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Home :: Archive :: 1990 :: August ::
(De)Moralizing Shakespeare (90)
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 1, No. 15. Tuesday, 7 Aug 1990.
 
Date:         Tue, 07 Aug 90 21:36:00 EDT
From:         Ken Steele <
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Subject:      De-Moralizing Shakespeare
 
       A good deal of Allan Bloom's 1987 bestseller, *The
Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed
Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students*, is
of course nonsense (particularly regarding marital relations and
the sexual revolution), but nonetheless he does make a few
intriguing sociological observations.  In particular, Bloom's initial
premise has some bearing on the issues of moralizing
Shakespeare (or perhaps "de-moralizing" him?) and critical
preconceptions, which we've been discussing lately.
 
       Bloom argues that recent generations of university
students have been increasingly conditioned to revere the
virtues of socratic ignorance and relativism above all other
values, and that students are becoming, more than anything else,
"nice" (p 82).  Intolerance, not error, has become the modern
enemy, and "conflict is the evil we most want to avoid" (p 228) --
prompting Bloom to lament the passing of a world in which
countries would go to war to assert the validity of their
mythologies.  (One of the things about his right-wing mentality I
find hardest to swallow.)
 
       I find myself agreeing with Bloom (despite myself) that
relativism seems to have become a paramount virtue, although I
doubt this is so serious a calamity as he would have us believe.
Socially-acceptable prejudice now tends to be directed against
prejudice itself, in the bigot (although intolerance is also
growing against other forms of arrogance, in polluters, TV
evangelists, and of course elected public officials, all apparently
with societal sanction).
 
       Our "new" (?) relativism may in part be responsible for the
contemporary de-moralizing of Shakespeare.  The assertion of
morals, like the use of allegory, seems too simple and arrogant
for the work of a great literary artist: Shakespeare has been
declared the greatest writer in English, ergo his works cannot be
seen to be allegorical nor rigidly moral.  I am not claiming to
be above this preference for relativism, of course: I often find
straight allegory distinctly boring, and open didacticism
somewhat distasteful -- and I find neither in Shakespeare.  My
picture of Shakespeare leaves little room for arrogance or
prescription -- but then, my view is certainly from the safe
distance of the twentieth century.
 
       Just as the "Moral Shakespeare" was created as a
philosophically-dignified justification for his preservation and
study, modern relativism may be forcing his works into another,
equally inappropriate (equally appropriate?) mold.  Moral single-
mindedness is no longer philosophically dignified in the world of
Einstein's relativity and Heisenberg's uncertainty.  Instead, we
interpret Shakespeare in the light of Norman Rabkin's (very
convincing and exciting, incidentally) concept of
"complementarity" (outlined in *Shakespeare and the Common
Understanding*), observing the mutually exclusive perspectives
fused throughout Shakespeare's work.  (Such "relativity" or
"complementarity" in fact seems to evolve from the unique
strengths of theatrical art, with various interacting perspectives
of multiple characters, but no overriding narrator.)
 
       But this relativism, this supposed freedom from
preconceptions, may be itself be the critical preconception
Stephen Matsuba inquires about.  Deconstruction and
complementarity are seductive, illuminating, and useful tools for
literary critics, but are we trying too hard to turn one of the
great literary minds of the sixteenth century into one of the
twentieth?  Relativism has (or should have) the advantage of
continual self-examination -- but are we ignoring our relativist
bias in the act of foisting such relativism on Shakespeare
himself?
 
       I would like to think that we are not, and that
complementarity and ambiguity, instability and negative
capability, were essential to Shakespeare from the beginning.
But, as Stephen points out, we also must continue to examine
our motives for wishing this on him.
 
                                       Ken Steele
                                       University of Toronto
 

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