Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Shakespeare journalism grumpage

I really try not to get grumpy about other people's takes on Shakespeare. First of all, there is too much of that sort of thing in the world already; and secondly, I'm of the opinion that the more people there are thinking and talking about Shakespeare, the better, especially if they're doing it outside of traditional academic channels. (Well, OK, not if they're talking about authorship conspiracy theories, but that isn't really talking about Shakespeare.)

That said, this is a seriously dumb, reductive reading by an author who appears not to get the concept of drama. The whole point of Shakespeare is that he's writing characters, for God's sake, and that those characters are complex and flawed, and, moreover, that he has a peculiar gift for expressing multiple perspectives compellingly! For every ringing set-piece speech, there is a "Yes, but...", usually within a scene or two. Anybody who claims to be able to infer from the plays what Shakespeare's politics were is not only deluding themselves, but missing the reason why we read Shakespeare in the first place. (I think one of the reasons why pronouncements like Berlatsky's get under my skin is that teaching students to value and embrace ambiguity is perhaps the single most valuable thing we do in literary studies, and it drives me crazy when people don't get this.)

Full disclosure: I have my sneaking suspicions, and the answer I'd come up with is almost the polar reverse of Berlatsky's -- and I'd point to a lot of moments in its defense, from Isabella's courageous defiance of Angelo to Michael Williams's searching questions on the eve of Agincourt. And at least one of those moments, the Argument of The Rape of Lucrece, has the advantage of being one of those rare bits of text that Shakespeare seems to have written in his own person and from his own perspective. But I'd never be so arrogant as to claim that "my" Shakespeare is the only possible Shakespeare, or that we know for sure what he thought about anything.

(Also, if you're seriously going to argue that the Henry IV plays are a warning against rulers consorting with people who are beneath them, you've pretty much missed everything that Hal takes away from his time in the tavern. There's a reason why he ends up being a more effective leader than good old Dad, who never really gets what his son is doing in the Boar's Head, even though he did that sort of thing himself once upon a time. Granted, the plays work a bit better as a warning to the people on the lower end of the social scale against consorting too much with their rulers. God send the companions a better prince.)


1 comment:

undine said...

But you care about Shakespeare, and the Atlantic at present only cares about clickbait, as far as I can tell, judging from the number of stupidly provocative articles they're publishing. I liked your post better.