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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: November ::
Re: Ontology, Shakespeare, and History
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 749.  Wed., 10 November 1993.
 
From:           William Godshalk <
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Date:           Tuesday, 09 Nov 1993 12:04:30 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Shakepeare, History and Ontology
 
Dear Sean, Tim, Jack, Michael, Jim, David, and Nancy,
 
I was very interested in your responses to my (I hoped) provocative comments
and questions. Thanks Jack Lynch for calling my attention to Berel Lang's essay
on Hamlet's grandmother. I suppose my own position is closest to the one
described by Jim Schaefer - though not exactly. Jim suggests that Hamlet exists
only in the words of the text, but that's not totally true. Literary characters
do tend to become detached from their texts, characters like Hamlet and
Falstaff, and then lead independent cultural lives. I speak only in metaphor,
of course. I'm not suggesting that they have the ontological status of  humans.
We humans imagine these characters outside their texts.I liked Michael
Friedman's analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE, and I admit that, in my younger and
less thoughtful days, I fell into the trap of judging the play by reference to
English customs. I was, I now believe, young and wrong. But does "any
playwright" assume "a shared body of assumption with his or her audience"?
Gerald Graff would suggest that people living in a culture don't share
assumptions; they share controversies. Do we Americans agree on what is right
and what is wrong? No. Then why should we assume that sixteenth and seventeenth
century audiences agreed? This was an age of heterodoxy and divergent opinion.
Witness, e.g., Richard Popkin's work on Renaissance skepticism.For Nancy Miller
I have several questions. The OED (unrevised) lists 8 definitions of HISTORY
with many sub-definitions, and I think this is the tip of the iceberg. Number 6
is interesting: HISTORY defined as "a story represented dramatically, a drama."
But, Nancy you say that literature is history. In what sense is literature
history?One recurring proverb in Renaissance literature is: "So many men, so
many minds." Because a playwright has his characters take certain concepts and
ideas for granted, can we argue that he wished or thought his audience would
take these ideas for granted? Let's question THE SHREW and A WOMAN KILLED WITH
KINDNESS . How did Shakespeare expect his audience to react to Petruccio's
torturing of his wife, his depriving her of food, sleep, sex, clothes, etc.?
Did he expect all of his audience to react in the same way precisely? Did
Heywood expect his audience to cheer Sir Charles Mountford on as he prepares to
prostitute his sister? Did Heywood's audience approve of John Frankford's
torturing of his wife? I have my answers to these questions, and I imagine that
they aren't the same as yours.More questions: do we react the same way to
literature or plays, if you wish, as we react to real-life occurrences? William
Empson argued that we don't, and my colleague Jon Kamholtz argues that
Renaissance audiences reacted romantically to plays and classically to the same
situations in their lives. Ifthis is true, can we use non-imaginative
literature to gauge Renaissance reactions to imagined worlds? Or would we be
comparing eggs to oranges?A penultimate question: what does Elihu Pearlman
think of all this?
 
And David Schalkwyk, I knew I was opening up a can of worms by using the
Sherlock Holmes allusion to the whole philosophic debate over references to
fictional worlds, etc. How do present promises related to a possible future
reality? Are both parts subsumed under intentionality? The speaker intends to
dine and intends that there shall be a dinner, just a playwright intends to
write a play, and intends that the play will have certain meanings.  That's the
best I can do. What's your answer?
 
Questionably yours, Bill Godshalk
 

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