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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: November ::
Re: De-Canonization
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0861. Wednesday, 1 November 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Chris Stroffolino <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Oct 1995 20:12:41 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0853  Re: De-Canonization
 
(2)     From:   Robert Appelbaum <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Oct 1995 23:32:22 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   de-canonization
 
(3)     From:   Joseph M Green <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 31 Oct 1995 11:30:56 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0853  Re: De-Canonization
 
(4)     From:   Victor Gallerano <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 31 Oct 1995 12:53:21 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0844 Re: De-Canonization
 
(5)     From:   Douglas Flummer <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 31 Oct 95  18:35:30 CST
        Subj:   SHK 6.0853  Re: De-Canonization
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
 
I WANNA TESTIFY!
 
It is great to see such poets as Levine, HD, John Montague (who teaches at my
institution at least halftime) mentioned in this connection of Shakespeare's
"importance"--As someone who received a M.A. WITHOUT EVER HAVING TAKEN A CLASS
IN SHAKESPEARE and coming to him (or it) "on my own" and deciding to go back to
school for a Ph.D. in part because of it, I am VERY interested in the
relationship between Shakespeare and poetry (especially 20th century modern and
contemporary "avant-garde" poetry). Since I've come to Shakespeare "backward" I
find that many things that are generally considered "20th century tendencies"
(or pomo, etc) in literature are definitely IN Shakespeare, as well as many
things that make him (or it) more similar to say John Ashbery than to Alice
Walker. One of the things that Shakespeare allows is an INTERSECTION between
the various factions in academia today, a meeting ground between people who
find the meaning in the story and those who find it in the poetic complexities.
I'm not saying S is the only writer who allows this....But I do wonder to what
extent the marginalization of poetry (a title of a forthcoming book by a U-Penn
professor scholar who is also one of the LANGUAGE poets, Bob Perelman) is
involved with the decision to drop Shakespeare. It seems it does play a
part--and though teaching Shakespeare's plays "poetically" is very difficult
(whether one digs up the old F.E. Halliday Book or Zukofsky's BOTTOM:ON
SHAKESPEARE), but it can be done, and I think allows students a way into POETRY
they may not appreciate if one dwells just on Stevens, Stein, Ashbery, O'Hara,
etc. (just to throw out some names). I taught a class this summer in which such
writers were put into dialogue with Shakespeare-- (oh and Marianne Moore, whose
"Marriage" in part is a takeoff on the Shakespeare critical industry!, and
Dickinson of course, and Laura Riding--co-author of the controversial essay on
the LUST SONNET)-- and I think the dialogue was "fruitful"-----chris
stroffolino
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Appelbaum <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Oct 1995 23:32:22 -0800 (PST)
Subject:        de-canonization
 
I believe that we are beginning to hear some interesting responses to the
problem of de-canonization, responses that avoid reliance on the platitudes
about greatness that were partly responsible for getting us into this trouble
in the first place.  I think also, as people like Bruce Young have suggested,
that we do not in fact have to REQUIRE Shakespeare in order to teach him, or
have our students voluntarily study him.  But there is a still larger question
looming in the background of all this: I doubt that any of us could give cogent
reasons for the specialized study of English literature itself, especially as a
major.  Why the English major and not something else?
 
IF the purpose of majoring in English is simply to become versant in something
identified as THE TRADITION OF ENGLISH LITERATURE, then, depending on your
definition of this tradition, Shakespeare will be more or less vital to what
you are doing.  When I decided (not as an undergrad, but as a returning grad
student) to major in English it was partly because I was (in principle) a
writer, and partly because I was fascinated with the work of people like
Melville and Conrad.  Now, if you begin as a writer with a certain kind of
ambition, then you're going to want to read a lot of Shakespeare; one doesn't
want to end up reinventing the wheel. And again, if you begin with Melville and
Conrad then you have to go back to the Renaissance and Shakespeare too;
otherwise you simply won't understand a lot of what they're trying to do.  But
what if you're not a writer with the kind of ambition I thought I had?  What if
you have a different kind of ambition?  And what if your starting point is not
Melville and Conrad, but [fill in the blanks]?  Moreover, even if you have a
certain canon-based Oedipal ambition, and you start with writers like Melville,
and you need to read Shakespeare, why should that mean that you need to take a
COURSE in Shakespeare?  I don't believe that Melville ever took one -- so why
should we imagine that the wannabe Melvilles of the world should be filling our
lecture halls, and providing us with a raison d'etre?
 
