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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: November ::
Re: Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 731.  Monday, 8 November 1993.
 
(1)     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Sunday, 07 Nov 1993 13:32:39 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
(2)     From:   Timothy Bowden <
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        Date:   Sunday, 07 Nov 93 09:38:42 PST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
(3)     From:   Jack Lynch <
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        Date:   Sunday, 7 Nov 1993 13:48:41 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
(4)     From:   Michael Friedman <
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        Date:   Sunday, 07 Nov 1993 15:03:28 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
(5)     From:   James Schaefer <
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        Date:   Sunday, 07 Nov 1993 16:45:58 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
(6)     From:   David Schalkwyk <
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        Date:   Monday, 8 Nov 93 10:43:11 SAST-2
        Subj:   Shakespeare, ontology, history
 
(7)     From:   Nancy W. Miller <
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        Date:   Sunday, 7 Nov 93 19:41:05 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Sunday, 07 Nov 1993 13:32:39 -0400
Subject: 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
Dear Bill,
 
We might relate history and literature better if we think of literature
as special documents, flawed like all documents, but in their own way.
As literature, but very popular literature, they tell us not about the
period in which they are written, so much as the perception of that period
by those living in it.
 
Therefore, in your example from *Taming*, the example of three out of four
renaissance wives refusing their husbands' orders might not be taken to
reflect what renaissance wives were really like (whatever that is), but to
reflect what people during the renaissance took to be the norm of female
behaviour.  This is the same time when, if *Much Ado* is to be believed,
"cuckold" and "husband" were held synonymous.  Neither example means that
women actually were remarkably disobedient or unfaithful, but that popular
belief ascribed disobedience and unfaithfulness as normal traits of
womanhood.
 
We might draw a parallel to contemporary literature.  No-one would confuse
a current socially-conscious (or, if s/he is less PC, socially interested)
writer with an historian.  Martin Amis' *London Fields* doesn't tell us as
much about life in 1990s London as would any reasonably good statistics.
But he does provide an idea of how at least one Englishman, and judging by
the reception of his tome, a lot of his contemporaries agree, views his
life in 1990s London.  Needless to say, this bears a somewhat oblique
relationship to reality.
 
I hope I've made a point in this rambling.
 
        Sean Lawrence.
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Timothy Bowden <
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Date:           Sunday, 07 Nov 93 09:38:42 PST
Subject: 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
Let me consider how my own literary travels may offer signposts along
the way towards an appreciation of actual history, and then someone tell
me if it's a valid map.  I mark in _Sense and Sensibility_ how the
expectations of a couple of country girls are exasperated by the
non-compliance of a certain suitor, to the morbid deterioration of one
and the general depression of the rest of the family.  The suitor
indicated his intentions, as far as I can detect, merely by calling on
the family more than once.
 
And yet, despite my sense I was exploring a case of group hysteria, the
author herself validated the perceptions of her characters, even to
include the contrite suitor, by the end of the novel.  I deduce that
times in early 19th century England were very different from here and
now.  Is that a fair rendering?
 

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  (Timothy Bowden)
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jack Lynch <
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Date:           Sunday, 7 Nov 1993 13:48:41 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
    BG:  Sherlock Holmes and John Major live in London. It
    is true that Holmes and Major both live in London.
 
Don't be silly.  Everyone knows Holmes has retired to the country to take up
beekeeping, whereas the Liberals only _hope_ Major will retire to the country.
 
    BG:  But they do not have the same ontological status.
    ...  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."
 
Do they actually hold to this?  Do they insist _R&J_'s Verona is a historical
city in Italy, for instance, or that "That's the way it was" in Hamlet's
Denmark?  Or do you get the impression that this was the first answer to come
to their minds, and seemed an easy way out?
 
    BG:  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.
 
A good source to get students, especially undergraduates, thinking about the
problem -- that is to say, one that raises theoretical issues without resorting
to theoretical jargon and obfuscation -- is an essay by Berel Lang called
"Hamlet's Grandmother and Other Literary Facts," _The Antioch Review_, 44
(Spring 1986), 167-75.  (The converse of its accessibility, of course, is that
it wants the theoretical rigor you might expect.)  The essay poses the question
of whether Hamlet had a grandmother:  we know from the text that he had a
mother and a father, even a grandfather, but the text gives no indication of
whether he had a grandmother.  Lang forces us to consider what we're doing when
we apply our common-sense knowledge of the "real world" -- but _of course_ he
must have had a grandmother; everyone does -- to the ostensibly self- contained
world of the text.  It's been a while since I read it, but I remember it as the
sort of thing one might use in the classroom very effectively.
 
