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Home :: Archive :: 1990 :: August ::
1.0013 Interpreting, Moralizing, Analyzing Shakespeare
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 1, No. 13. Thursday, 2 Aug 1990.
Date:        [August 1, 1990]
From:        [Thomas Clayton <TSC@UMNACVX>]
Subject:     [Modern Interpretations; Moralizing; Critical Theory]
    This is all too  fast for me, and  I have no business  in it.
And being about to leave the hemisphere and e-mail for six weeks,
I was determined to be a silent reader of the interesting discus-
sion on Shakespearian production  I have been following  (through
SEC 1.8), but Stephen Matsuba's comments on critical  predisposi-
tions  (SEC  1.8)  elicited  these  few impressions on theory and
practice that may safely  be ignored, especially since  they take
almost NO account of 1.10-12, but see postscript (par. 8).
    1. One of the things  I like about the term  "predisposition"
is that it enables  a personal emphasis wanting  in objectivistic
terms like "basic assumptions." We (perhaps not you but I)  think
in part as psychologically predetermined to think, as well as  by
education  and  experience,  and  according  to  the matter under
investigation and  the 'methods'  available for  analysing it.  A
persistent   concern   with   production   arises  in  part  from
predisposition. (So what?)
    2. It is quite possible  to assume the theory and  ignore the
predispositions as  such and  yet have  a productive discussion--
provided  those  discussing  share  (or  tolerate differences in)
these. That was pretty much  the case with Leavis and  the *Scru-
tiny* critics, for example (whom it  is too easy to whip), as  it
is for all coterie critics  (the current ones are carressed).  It
was the case with many Shakespeare critics of most schools up  to
the mid seventies;  and it seemed  mostly to be  the case in  the
earlier SEC exchanges,  of which I  was tempted to  ask, however,
'successful' for whom and at what? 'Works' (on) what or whom, and
how?  'Legitimate'  ditto?  (if  the  notion  of  'legitimacy' is
accepted; it is by  me, but I am  in no position to  impose it ex
cathedra, nor is anyone else,  for those who deny the  legitimacy
and authority of a cathedra).
    3. Asking questions like  'wherefore?' may lead quickly  away
from particular  plays, productions,  and criticism  and into the
world of theory (and what  SM calls 'the nature of  Shakespearian
studies'), which  may or  may not  be worth  a protracted visit--
theoretically:  practically,  it  occupies  most  of the space of
'English' in many places, at  present. In his book, *The  Trivial
Pursuit: Literary  Theory and  the End  of English*  (1989; title
changed by Fontana to *Fraud: Literary Theory*, etc., for market-
ing purposes), Peter  Washington remarks that  'radical theorists
are  inclined  to  deal  with  these problems by theorizing them,
which boils down to  replacing Shakespeare's texts with  critical
arguments about them as the topic for study' (172), as often hap-
pens, with more loss than gain in the area of Shakespearian  par-
    4. It is sometimes useful to answer the question, 'when is  a
production not a production?' with 'when it's an adaptation'.  It
is  true  that  performance  history  records so many alarums and
excursions that in strict  terms the class 'adaptation'  contains
rather more members than the class 'production', but the  notions
seem to have some instructional value, anyhow, even if the  ques-
tion of intentionality further complicates ('can an  "adaptation"
be without being intended as  such?' If Henri Rousseau can  paint
sleeping gypsies that he  supposes perfect realism, yes).  It has
been noted in SEC-to-date that there can be no definitive produc-
tion because there can be no definitive interpretation (and, now,
no definitive text), but if there is NO limitable range of 'core'
meaning  (and  significance,  to  draw  E.  D. Hirsch's useful if
shifting distinction) that may be ascribed to a particular  play,
on which a number of  reasonable and informed persons can  agree,
then the unlimited play of 'signifiers' is the name of the  game,
any performance or deformance is  a 'production', and one may  be
more 'successful' or 'work' better than another according to  ad-
hoc criteria or none (what's in a?).
    Under such circumstances,  Stanley Fish's 'interpretive  com-
munities' have theoretical purpose, because only majorities  (the
argument goes)  can confer  meaning (or  at least  significance).
That  is  rather  like  a Through-the-looking-glass solution, but
where it pleases the majority, it settles issues, period.
    5. Roger  Manvell or  someone else  remarked that  Kurosawa's
literal translation, I am told; *Macbeth* by any other) is (or at
the time was) the best film ever made of a play by Shakespeare, a
view with which I have some sympathy. To the extent that this may
be so, it  must be because  there is a  pervasive kinship between
the film and the script  that bridges the obvious gaps--of  which
there are arguably fewer than  there are in *RAN* (a  question to
be asked--but not by me, at the moment). In any case, in order to
be able to assert this, it  must be assumed that film and  script
can each be understood and the two compared in some  intelligible
ways justifying  the inference  that there  can be  more affinity
between works across  media and culture  than there sometimes  is
between script and stage mediation of the script, and an  adapta-
tion or  a 'version'  can be  more 'faithful  to the original(s)'
than many a rendering that calls itself ('legitimately'?) a  pro-
duction. That is, for those for whom there is a recognizable  and
valuable  'original',  and  for  whom  fidelity  of  expression--
whatever it may be--is a virtue. (How many 'originals' is another
sort of enquiry:  is there an  archetypal *Hamlet* behind  and/or
constituted of  Q1, Q2,  and F--that  is both  like and different
from conflated editions?) A  lot of critical enquiries  come down
to the question whether a 'performance' speaks, or should  speak,
for the script or to the post-scriptural audience, as though  one
couldn't do something of both, which in fact most directors prob-
ably try to do, however they describe their efforts.
