Literary and Critical Theory Catherine Belsey
Pamela McCallum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0082


Catherine Belsey (b. 13 December 1940) is a British scholar distinguished in the areas of literary and cultural theory, Shakespeare studies, early modern studies, and feminism. Educated at the Universities of Oxford, Somerville College (BA), and Warwick (MA, PhD), she taught at the University of Cambridge (New Hall). Moving to University College Cardiff as a Lecturer in English in 1975, she was appointed Professor of English in 1989 and Distinguished Research Professor in 2002, a position she held until 2006. A Research Professor at Swansea University from 2006 to her retirement in 2014, Belsey holds an appointment as Visiting Professor at University of Derby (2014–2020). She is a Fellow of the English Association (2001) and a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales (2013). Together with Terence Hawkes, Stephen Heath, Terry Eagleton, and others, Belsey became an important voice in the burgeoning interest in French theories in the late 1970s. Her books deploy French structuralist and post-structuralist theories to open up possibilities for innovative analyses of literary and cultural texts. Her achievement lies in producing a body of literary and cultural criticism that acknowledges its rootedness in a present moment and deploys theoretical insights to achieve nuanced readings of texts from earlier historical periods—research that connects her with the British cultural materialist criticism of scholars such as Alan Sinfield, Louis Montrose, and Jonathan Dollimore. For Belsey, “text” has a very broad meaning: art, sculpture, architecture, film, novels, drama, poetry, and other writings can all be read as cultural texts. In these assumptions, Belsey draws on the earlier writings of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, who both questioned an elitist division of high/low culture and extended the meaning of culture to include a whole way of life. The breadth of references in her books is unquestionably impressive: medieval theology, eighteenth-century country house architecture, funerary sculpture, carvings on household furniture, Renaissance paintings, detective novels, contemporary action films, and even cartoons make appearances in her analyses. All of these, and more, offer perceptions into how cultures order themselves into what they assume to be dominant modes and also into to what they understand to be resistant. Her books on Shakespeare, Milton, tragedy, and desire all explore how cultural texts negotiate these pressures, tensions, and anxieties. Feminism and gender figure as important questions throughout her research. Belsey’s commitment to pedagogy and learning is evident in several introductory books accessible to nonspecialists.

General Overviews

There are no book-length studies of Belsey’s writings. She provides an excellent starting point in the introductory chapter of Shakespeare in Theory and Practice (cited under Single-Author Studies: William Shakespeare), where she discusses the influence of French theories on her writings. In an interview conducted with Neil Badmington twenty-five years after the publication of Critical Practice (under Theory and Critical Practice), she reflects on the development of her criticism from her pathbreaking first book (see Badmington 2005, under Selected Interviews). The American early modern scholar Jean E. Howard has written an articulate account of Belsey’s writings up to 2013 (see Howard 2013, under Critical Readings: Articles and Chapters). The journal Textual Practice published an issue devoted to Belsey’s writings in 2010, providing specialist discussions of her work (see Critical Readings: Journal Special Issue).

  • Belsey, Catherine. “Introduction: Practising With Theory.” In Shakespeare in Theory and Practice. By Catherine Belsey, 1–14. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748633012.001.0001

    This essay offers a wide-ranging discussion of the cultural moment in the late 1970s when French theories began to be adopted into British literary and cultural criticism. Belsey also examines her use of psychoanalysis (Freud and Lacan), the reading strategies of Barthes, and the ways in which her critical practice differs from American New Historicism. A very useful introduction.

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