I'm now working on a class paper on Boswell's _Life of Johnson_, and of course
the biggest question in twentieth- century Boswell studies is the relation of
_The Life of Johnson_ (capital L, set italic) to the life of Johnson (lowercase
L, set roman).  I'm now looking at Riffaterre's _Fictional Truth_, which
meditates on the theoretical problem as it appears in nineteenth-century
fiction, in the hopes that some of his insights will help me approach Boswell's
handling of history and such.
 
  -- Jack Lynch; 
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(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Friedman <
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Date:           Sunday, 07 Nov 1993 15:03:28 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
Along the same lines as Bill Godshalk's query about the relationship
of fictional texts to history, I'm running into a similar difficulty with
*Measure for Measure*.  Much of the criticism on the play refers to Eliza-
bethan betrothal and marriage laws, such as those concerning the custom of
handfasting, to explain various questions, but such a strategy has always
struck me as not entirely legitimate, for a few reasons:
 
        1. Shakespeare's play specifically takes place in Vienna, a Catholic
state, where the laws, particularly after the Council of Trent (1563) are
different from those in England in 1604.
        2. The only law we can be sure about in the play, the one against
fornication which Angelo enforces against Claudio, is far more severe than
any English law ever was, although certain Puritan divines would have liked
to have seen the death penalty for fornication.
 
Given that the laws of this fictional foreign world are clearly different
from those of Shakespeare's England, what gives the critic the right to
assume that all other laws, for which there is no textual evidence, are
simply those of the country in which the play was written?  My own answer
is that we cannot simply apply the laws of the "real" world to the play world
unless the text specifically invites us to do so.  However, I am also open
to the argument that any playwright assumes a shared body of assumptions with
his or her audience that may include ideas about what is legal or illegal,
right or wrong, and these shared assumptions are largely the product of living
in the same society.  In other words, Shakespeare knows his English audience
will judge an act legal or illegal by English law, and he doesn't have to make
any mention of the law even when he is placing his action in a foreign context.
 
Can anyone throw any light on this question?
 
                                                        Michael Friedman
                                                        FriedmanM1@jaguar.
                                                                uofs.edu
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           James Schaefer <
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Date:           Sunday, 07 Nov 1993 16:45:58 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
It's hard enough to keep straight the relationship between that which
is described in the work and its _presumed_ world context, let along
the (presumed?) _real_ one.  Hamlet (he) exists only between "Who's there?"
and "The rest is silence."  That's all we've got, and we have to try
to make do with it.
 
Jim Schaefer
 
(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Schalkwyk <
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Date:           Monday, 8 Nov 93 10:43:11 SAST-2
Subject:        Shakespeare, ontology, history
 
Bill Godschalk writes:
 
"I can't imagine how imagined, fictional worlds are related - theoretically -
to the world we have dinner in."
 
Can we imagine how the utterance "I promise/wish/hope/imagine that I will have
dinner with you tonight" is related - theoretically - to the world we have
dinner in?
 
David Schalkwyk
 
(7)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Nancy W. Miller <
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Date:           Sunday, 7 Nov 93 19:41:05 EST
Subject: 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0728  Shakespeare, Ontology, and History
 
William Godshalk recently commented:
 
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 . . .
> 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.
 
First let me say that I believe that literature CAN be used to read history
(--as far as I'm concerned, literature IS history), but the relationship cannot
be expressed as direct one to one correspondences: we can't use _Shrew_ as an
indication of statistical probabilities.  What we can do is read the way
concepts and ideas are used (better yet, taken for granted) within the
literature, go back and look at other written documents that engage the same
ideas, compare, contrast, and come up with some theories about the ideologies
of the era, etc. (This appears a bit simplistic here, I know, but others
have said it much better: Montrose, R. Williams . . .).  A few years ago, Sybil
Wolfram, a British cultural anthropologist, visited OSU and spoke about using
Trollope to explore marriage relationships in nineteenth c. England.  She found
him a "reliable" source.  I would argue that all literature is a "reliable"
source, if only one cares to look.
 
N. Miller
 

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