Literary and Critical Theory Jonathan Dollimore
by
Christopher Marlow
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0089

Introduction

Jonathan Dollimore (b. 1948) is a writer and academic whose work on early modern literature, desire, and sexuality has been of preeminent importance to English studies for the last forty years. He is best known as the author of Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries and Sexual Dissidence, as the co-editor of and key contributor to Political Shakespeare, and as the co-originator, with Alan Sinfield, of the critical practice known as cultural materialism. Taken together these interventions revolutionized literary studies by combining a dedication to close textual analysis with an examination of the social and political contexts within which texts are produced and received, a deployment of theory and philosophy and, most controversially, an explicit commitment to progressive political causes. Each of the latter three aspects of this methodology met with considerable objections because they challenged idealist notions of literature as timeless, apolitical, and offering privileged access to an unchanging human nature. Alongside New Historicism, Dollimore and Sinfield’s cultural materialism has been instrumental in introducing an interdisciplinary approach to the study of English literature, so much so that it is now routine for critics and students to consider historical documents, theory, and popular culture alongside canonical literary texts. It is, however, less common to see the political and philosophical elements of Dollimore’s method being pursued systematically, a tendency that he has lamented. Dollimore has always advocated that politics and theory should be backed up with action; to this end, in the same year as the publication of Sexual Dissidence (1991), he co-founded with Sinfield the Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex, a hub for research and teaching on sexuality and queer studies. The first of its kind in the United Kingdom, the controversial center did significant work to establish the discipline of queer studies/queer theory in the United Kingdom. Dollimore’s work has always been concerned with locating marginal groups within hegemonic cultures, be they gays, lesbians or bisexuals, crossdressers, sex workers, or “perverts,” and with showing how dissident ideas and practices persist alongside dominant ideologies and can even be co-opted by them. He has repeatedly argued against “wishful” uses of theory, and advocates a sustained engagement with intellectual history as a vital corrective to this tendency, an approach that he has practiced throughout his career.

General Overviews

There is no single overview of Dollimore’s work; however, cultural materialism itself has generated a great deal of commentary, much of it designed to explain and contextualize the approach. The account given in Dollimore and Sinfield 1994 (originally published in 1985) must be the starting point, and it is instructive to follow this with the broadly contemporary reaction of Montrose 1989, which shows the subject of English grappling with the advent of theory in general and cultural materialism and New Historicism in particular. New Historicism shares cultural materialism’s interest in history, theory, and close reading, but tends to be less politically radical than its counterpart in its emphasis on the containment of subversion. However, as Parvini 2012 points out, the New Historicist commitment to containment has sometimes been overstated, especially with reference to later work. Brannigan 1998 and Hawthorn 1996 also treat cultural materialism alongside New Historicism, and provide case studies that usefully show the two approaches at work on texts by Victorian and modernist writers. Marlow 2017 is concerned with clarifying key cultural materialist positions and charting their impact on Shakespeare, while Dollimore 1990 offers an overview of the state of the field at the time, and a defense of his approach. Drakakis 2001 locates cultural materialism within the intellectual contexts of the latter half of the 20th century and offers a good account of its own theoretical positions, while Milner 1993 discusses the influence of Raymond Williams, the critic who coined the phrase cultural materialism and whose work on Marxism, culture, and intellectual history informed several of Dollimore’s own critical positions. Soper 1986 is the best explanation of humanism and anti-humanism, two concepts that are fundamental to understanding cultural materialism properly.

  • Brannigan, John. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. London: Palgrave, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-26622-7E-mail Citation »

    Although cultural materialism is given rather less attention than its counterpart, this is an engaging and detailed introduction to the two approaches. A section on “Applications and Readings” offers a useful cultural materialist interpretation of Tennyson’s poetry.

  • Dollimore, Jonathan. “Critical Developments: Cultural Materialism, Feminism and Gender Critique, and New Historicism.” In Shakespeare: A Bibliographical Guide. New ed. Edited by Stanley Wells, 405–428. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a helpful article that works as an introduction to some of the key issues in cultural materialism and its allied critical approaches, while also suggesting a range of useful further reading. Some elements of the essay reappear and are embellished in the introduction to the second edition of Dollimore 2010 (cited under Books), but this is nevertheless a usefully concise primer.

  • Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield. “Foreword to the First Edition: Cultural Materialism.” In Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, vii-viii. 2d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994.

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    This brief definition of precisely what Dollimore and Sinfield mean by the phrase “cultural materialism” makes for essential reading. In addition, the authors set out the four qualities they believe to be fundamental elements of a cultural materialist reading, and register their commitment to emancipatory political causes.

  • Drakakis, John. “Cultural Materialism.” In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 9, Twentieth Century Historical, Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Edited by Christa Knellwolf and Christopher Norris, 43–58. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Summarizing the development of cultural materialism from its roots in Raymond Williams’s 1960s work up to the first edition of Dollimore’s Sexual Dissidence in the 1990s, this is probably the best essay-length overview of the approach available. Drakakis devotes several pages to the role of subjectivity in Dollimore’s work.

  • Hawthorn, Jeremy. Cunning Passages: New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and Marxism in the Contemporary Debate. London: Arnold, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    A clear yet polemical defense of the historicist, and especially cultural materialist, approach against formalist challenges (see Brooks 1951). Like Brannigan 1998, Hawthorn includes case studies that apply the theoretical positions set out in the first part of the book to texts by canonical writers, here including Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James.

  • Marlow, Christopher. Shakespeare and Cultural Materialist Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781472572974E-mail Citation »

    Charts the inception and development of the cultural materialist method with particular reference to Shakespeare studies. The first four chapters show how cultural materialism relates to formalism, New Historicism, humanism, and contemporary politics. The fifth and final chapter offers an extended cultural materialist reading of Julius Caesar.

  • Milner, Andrew. Cultural Materialism. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1993.

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    This short book, written from an Australian perspective, focuses on Raymond Williams’s version of cultural materialism. Milner shows the importance of Williams’s centrality to cultural studies, media studies, and literary studies, although Dollimore’s work gets little attention. Perhaps most useful as an account of the debates within the intellectual left that prefigured Dollimore and Sinfield’s intervention in the 1980s.

  • Montrose, Louis Adrian. “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture.” In The New Historicism. Edited by H. Aram Veeser, 15–36. New York and London: Routledge, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this dispatch written from the front lines, so to speak, of the “crisis in literary studies” precipitated by the rise of theory, Montrose locates cultural materialism and New Historicism within their respective national and institutional contexts. This is a record, from a US perspective, of what it was like to be part of the transformation of early modern studies, colored by passages of disarming self-reflection.

  • Parvini, Neema. Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory: New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781472555113E-mail Citation »

    A user-friendly but often polemical, and sometimes flawed, overview of the two approaches and the critical and theoretical pathways that led up to them. Cultural materialism itself is dealt with in one brief chapter that Dollimore 2013c (cited under Reflections and New Directions) and Marlow 2017 argue misrepresents the approach’s position on agency and humanism.

  • Soper, Kate. Humanism and Anti-Humanism. London: Hutchinson, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is an indispensable guide for anyone wishing to understand the complex currents of thought surrounding these topics. The role of humanism and anti-humanism in cultural materialism has often been controversial (see Marlow 2017).

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