Students with a commitment to theater arts present a different kind of case.
It does seem unimaginable that a theater arts student would not pay a lot of
attention to Shakespeare as interpreted by experts.  But theater arts is not
the issue; the issue is the English major.  What is the purpose of "majoring"
in English?  Answer that and you'll know whether Shakespeare ought to be
required or not.
 
I would like to hear possible answers about this.  I don't myself have one.  I
do know, however, that at Berkeley Shakespeare has been retained (or so they
tell me) for two reasons:  (1) because the English major is conceived of as
being part and parcel to a commitmment to *historical* understanding, and (2)
because Shakespeare (more than any other writer) gives us something like a
common vocabulary.
 
The commitment to history at my school is (and has been) central to the
organization of the department.  The idea of a "literature" or a "literary
practice" which is not in itself historically situated, and which does not in
itself express a certain historical depth, is considered all but absurd.  So,
if one studies "English [and American] Literature" one has to study its
history, and study it intimately.  Choices in themselves are always somewhat
arbitrary (everyone here reads Spenser and Milton; not everyone reads Donne),
but the choice of history is not itself arbitrary. Either we are historical
beings or we are not.  Either imaginative writing in English has a history or
it does not.  And as we have decided that we *are* historical beings, and that
imaginative writing *does* have a history, then we simply have to study that
history; otherwise, we are not studying what we have stipulated that we
ourselves and our imaginative writing essentially are.
 
This argument, however, may well lead to a requirement that the 16th and 17th
centuries be studied, but not necessarily Shakespeare.  And the "common
vocabulary" argument is beginning to wear thin.  Again, WS is the common
vocabulary of Melville and Conrad; but I don't see the relevance of WS to *Bury
My Heart at Wounded Knee.*  And I think it is probably likely that at some
point in time Berkeley too will drop not the historical period but the
particular author WS from its required list.
 
The original question starting this thread did not indicate whether something
like "history" or something like a "common vocabulary" was thought to be part
of what it is essential that English majors learn.  But it also didn't say what
it was proposed that the purpose of majoring in English was supposed to be.
 
Obviously, it cannot be "to make us better persons."  There are better people
than any of us working the nightshifts at Safeway or McDonald's. There are
probably better people than me holed up in Folsom Prison (and I am not so bad).
 "Treat a man according to his deserts, etc...."  I think (I am sorry to have
to say this) that it is shameful for a man who has claimed to have learned how
to live from Shakespeare to suppose that he is a better person than people who
have not -- yet that is what his argument implies.  I know for myself that
Shakespeare has inculcated certain things in me that I cannot do without,
things that have become me -- Lear in the storm, Lady Macbeth and her bloody
hands -- but I cannot see any moral value in it.  Nor, for that matter, can I
see that what it is that Shakespeare has inculcated in me has anything to do
with my having taken a course in Shakespeare, or with my having become an
"English major."
 
Robert Appelbaum
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joseph M Green <
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Date:           Tuesday, 31 Oct 1995 11:30:56 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 6.0853  Re: De-Canonization
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0853  Re: De-Canonization
 
It is inevitable that Shakespeare now becomes the lily that festers -- after
all, isn't it obvious that the extravagant claims made for him can't be true?
The claim, for example, that reading him in a certain way can help make us
"better and braver"... quite over the top... can't be empirically
demonstrated...ridiculous and untrue.
 
Of course, it is exactly this claim that is made by nearly everyone about
nearly everyone.  It is only when it is applied to Shakespeare that it seems so
groundless.  Why else is Toni Morrison taught? What else is wanted from reading
"The Tempest" as a postcolonial play?  What else do those wily fellows, the
Cultural Materialists< want to achieve?  Why else is it necessary that sweet
Felicia Hemans be studied and Wordsworth looked at with suspicion? It seems
merely strategic to find this claim groundless when made for Shakespeare and to
then make the same claim as a reason -- even the reason -- for admitting others
into the curriculum.  There is nothing extravagant about this claim when it is
made for Shakespeare unless the claim is found equally extravagant and baseless
for everyone else -- all those third-world writers, those women writers, those
"queer" writers who are admitted into the curriculum precisely so that students
can read them with their teachers and so become better human beings.
 
The argument that our sensibilities are corrupted because we insist that
Shakespeare is the ONLY writer who can adequately express certain "eternal"
themes is equally groundless -- for who in the wide world ever made such a
claim?  In the words of Brian Vickers: show me their graves.  Have there been
legions of fellows who deny that Homer, Dante, Cervantes, and so on cannot do
this?  No.  The assertion is absurd.
 