    6. Having failed  adequately to distinguish  between 'produc-
tion' and 'adaptation', I have  been naturally moved to go  on to
try to  differentiate illusorily  between two  apparently similar
but intentionally (and/or effectually) different kinds of produc-
tion, as designed  for (and/or accomplishing)  'exploitation' and
'alienation', respectively.  Hypothetically speaking,  the former
involves cynical manipulation of script and audience, the  latter
(a la Brecht) invites audiences to see through the script as well
as  reflect  beyond  it.  The  difference  is mainly theoretical,
however, partly  because it  turns on  intention when  none would
admit to 'exploitation',  and it is  not surprising that  critics
have trouble distinguishing one  kind from the other,  since nei-
ther kind is  concerned to express  the intentionality of  script
and/or playwright. A case in point is Bogdanov's RSC Mafioso pro-
duction (1986-87?) of *Romeo and Juliet*, which Stanley Wells saw
as (in effect) an exploitation production that others  (including
the director) might see  (or claim) as an  alienation production.
The performance couldn't get an A from both instructors.
    7. In my experience,  persons of quite different  theoretical
orientation find themselves  on substantially common  ground when
it comes to cases that must be controverted there, and  resulting
disagreements  over  such  (recent)  perennial 'problem' plays as
*THE MERCHANT  OF VENICE*  are likely  to come  down to eminently
recognizable basics, however  complex their expression--and  what
is involved on  stage is inevitably  a function substantially  of
what the script says and 'means' (for a start). This seems to  me
to be so (if it is) because mimesis in Shakespeare's plays is  so
very much of what they  are, making Aristotle a good  background-
guide to what makes  them 'work--succeed': plot first,  character
second, and  so on.  (I mean  'background-GUIDE' not  Procrustean
grid.) The same basics cause most persons, of whatever degree  of
innocence  or  experience,  to  talk about Shakespeare's dramatis
personae not as fictional entities suggested by the script but as
though they were actual  persons ('What did Hamlet  read/major in
at Wittenberg?' 'How close were he and Horatio there?' are L.  C.
Knights-like reductiones ad absurdum of quite common  responses).
The  innocent  make  no  bones  about  it:  their  experience  of
eminently real (sc. fictional) persons like Hamlet is  sufficient
validation of their existence (that is, we read them, so they/ we
are). The  extravagantly sophisticated  in fact  tend to  talk in
much the  same way  as the  innocents, when  they descend to such
dimensions,  however  darkly  they  may  express them. So all can
argue, and most do, in one critical language or another,  whether
Shylock  is  the  'hero'  of  the  play, whether he is a villain,
whether  the  play  is  the  product  and  vehicle of antisemitic
sensibility, whether  Antonio is  in love  with Bassanio, whether
Belmont  is  the  land  of  Festive  grace  and  leisure  or   of
aristocratic oppression and conspicuous consumption, and so on.
    I personally think also that  it continues to speak well  for
Shakespeare that this acute sense of living persons IS as it  is,
and that it  also partly explains  why the Victorians  could find
morality in Shakespeare (so do I, some of his, some of mine, some
of both, some of other). Whatever 'morality' is in any particular
set of  sociocultural circumstances,   it  is inevitably  present
when characters  who matter  are in  conflict and  come to one or
another end, as all do.
    Me too. Herewith, with apologies. Black Adder II beckons.
                                        Cheers, Tom Clayton
P.S. 8. Three points (among many others) that caught my attention
in 1.10-12.
    (1) "Willard may be correct to assert that "Perhaps the  only
criterion is whether or not the thing works" (on) what or whom? I
ask again.
    (2) "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"--relative to what? Presumably
his criterion is their  adaptation quotient, which is  determined
by  the  precise  social  or  other  circumstances  for  which he
designed his production.  It has been  suggested many times  that
the more one  speaks to particular  persons and events,  the less
one speaks to  any other. A  lot of productions  suggest as much.
Branagh's *Henry  V* seems  to me  to be  much less  limited than
Olivier's, by this measure--but there are dimensions of Olivier's
FILM that may be estimable, and estimably Shakespearean, in them-
selves, that Olivier MAY deserve credit for attempting (and  per-
haps succeeding at) as well as Branagh for eschewing.
    (3) '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."'
But that surely is not the end if it is even the beginning of the
'moral'  issues  touched  on  in  *Rom.*,  arguably  not even its
thematic West Side Stority.

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