"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Was Shakespeare Liberal Or Conservative?

Apparently some people care about Shakespeare’s political persuasion, writes Daniel Hannan in The Guardian (4.20.13), and both sides of the British aisle claim Shakespeare as their own.  Both Catholics and Protestants see him as one of theirs, as well as materialists, individualists, existentialists, and all shades of moral philosophers.  It is not surprising that there are so many conflicting claims to Shakespeare because there is indeed something for everyone in his 37 plays and Sonnets. I, for example, see no politics at all, but an enduring, persistent, and consistent view that it is human nature – self-serving, protective, acquisitive, and aggressive – which drives political, social, and personal events.  Shakespeare is neither optimist nor pessimist in my view, but a very objective observer of the repetitive course of history and the similarly predictable outcomes of marital, family, and social dramas. 

Despite his love poems and the pas de deux of his Comedies, Shakespeare is no romantic, and takes the same dispassionate, removed view of human relationships as he does of history.  Men and women are always in competition and find endlessly amusing ways to do battle.  One always wonders after the comedies end whether or not Rosalind, Olivia, and Beatrice will stay married to their overmatched mates. Love will not prevail, and despite the lovely poetry, it was never Shakespeare’s motive for writing.  Love was a gauntlet, a challenge, and marital relations were no more than microcosms of the larger skirmishes and battles fought between nations.

I find Shakespeare very Machiavellian – a proto-Nietzschean who admired Marlowe and Tamburlaine and who created wonderfully evil villains all disposed of will joyously celebrated. Aaron the Moor, Edmund, and Iago are perhaps the most famous, but most of the most fascinating and entertaining characters in Shakespeare’s plays are villainous or evil.  Macbeth may have had his sights on the throne and whose actions might be compared to any of the kings in Shakespeare’s Histories; but he still had an evil streak and wantonly killed everyone in his way. 

Most of Shakespeare’s heroines are willful, determined women, and some of them most definitely fall in the evil category (Dionyza who wanted her ward, the daughter of Pericles to be murdered simply because she was a superior rival to her own daughter; Tamora, the Amazon queen who egged her sons to rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter for revenge; and Goneril and Regan who stopped at nothing to destroy their father and take all his wealth).  Many more female characters were simply strong women, like Margaret, the wife of Henry VI who goes to battle against the French because her pious and weak husband will not; or like Constance, the mother of Arthur who fights for his rights to the throne she feels that King John has usurped; or Joan of Arc; or the most famous of all, Cleopatra.

So I, like most readers of Shakespeare, have come to my own conclusions about his work; but I know that what I see as a celebration of personal will has been dismissed by Deconstructionists, according to whom individuals do not exist, for they are mere textual elements which only take on character if seen through the lens of gender, race, and ethnicity.  Hamlet, Lear, and Henry V were not Great Men, they were simply products of history and pre-conditioned by it.  Nietzsche was a 19th Century Romantic, nothing more, and only Twentieth Century historicist analysis can possibly derive any ‘truth’ out of Shakespeare or any other artist.  There is no such thing as human nature, these Postmodernists argue.  Nurture is everything.  The environment, that collection of  random and so-called purposeful events called history, is the only knowable human reality.

Feminists would look at the indomitable will of Richard III or Henry VIII not as something to celebrate but as an expression of male domination, an oppressive sexist society, and one which there are only struggles of class.  Women are heroic not because of unique traits of courage, indomitability, and strength; but because they battled the male enemy.

Historical literalists see the works of Shakespeare as uniquely Elizabethan works, and read his plays as thinly veiled homages to the Queen and the Tudors, Machiavelli, Marlowe, and Copernicus.  They parse Shakespeare’s life for clues to decipher the plays and hope to create the definitive critical template for approaching his work.

There are the traditional historians who like to quibble with Shakespeare’s Histories. The battles of Agincourt and Actium (Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra) never happened that way, they say.  The historical Julius Caesar did not in the least resemble the uxorious and monomaniacal figure in the play. Shakespeare, these traditionalists argue, took intolerable liberties not only with Richard III (written to please Elizabeth) but all Histories.

Not only is there something for everyone in Shakespeare, but there is so much of everything.  If one were to take his language alone, Shakespeare would have to be considered the greatest writer in English of all time.  His use of metaphor is unmatched, line after line of subtle allusions drawn from nature, classical literature, history, and science; each a commentary on human values, desires, or passions; and all written with an elegance of style, humor, and reflectiveness.  Not only are the great Tragedies filled with sublime poetry, but the Histories as well.  All of Shakespeare’s kings – even the most craven and the weakest like John and Henry VI have their moments, some of which rival the insights of Richard II.

While there are certain familiar, recurrent themes in the plays, they are all different.  Even within the categories of Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, and Romances there may be familiar, but always distinct characters.  Beatrice, Portia, and Rosalind all share their dismissiveness of men’s weaknesses – Beatrice’s sparring with Benedick shows her quick, jousting wit, humor, and vitality.  Portia is catty and hilariously cruel as she pillories one suitor after another for their looks, presumptuousness, or arrogance. Rosalind levels with Orlando about men’s silliness and romantic illusions and plays with him like a toy.