The other arguments contra Shakespeare's pre-eminence are only slightly more
interesting.  As far as I know there are courses to be taken in drama exclusive
of Shakespeare.  Webster, Middleton, Marlowe and company and Ben Jonson may be
read at universities and there are books and articles about their plays.  This
assertion will be understood as the equivalent of Scrooge asking whether there
are still poorhouses but until I read a convincing argument that these surpass
Shakespeare in many of the many qualities that makes for good art and good
drama, how can I wonder at Shakepeare's preeminence?  So Kyd wrote a revenge
drama... fine... how exactly does it compare with Hamlet?  Hamlet surpasses it
in every quality.  I can make a detailed argument and I will win -- as long as
what is valued is not the ability to discover stereotypical elements that allow
one to feel as if he is the master.  There were a lot of good plays written.
Students should be given and are given a chance to study them.  But an
undergraduate who reads Kyd instead of Shakespeare will lose -- there is, after
all, only so much time.  Why not study the best?
 
The rest of the disapprobations directed against Shakespeare are of a piece.
Romeo and Juliet as a "piece of fluff" is an astounding judgment. Production
after production has shown that the "unbelievable" plots (what ever happened to
considerations of genre by the by?) are believed and no-one is bothered by the
seacoast in Bohemia.  As for Shakespeare not transcending his time -- well, 400
years have passed and his plays are still doing just that.  The historicist
claim that he is bound by his "socio-political" perspective is more of a hope
than a truth and the assertion is usually made by first begging the question.
It is always assumed that this must be the case -- so, naturally this is always
the case.  Since any sort of universal human nature -- even the claim that all
suffer -- is rejected, there is nothing that can be done to refute these
fellows.  Shakespeare's creation of a kind of drama, the history play, which
seems, in his hands, to open up so many questions, introduce so many
complications and qualifications, provide so many clashing perspectives that a
regime (or whatever you wish -- a paradigm, an age's sensibility) becomes open
to interpretation and questioning is not seen -- and I don't mean only the sort
of "enlightened" questioning that exposes this or that so-called mystification
of power.  Shakespeare also questions the de-mystifiers.
 
There's no replacing Shakespeare.  His achievement is a fact. Lots of good
drama, of course, but often there is neither world enough nor time.  His
cultured despisers may succeed in what they wish -- but there will be no good
reasons for this.
 
Finally, Dr. Dwelle should inform the curriculum reform committee that they are
awfully belated.  The good old whirligig of Time has come around again and
these kinds of "reforms" are coming under intense scrutiny.  The "future" is
not there -- neither is the contemporary.  The lesser gods of the last 25 years
are diminished things.  In fact, as I was sailing away from Tarsus I heard a
voice from an island crying "The great God Pan is dead."
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Victor Gallerano <
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Date:           Tuesday, 31 Oct 1995 12:53:21 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0844 Re: De-Canonization
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0844 Re: De-Canonization
 
Some considerations for the benefit of Simon Morgan-Russell and Michael Yogev:
 
I did not say that "teaching" Shakespeare made students anything. I did say
that "asking questions" about Shakespeare's plays made students "better and
braver and more like human beings."
 
There is nothing "glib" about my reference to Plato.  The formulation: "better
and braver and more like human beings" is, in fact, a quotation (a well known
quotation, I thought) from Plato's dialogue *Meno*.  Versions of the same can
be found in his *Theatetus*, *Phaedo* and other dialogues, including *The
Republic*.  The obstacle to Meno's becoming more philosophic is the
intellectual sloth that keeps him from questioning orthodox opinions about
things like virtue and, as it turns out, about the possibility of learning
anything at all.  The most common and most orthodox opinions in the Academy
today seem to be strains of an historicism which denies the possibility of
learning.  It is (as it has ever been) easier professionally if you do not
challenge that orthodoxy, hence my jab at lazy, grad-school-bound students.
(Both senses of "bound" pertain here.)
 
(Having gotten this far, it occurs to me that the greatest disadvantage of not
having a canon in common is that we have to waste time telling each other what
is in the books we have read. If we don't, we risk being called "glib" and
"defied" to detail things that anyone can and everyone should read for him or
her self.)
 
In the dialogues cited above, Socrates says that, "whether knowledge is
possible or not," Philosophy (you know, guys; the love of wisdom, the examined
life, deliberate inquiry spawned out of wonder?) will make us "better and
braver and more like human beings."  The "possible or not" makes all the
difference here.  Rather than the dogmatism which Simon and Michael attribute
to it, Socratic philosophy only has a hypothetical or at best a
dogmatically-skeptical foundation....And still Socrates says that he believes
trying to live that life makes us "better and braver and more like human
beings."
 
