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
*THRONE OF BLOOD* (U.S.; *CASTLE OF THE SPIDER'S WEB*, U.K. and a
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
(1) "Willard may be correct to assert that "Perhaps the only
criterion is whether or not the thing works" (on) what or whom? I
(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.