Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 728. Sunday, 7 November 1993.
Date: Saturday, 06 Nov 1993 18:03:18 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
I was pleased to see that several of us are interested in pursuing the question
of the relationship of literature to history. Jean Howard asked the questions
this way: "what is the nature of that relationship? Does the [literary] text
absord history into itself? Does it reflect an external reality? Does it
produce the real?" ("The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies," ENGLISH
LITERARY RENAISSANCE 16 [l986]: 25).
My question was, indeed, more than rhetorical. Like most teachers and scholars
of Renaissance or early modern literature, I use history and historical
documents to enlighten and enliven the literature that I teach. But can
literature be used to enlighten history? In THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, we have
several sets of lovers and potential lovers: Sly and his new-found "wife,"
Lucentio and Bianca, Katherine and Petruccio, and Hortensio and the nameless
widow. Sly's wife says no when he invites her to bed - comically; Bianca
controls Lucentio throughout the play and refuses to come at his insistance in
the last scene; Hortensio's wife also refuses to come, and only Katherine, now
Kate, comes at her husband's call. Leaving Sly and his "wife" out of our
calculations, let's say that in the Renaissance two out of every three wives
disregarded their husbands' commands and felt themselves quite independent
within their marriages. If history can be used to read literature, then
literature can be used to read history. WRONG! But why?
Sherlock Holmes and John Major live in London. It is true that Holmes and Major
both live in London. But they do not have the same ontological status - even
though Holmes receives a great deal of mail from would-be clients. What is
Katherine Minola's relationship with William Shakespeare?
I don't have any good answers to my questions, and my students always fall
silent when I ask them. They like to say, "Well, back in those days, that's the
way it was." But if we go beyond naive assumptions about the congruence of
literature and history (both as record and experience), then I for one am
baffled. I can't explain how imagined, fictional worlds are related -
theoretically - to the world we have dinner in.
Yours, Bill Godshalk