And like it or not, Simon, we all seem to share that belief even if in the most
un-reflective of ways.  After all, consider the "purpose" you claim of getting
students "to think for themselves, to challenge their assumptions...to take
responsibility for their own actions and thoughts?" How is it dissimilar from
the Socratic, examined life?  Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn't your
"purpose" indicate ways in which you are trying to "improve" your students?
(And speaking of improved students, which "slack-arsed" student of Plato did
you have in mind...Aristotle?  He wasn't too "slack-arsed" to disagree with his
teacher in, for example, the *Nichomachian Ethics*.  (Damn, another glib
reference.  Sorry Simon, you'll just have to go read it for yourself.)
 
Michael Yogev reminds me that canon formation is the work of regnant powers.
Fair enough (see the end comment on "wonder" and Stephen Greenblatt.) But that
was the point of my quoting the sonnet "they that have the power to hurt."  I
was making the distinction between the "Lords and owners of their faces" on the
one hand, and the "Stewards of their excellence" on the other.  The fact that
one particular set of stewards is in charge doesn't mean that we shouldn't have
a canon, only that there are risks involved.  But they are the risks inherent
in the art of writing as such.  Shakespeare seems to be aware of them.  It is
altogether appropriate that Michael should mention another Platonic dialogue,
the *Phaedrus* where the risks and problems of writing are explored.  Mention
of the *Phaedrus* reminds us to be especially wary of the limitations and
weaknesses of writing because of the way Derrida handles that dialogue. But
unless Michael is following Derrida's appropriation of the dialogue, I'm not
sure how it helps his case.  (Derrida seems no more interested in reading Plato
than he was in having a conversation with Hans Georg Gadamer.) Michael and I
could argue about Derrida's appropriation of the *Phaedrus* for his own ends
(again, the inherent weakness of the written word) but I am afraid I would
insist that we read Plato's words first.  There is enough "old" New Critic in
me to want not only to discuss books commonly known, but to know them as well
as possible by reading them as closely as possible for myself.  As Woody Allen
makes one of his characters say, "I've been doing all my own reading since I
turned forty."
 
And that's why reading (i.e. questioning) Shakespeare is better for you than
learning theory, guys.  The mere possibility that a few students will do their
own reading; that they will read Shakespeare and not what their teacher says he
means as an example of bourgouise-capitalistic-imperial fetishism makes it
worth the risk of requiring that the plays be read.  No reason to meet a
sophist un-armed: "Sic semper Tyrannus."
 
(For an example of the difference between "wonder" as the origin of philosophy
and "wonder" as the origin of one of the new-orthodoxies compare Plato or
Aristotle's use of the word to Stephen Greenblatt's use of the word in
*Learning To Curse*.  Greenblatt justifies his personal turn to the "new
historicism" because, when he was a grad-student, the regnant, academic
orthodoxy had taken the "wonder" out of his study.  But what he calls "wonder"
is quite different from the older meaning.  On the older account, wonder is a
desire to know the cause of something (*Metaphysics* 983a13) and in the case of
Socrates (*Phaedo*) not simply to know the cause of things, but to know why its
is good that things should be that way and no other.  In contrast, Greenblatt
uses "wonder" to mean some sort of aesthetic bedazzlement.)
 
By the way, Joseph Green, the Lear cigarette lighter sounds pretty neat, but
have you seen the Dogberry water-pistol and holster set?  I got it signed by
Michael Keaton.
 
Vic Gallerano
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Douglas Flummer <
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Date:           Tuesday, 31 Oct 95  18:35:30 CST
Subject: Re: De-Canonization
Comment:        SHK 6.0853  Re: De-Canonization
 
Bill Godshalk makes an excellent point in comparing this situation with recent
trends in use of the Bible in various churches.  I have notice a disturbing
trend recently of translating the Bible to the point where it is not only easy
to read, but also neutralized to the point where sometimes the translators are
unwilling to use a gender to describe God.  Might this be part of the problem
that underlies this situation here as well?  Since they cannot change the
wording that Shakespeare used, as there is no translation to concern oneself
with, and as there is quite a bit of political incorrectness in the text, might
it be that some people are unwilling to deal with such politically incorrect
material, no matter how important the source?  We have seen such censorship
happen in other areas of literature, why not here?  I have found the entire
situation to be quite disturbing, and the possibility that some would even
consider such a thing with the Bard I find appalling.  Of course, this is
surely not the case, but I as yet cannot see the logic for removing Shakespeare
from the standard coursework.
 
Doug Flummer
 

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