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Home :: Archive :: 1990 :: August ::
1.0012 Moralizing Shakespeare
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 1, No. 12. Wednesday, 1 Aug 1990.
 
 
(1)   Date: 1 August 1990, 13:31:37 EDT                      (17 lines)
      From: FLANNAGA at OUACCVMB
 
(2)   Date:         Wed, 01 Aug 90 16:45:10 EDT              (96 lines)
      From:         Ken Steele <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
      Subject:      Moralizing Shakespeare
 
(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 1 August 1990, 13:31:37 EDT
From: FLANNAGA at OUACCVMB
 
An almost instant response to the discussion point about moralizing
Shakespeare: I was profoundly shocked when I compared the plot summary
of *Hamlet* in a 1950s edition of the *Oxford Companion to English
Literature* with the 1980s revision of the same book.  The first plot
was nothing like the second.  Because my tastes had also evolved, I
agreed with everything the second said, and felt betrayed by the first.
The same thing has happened with Olivier's *Hamlet*, which I probably
admired before Gielgud's, though now Jacoby's has replaced both, though
even the memory of Jacoby's is beginning to tarnish.  Even Jonathan
Miller does not think that more than one or two of his productions of
Shakespeare that have been taped deserve to be preserved or remembered,
because somehow most of them are no longer valid or timely.  Why does
Olivier's *Richard III* hold up better than his *Hamlet*?  Or do you
think it doesn't?  Roy Flannagan
 
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------100---
Date:         Wed, 01 Aug 90 16:45:10 EDT
From:         Ken Steele <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Subject:      Moralizing Shakespeare
 
 
       Stephen Booth has written an amusing and thought-
provoking piece for the latest *Shakespeare Quarterly* (41:2
Summer 1990) entitled "The Function of Criticism at the Present
Time and All Others" (262-8).  It opens a number of cans of
worms, including some rather closely related to the moralizing
of Shakespeare, and I hope it will spark some discussion.
 
       Booth begins by declaring that "this essay is a small,
though pugnacious, crusade, and its destination is some
pragmatic reasons why teachers of literature should stop lying to
children -- or, to put it more graciously than I care to -- should
stop telling students things about literature that they do not
themselves believe."  He elaborates later:
 
       What is truly troublesome... is evidence that some of us,
       too many of us, are so desperate to have philosophically
       dignified reasons for devoting time and attention to
       literature -- or so respectful of what "everybody always
       says" or so unreasonably humble before the dicta of the
       experts who taught us or are the authors of respected
       books -- that we go into classrooms daily to tell students
       things about this or that play that we do not ourselves
       see to be true.
 
Like the high-school biology students who "look in their
microscopes at the protozoan creatures alleged to be there, see
their own eyelashes, and then just copy the illustration in the
book," Booth suggests that literature students grow increasingly
good at "giving them what they want" until they become
teachers themselves; that students quickly learn that "success in
school is in *pretending* to be other than they are."  There are
many sonorous defences for higher education, but are they also
just so many more cliches?
 
       Booth also tilts at literary criticism, which, he says, seems
to assume "that critical attentions make literary works work
better.  What criticism does in fact is make them work -- or,
rather, pretend to have made them work -- differently, usually
more simply, than they did[.]"  (Booth later attacks the current
fashionable critical approaches, "made dazzling by their novelty
or made to seem deep by the density of their vocabularies[.]")
Can we understand *anything* without simplifying it, though?
Doesn't the mere reduction to language simplify experience?
 
       Booth declares that "the one least deniable secondary
characteristic of literature is its need of justification.  Some
critics focus openly on the need: Horace; Philip Sidney;
librarians during Book Week; and so on."  Other arts, he argues,
seem immune from such bourgeouis guilt: "by and large, we
spend little time or energy trying to deny the frivolity of music,
painting, sculpture, dance, and so forth."  Can we stop trying to
justify literature and its study?  Has anyone found a justification
which survives without "taffeta phrases, silken terms precise"?
 
       Booth's best paragraph on moralizing Shakespeare runs as
follows:
 
       [S]ophisticated critics pretend to scorn the idea of
       moralizing literature.  What they actually scorn, however,
       is usually only the word "moral" and its connotations.
       They would never be caught saying that Shakespeare's
       plays are valuable and valued because they teach us
       lessons.  Sophisticated critics will have nothing to do with
       comfortable sales pitches for *Macbeth* or *Othello* as
       good for us -- and surely good for young children -- on
       the grounds that they teach us that wickedness is bad.
       And yet, the mass of interpretive criticism comes to
       conclusions that are hardly different in kind, only more
       persuasive and palatable because they are vague.
       Consider, for example, the Cambridge school of
       criticism....  From the late 1940s until well into the 1960s,
       Cambridge University turned out droves of critics
       determined to see just about any literary work and every
       Shakespeare play as a demonstration that nature is good
       and art is wicked.  They presented us a Shakespeare who
       is the philosophical love child of D.H. Lawrence and
       Agnes Gooch (Agnes Gooch is the emotionally reborn
       young woman who runs around in *Auntie Mame* shouting
       "Live! Live!").
 
The old familiar objection to literature as a vehicle for moral
training seems to underlie Booth's dismissal of moralization:
"There are quicker ways than a month on *Romeo and Juliet* to
generate discussion on parenthood and adolescence."  What do
others believe teaching Shakespeare is all about?
 
                                 Ken Steele
                                 University of Toronto
 

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