Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Week 01, Introduction and Sonnets

Introduction to E316 Shakespeare

1. Slow down; a good plan might be to read one act per day over the course of the work week. You really can’t read Shakespeare fast “for information”; his plays may be action-oriented, but he’s too fond of his linguistic medium to permit us to read him like a newspaper article: too many styles, too much metaphor, too much rhetoric to allow that kind of “instrumental reading.” That statement is true of poetry in general, of course—poetry foregrounds language as a worthy object of reflection and aesthetic delight—but the archaicism factor in Shakespeare makes it “still more truer.” You say it’s 8:00 a.m.? Well, Shakespeare and his theater-goers liked to say “‘tis scarce two hours since the worship’d sun peered forth the golden window of the east.” They didn’t always put it that way, of course—but they liked how it sounded. Bardweb’s Grammar Introductionoffers a fine summary of the complexities of Shakespeare’s language. But hey, we moderns aren’t so dumb and insensitive after all—Martin Heidegger, a man of the Twentieth Century, knew enough to say that “language is the dwelling-house of Being.”

2. Watch a film version if your time permits—most filmed productions are reasonably good, and some are awesome. Netflix, Amazon.com, Blockbuster.com, or Internet Movie Database can be used as a search engine to give you a sense of what’s available, and you can always google some obvious keyphrase like “Shakespeare on film” to find lists. Film interpretations vary widely since the text is, after all, only a prompt for performance. The actors and director may see possibilities in the language that translate into action amongst the actors, or lead to a certain thematic emphasis. Atmospherics will differ—I recently saw Derek Jarman’s Gothic take on The Tempest. It took some getting used to since one doesn’t generally think of that play as being so gloomily set, but it was excellent in its way. And what about that remarkable Richard III starring Ian McKellen and set in the 1930’s-40’s fascist era, or The Merchant of Venice starring the likes of Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, and Lynn Collins? If you want conventional but very good performances, try the BBC Shakespeare productions done in the late 1970’s, which most school libraries have. The “production values” for the BBC films aren’t on a par with Hollywood-style movies, but the actors are professional Shakespearians like Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Sir John Gielgud, and many others.

3. Grammar and Rhetoric Issues (borrowed and slightly adapted from Bardweb’s Grammar Introduction.)

A) Inverted syntax (word order): “John caught the ball” may be “John the ball caught.”

B) Rhetorical devices abounding:

alliteration: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought....” {Sonnet XXX})

metaphor: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” “My love is a red rose.”

metonymy: “all hands on deck.” “Lend me your ears,” etc.

Elliptical expressions: “And he to England shall [go] along with you.” Hamlet, III, iii}
and a host of other devices.

C) Grammar Irregularities:

Anthimeria . One part of speech is often substituted for another; this happens especially with nouns and verbs: Prospero says to Miranda in The Tempest: “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” The word “backward” is an adverb, but it is used as a noun here, producing a verse that is both beautiful and strangely apt, considering that Prospero is asking his daughter Miranda to recall her remote childhood—something hazy and mysterious, yet intimate.

Pronoun irregularity: “Yes, you may have seen Cassio and she together.” Othello 4.2.3.

Omission of relative pronoun: “I have a brother [who, omitted] is condemn’d to die. Measure for Measure 2.2.34.

Verb #: “Three parts of him / Is ours already.” Julius Caesar 1.3.154-55.

3. Shakespeare the Man, 1564-1616:

In politics he seems to have been royalist enough (the relevant sovereigns are of course the Tudor Elizabeth I (1553-1603) and the Scottish Stuart James I (1603-25), and for the most part conservative in the sense that he sides with the nobility over the rabble every time. This outlook stems from his bourgeois roots and lifestyle—Shakespeare grew up in the Warwickshire countryside; his father had some local influence and wealth when William was young, but he seems to have fallen on hard times later on. Shakespeare did pretty well for himself as a businessman, what with his excellent and crowd-pleasing playwright skills (he was also an actor), wise decisions about theater matters at the Globe and later at the more intimate Blackfriars, and apparently in local side ventures like money-lending. People who have property and wealth tend to support stability in the social and political realms, and Shakespeare was no different from most people in that regard.

In religion Shakespeare may, as some biographers suggest, have had Catholic leanings even though he conformed to the Anglican Church that took its inception from Henry VIII’s inability to get the Pope to grant him a divorce. So England joined the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther had begun in October 1517. But it’s expecting a lot to suppose everybody in the “reformed” countries would automatically go along with the program. Many English people tried to keep up the old faith, though they had to keep a lid on their activities since Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth in particular didn’t want their subjects reverting to Catholic forms and allegiances. Shakespeare seems to have had a few closet “Papists” in his family, and he also seems to have had connections with powerful Catholics beyond his family.