Shakespeare’s clowns and fools are staples of many of his plays, but they are all different.  There are the intellectual fools like Touchstone, Feste, and Lear’s Fool and low-class clowns like Trinculo, Launcelot Gobbo, and Dogberry.  There are buffoons like Sir Toby, Andrew, and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the crew at the Boar’s Head Tavern to keep Falstaff company, any number of witty, complicit attendants of Cleopatra like Alexas, Mardian, and Charmian; smart servants like Desdemona’s Emilia or the wicked Maria in Twelfth Night.

There are plays about kingship; and about a theme often overlooked – governance.  There are many ‘Governance’ plays in which Shakespeare presents various ethical and legal dilemmas such as the conflict between justice and mercy (Measure for Measure), the social value of legal contracts (Merchant of Venice), the nature of righteous rule and the demands of the people (Coriolanus), honor and virtue vs. practicality and reason (Troilus and Cressida), pre-crime, or the obligation to neutralize a potential wrongdoer before he commits a crime (Julius Caesar).

Throughout the plays there are disquisitions on nature (The Tempest, As You Like It, Cymbeline. King Lear) as harsh, unforgiving, or benignly pastoral; extended metaphors of the sea (shipwrecks, storms, castaways); reflections on coincidence and luck (Twelfth Night, Pericles); gender-bending cross-dressing and sexual innuendo; insights into the nature of jealousy (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, Othello), and even one and only one about pure, true love, Romeo and Juliet.

Most of us, Goethe-like, are drawn to the plays for different reasons at different stages in our lives. And we find, each time, that they illuminate our experience more than our experience illuminates them. How Shakespeare was possible, I still don't know. But there isn't a day I'm not glad that he speaks to me in my own language.

As T.S. Eliot himself put it, the most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.

I was an English major in college and read the complete works of Shakespeare.  I was bored, impatient with deciphering metaphors and Elizabethan language, dismissive of the silly Comedies, and bored with the drone of English history.  Only forty years later after decades of travelling, reading exhaustive studies of political philosophy and history, and endless unanswered queries about society and culture did I turn to Shakespeare.  Perhaps he, I thought, might have insights about why people do what they do. 

I started my re-reading of Shakespeare with the Histories – a difficult place to start because in addition to his metaphorical language and verse, there is the context of history to deal with.  One can in theory read the Henriad and Henry VI  simply as plays, but it helps to understand the complex lineages of the Houses of York and Lancaster, the War of the Roses, and the rise of the Tudors. Now, however, I was ready to enter this world of palace intrigues and coups; pretenders and defenders; she-bears and vixens ambitious for their children; international alliances and Papal politics.  The more I read, the more I understood history – not the details of history, but the dynamics of it.  As the critic Jan Kott wrote, if you laid all of Shakespeare’s Histories from end to end, you would find the same themes, actions, dramas, and events replayed with regularity and predictability.  There was a Grand Mechanism at work, an internal engine in human history fueled by human nature which made it all so familiar.

From there I went to the Tragedies, the Comedies, the Romances, and now finally the Sonnets. 

Perhaps because of my literature background, I was content with reading the plays rather than watch them on stage or in movies; or perhaps it was because I needed the time to read and re-read to extract meaning and sentiment.  A few years ago I went to a Shakespeare conference and attended a lecture by a director from the well-known Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  He directed two of his actors to show how the Stanislavski Method could be applied to Shakespeare.  One of the actresses was asked to read a soliloquy of Constance, mother of Arthur in King John.  Up until that moment, I had appreciated Constance as one of Shakespeare’s strong women, willful mothers who negotiated palace politics and fought determined men for their rights and the rights of their sons.  Only when the actress read the passage, a plaintive cry of love for her son, did I really understand Constance and was moved to tears.  I had entered a whole new world of the theatre.

As a young man, Goethe loved the plays for their rawness and realism. By the end of his life, he had reached the view that the lines were so pure that they shouldn't be acted at all, only read as poetry.

I now go back and forth between enjoying the written Shakespeare and the performed Shakespeare.  I am never disappointed in my reading but often disappointed in theatrical productions.  Modern directors can’t seem to stay within Elizabethan boundaries and feel the need to modernize and to make Shakespeare ‘more accessible’.  I have left at Intermission more times than I can remember.  The worst was a performance of The Merchant of Venice where all characters were New Yorkers. The ‘Italians’ were hoods from Little Italy; the Jews from the Lower East Side; and Portia and her upper-class crowd from the North Shore of Long Island.

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the past two years, and still can’t get enough. Every time I reread a play it is as though I am reading it for the first time.  I read criticism, I teach Shakespeare to adults in a number of universities in the country, and talk about the conundrums of the plays with the few friends who share the same obsession.

I will never be finished.

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