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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shakespeare In The Shenandoahs II (Edited)

I am in Staunton, Virginia, home to the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), attending a conference of over 200 academics who are here to present papers.  So far I have heard scholars give sessions on Richard III – Portrait of a Serial Killer, Eavesdropping Scenes in Shakespeare, Where’s a Parking Lot When You Need one: What Really Happens to the Princes in the Tower? and dozens more like them.  After 400 years of analyzing Shakespeare, modern students have had to pick over a bin of discards to find defendable theses, so it is not surprising that PhD dissertations are based on the farthest-fetched and cockamamie ideas ever.  But find them they do, and from the turnout of graduate students and young assistant professors here in Staunton, the discipline is alive and well. 

Blackfriars Theatre, American Shakespeare Center

There is, however, another way to read Shakespeare – to try to understand why characters act the way they do and whether or not they are basically the same – marching to the universal beat of human nature – or indisputably unique, more tragic, admirable, or pitiable. 

Richard III, Iago, Macbeth, Dionyza, Tamora, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are compelling because they are amoral characters.  Nietzsche believed that in a meaningless life lived in a meaningless world, only the assertion of individual will, the perfect expression of innate human power and potential, was meaningful.  I admire Iago, Richard, and others because they are indomitable, incessant, and totally unstoppable.  They may be destroyed in the end, but the exertion of Will justifies the effort. For them the end is irrelevant.  Only the means count. I cannot turn away.

Rosalind, Beatrice, Cleopatra, and Isabel run rings around the men in their lives and display a steely feminine determination and a canny ability to negotiate masculine waters successfully.  Women have not changed in 400 years, it seems, and even though they have achieved parity with men, their loves, jealousies, and ability and willingness to use sex and sexuality to their advantage.  Some women in Shakespeare, like Imogen, are totally innocent but called trollops by their husbands.  Others, like Cressida, are no saints at all.  She cannily maneuvers between Greece and Troy using her charm and allure without a second thought.  Others still, like Desdemona are innocent but sexual.  She is attracted to Othello for his dash, daring, and potency; but in her precocity unwittingly provokes him and contributes to his downfall. 

In two conferences here in Staunton, I have heard no such reflections. My basic questions - was Desdemona complicit in Othello’s downfall; did Cleopatra really love Antony or was she, like most of Shakespeare’s women, interested only in manipulating men to secure power; how does the cynicism about love, family, and intimate relationships common in Shakespeare’s plays square with the head-over-heels love that the poet expresses for his Young Man in the Sonnets – never come up.  Academics consider them far too obvious for consideration; and while they are at the heart of the plays and express Shakespeare’s obsession with the character of human nature, they are ignored.

I had an interesting discussion about Hamlet with a young scholar at a reception given by the doyen of the ASC at his home the day before the conference.  I mentioned to the scholar that I thought Oliver’s production of Hamlet was the best I had ever seen because it focused on the central issue of the play – Hamlet’s indecisiveness.  I believed Olivier when he wrote that Hamlet’s incestuous desires for his mother and sexual jealousy of his uncle was at the core of his dilemma.  He wanted to kill his mother out of sexual frustration and rage and ignored the more understandable murder-for-revenge that one would expect of a prince.  His cruel dismissal of Ophelia is also a product of his sexual frustration, and he has transferred his love/hate for his mother to his lover.  It all makes perfect sense.

In any case the scholar, who the next day presented a paper as academic as you can possibly imagine, Proscenia in Stuart England – Depth vs. Context, debated long and hard on the subject of Hamlet’s motivations.  It meant something both to him and to me.  Are we men really all so Oedipal, so driven by incestuous lust and driven mad by sexual frustration?  Othello, Leontes, Troilus – all jealous to the point of violence – are no different.  There is something acquisitive, self-serving, and psychologically twisted in men who must fight to keep down the rage of jealousy; and the most interesting are unable to do so.

The scholar, a reputable academic, had never considered that the violent confrontation with Ophelia and the incestuous but frustrated desire for his mother were related. He had been so involved with deconstructing text, researching meter, reconstructing original staging, and parsing metaphor, that he had focused too much on kingship.  The central issue for him was whether or not the ghost was real – i.e. did the text support that interpretation.  If not, then Hamlet’s dithering was only due to his very lawyer-like desire to get the facts and act only when the case has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. .

I have no doubt that most Shakespeare scholars have at one time in their careers pondered these basic questions; but the pressure to innovate and publish is so intense that they have little time to consider and debate them further.  The academic interest in Olivier’s Hamlet and Ian McKellen’s Richard III has more to do with editing than with meaning.  I have heard three interesting papers on how and why directors cut the plays of Shakespeare.  The scholars have focused more on how the directors did damage to the play rather than the good that they did.

There is a scene in Coriolanus, for example, between two minor characters who are not seen before or after their brief encounter.  Little relating to the plot is discussed between them; but the scene has a very definite reason for inclusion, and Shakespeare had a very definite purpose in mind.  In this case the scene serves as a transition between the incendiary situation in Rome and the perilous mission of Coriolanus to the Volsces.  The scene is there for reasons of tone, pacing, and ambience. Cutting threw off Shakespeare’s delicate balance.

On the other hand Olivier cut nearly half of Hamlet to focus on the relationship between Hamlet and his mother; and McKellen cut half of Richard III to focus on his twisted, if not evil nature.  Both directors/actors were interested more in meaning than completeness. They wanted to strip the plays of their theatrical accoutrements and get to the heart of the matter. This was a good thing.

Adult students are very receptive to a focus on character.  They are far less interested in the fine points of meter, staging, or textual incongruence than they are meaning.  What do the relationships between Othello and Desdemona, Antony and Cleopatra, or Kate and Petruchio mean to them?  This is true for other playwrights as well. The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar Named Desire, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are as powerful and compelling as those in Shakespeare and students are interested in them because their dramas, weaknesses, frustrations, and ploys are the students’ own.  They are not interested in history or historicism, social context, or gender.  They only want to know: What is going on here? Do they love each other or not? This is a good thing.

There has been enough literary criticism of Shakespeare over the years to fill thousands of Walmart warehouses.  There is no subject that has been ignored, no line not parsed, no production left dangling.  Shakespeare has been an academic gold mine whose mother lode is still rich. Some of the criticism, especially that which looks at characters and their dilemmas from very different perspectives, is helpful.  Feminists, Post-Modernists, Deconstructionists, New Historians, Deaf scholars, Marxists, and Queer Studies academics have all done one good thing.  They have shaken up previous canons and forced us all to look at relationships through different lenses.

I part company, however, with those who reduce Shakespeare to minutiae and who are not happy until they have sucked all the vital juices out of his verse.  Which is why I spend more time eating ribs and drinking local IPA here in Staunton then I do attending conference sessions.

1 comment:

  1. Try reading 'Shakespeare by Another Name' (Mark K. Anderson or 'Shakespeare Suppressed' by Katherine Chiljan. They have something to say about the author that opens up the canon as understandable and autobiographical. These others have a blank image for the creator and the creation turns out to serve their own small purposes, not the truth.

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