Shakespeare was probably more or less a traditionalist, affable (if brilliant) Englishman, not some atheist radical like Christopher Marlowe or an irascible ruffian like Ben Jonson, even if he knew and liked such men. What does this biography mean for his poetics? Hard to say, really. John Keats wrote admiringly in his letters of the “chameleon poet” endowed with “negative capability” or the ability to explore a personality or a situation without need for immediate certainty in the moral or factual sense. I suppose he must have been thinking of Shakespeare when he wrote that. What besides “negative capability” and chameleonic tendencies would allow an artist so completely to “get into” a charming but thoroughly wicked character such as Richard III or Iago; or a flawed but noble one like the Roman general Coriolanus; or an all-purpose rogue like Jack Falstaff; or an intelligent, sensitive character like Macbeth whose ambition traps him in a downward spiral of preventive-strike murder and psychological “hardness,” to borrow a term from today’s hip-hop culture? You couldn’t generate so many wonderful characters if you were intent on propagating some stolid moral drawn from your politics or religion. Shakespeare disappears with remarkable efficacy into his multifarious characters, so that he really is what Samuel Johnson and others have called him: “a poet of nature” (human nature, animal nature, everything).

The plays fall loosely into four categories: comedy, history, tragedy, and romance. Shakespeare was clearly aware of basic theories about what a comedy or tragedy (the most “established” dramatic types) ought to be like, but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time worrying about whether he was conforming to such theories. As Coleridge says in a lecture on Shakespeare, “no work of genius dare want its appropriate form.” That’s downright romantic organicism, but when it comes to Shakespeare, I’ll pledge allegiance to it: I’ve long thought that Shakespeare, in spite of the occasional loosely constructed plot or reference to non-existent Bohemian seacoasts, anachronistic Roman chimney-tops, or silly devices like the criminal-minded “letter” Edmund the Bastard ascribes to his brother “Legitimate Edgar” to fool their father Gloucester (why would you communicate by letter with someone you’re presently living with?), composed as something like a romantic poet. Although he rather unromantically started out by borrowing from some source or other—no one cared about absolute originality in his day—he saw all sorts of possibilities in that source material, and his plays took shape in accordance with the necessities of their own characters, events, and structure. You respond to a work of art as you create it, so that in a sense it “creates itself” processively. Form and meaning aren’t simply imposed upon one’s material in cookie-cutter fashion; they develop dynamically in accordance with the “inner laws” of the work itself. The romantic theorists and poets understood the creative process well, I think—imagine a sculptor facing his or her medium of blank stone: the first creative act is performed; the sculptor stands back and beholds the results in altered stone, which prompts another act, and on it goes in a ceaseless dialectic between mind and medium, until the demand for a “product” halts the process. Or consider Beethoven—yes, good old “Ludwig Van”—starting with those famous four initial notes of the Fifth Symphony. Well, he followed those notes where they just had to go—and where they had to go wasn’t always where you or I might have thought. Beethoven consistently surprises us in this way, and so does Shakespeare. None of this is to say that Shakespeare didn’t care a lick what his audiences wanted—of course he did; he wasn’t a “nightingale” singing alone in the woods like Shelley’s wan “unacknowledged legislator,” and he doesn’t seem to have assumed a deep chasm between art and the rest of life the way some of the romantic poets would later do. But what I’m talking about is an “inner core” of compositional or creative process, and I think any great artist is something of a romantic in this regard. Jacques Diderot gives us a saucier, less dreamy way of describing literary creation: “my thoughts are my whores; they run, and I follow after.”

In practical terms for us as readers, this need not mean that we seek absolute coherency in the material; rather, it means we should be looking to tease out potential of whatever sort we find in one textual location and connect it to other locations in the same or other plays. Shakespeare is capable of logical precision, but that’s schoolboy stuff: what really drives his plays is the sympathetic, imaginative connections he makes between character and character, event and event, predicament and predicament. Above all, his brand of realism is psychological, not the realism of historical happening (though you can learn a lot about English history from his history plays).

Above all, it seems best not to superimpose some scheme or pattern on any Shakespeare play prematurely—the plays “make sense,” but the sense they make isn’t and shouldn’t always be immediately reducible to neat formulae or critical principles. Be especially mindful of this advice if you consult online materials like Sparknotes, etc. Some of this stuff is actually pretty good nowadays—it isn’t always churned out by utterly illiterate fools for lame-fanny students the way it used to be. All the same, it comes at you saying “hey you, here are three key themes you can use to write a sensible paper on The Merchant of Venice.” The “themes” identified may be worthwhile, but the more you allow yourself to be bound by them, the less room will there be for your own perhaps eccentric and more interesting “take” on the play. Maybe you will notice something in Act 2, Scene 4 that relates to other things that happen in the play but aren’t really dealt with by the geniuses of Spark Notes. And maybe that “something” is the thing you should really be writing about. Good critics are basically good storytellers—they tell interesting, compelling (and yes, informative where applicable) stories about other people’s stories. So if you use net-notes, use them to open up possibilities, not to reduce complex works of art to utter comprehensibility.

The Sonnets: I will add specific notes if time permits, but here are a few thoughts about the sonnet form. The rhyme pattern for an English sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. Three quatrains (four-line units) and a concluding couplet that comments in some manner on the subject of the quatrains. “Sonnet 130” illustrates the possibilities of this structure well: the three quatrains make fun of Petrarchan over-praising, and the final couplet overturns the mocking tone by genuinely praising the love object. “Sonnet 73” with its succession of metaphors and neat summation-couplet, exemplifies the “sugared style” of many of the poems (i.e. the piling up and development of a series of metaphors, often one per quatrain) of sonnetry. The 154 sonnets are divided broadly between 1-126, which are supposedly addressed to “a fair young man” and 127-54, which are addressed to “a dark (-haired) lady.”

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home