force. To do so, he must be a man of force and complexity himself, which few critics are. A man with a paltry, impudent nature will never write anything but paltry, impudent criticism. And a man who is emotionally educated is rare as a phoenix. The more scholastically educated a man is generally, the more he is an emotional boor.” [From Reading and Response by Domenico Pacitti, ETS, Pisa, 1986.]

A celebrated champion of female equality, Lawrence would no doubt have been happy to see his comments applied equally well to women, including Sicilian women and Mrs Pugliatti.

Paola Pugliatti currently holds a senior post in English literature at the University of Florence's faculty of letters.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on August 16 2004.