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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: October ::
Re: Importance of Shakespeare and Related Issues
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0779.  Thursday, 12 October 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Michele Crescenzo <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Oct 95 12:57:37 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0776 Re: Importance of Shakespeare
 
(2)     From:   Michael Harrawood <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Oct 1995 10:25:24 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: The Triumph of English; was Importance
 
(3)     From:   Marcello Cappuzzo <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Oct 1995 18:51:51 +0100
        Subj:   Shakespeare & Democracy (was Importance of WS)
 
(4)     From:   Paul Crowley <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Oct 1995 22:38:20 GMT
        Subj:   Importance of Shakespeare
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michele Crescenzo <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Oct 95 12:57:37 EDT
Subject: 6.0776 Re: Importance of Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0776 Re: Importance of Shakespeare
 
I'd like to join in the fray here, and write in earnest about the Importance of
Shakespeare.  First, bravo to Robert Appelbaum, who writes:
 
> [...]  Conversely, the Swiss
> Confederacy has been practising representative government longer than any
> Anglophone nation; and it has never, as far as I know, conquered any foreign
> country.
 
Colonialism, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc., have more to do
with British and American power than "democracy" or the "superiority" of the
English language. And let's face it, when did you last read a poem in Swiss?
 
Appelbaum goes on to say:
 
> [...]  [The assertion that the recognition of the individual is also the
> foundation stone of literature] is plain hooey.  There is no record of
> King James summoning Parliament and granting it new rights in the
> aftermath of attending a play by Shakespeare.
> There is, however, a record of SHAKSPERians mistaking hegemony for democracy
> and conquest for culture; and there is a record of SHAKSPERians dismissing the
> dignity of other cultures, other languages, and other peoples in the name of
> "literature" and "freedom."
 
And to this I would add, if literature glorifies the individual that is because
the literature that has been canonized has a specific political and cultural
world view.  Marxist literature, for example, tends to favor group over
individual experience; it is also dismissed as "propaganda."  I see no
*inherent* connection between literature and the individual.
 
W. L. Godshalk, to me, sums this up in saying,
 
> I'd say that Shakespeare produced "literature" IF we say he produced
> literature.
 
Finally, a list member recently accused the participants in this debate of
"flaming."  To me this has been a lively and interesting discussion, and the
posters have been respectful in their disagreement.  This does not constitute
flaming, probably not even in the more decorous Elizabethan times.
 
But the content of this discourse--our assumptions about our literature--calls
into question our assumptions about our language, our culture, and our
politics.  And that is something we must always continue to question.
 
Michele Crescenzo
(currently facing the trauma of Ph.D. program applications, so I apologize
if this is incoherent)
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Harrawood <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Oct 1995 10:25:24 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Re: The Triumph of English; was Importance
 
After this last flurry of exchanges I feel like adding a few words of support
to the argument of my friend and colleague Bob Applebaum on the vexed issue of
Shakespeare's "greatness" or "importance" -- which at some very important level
I don't think any of us want to dispute.  But its true that our tradition has a
history of talking out of both sides of its mouth when throwing around words
like "freedom" and "individual," and its equally true that the creation of the
Shakespeare industry is so historically evident that we can just look it up
without having to get personal with each other.
 
Thomas Carlyle, for example, dwells at length in *Of Heros and Hero Worship* on
the question of whether England can better afford to lose Shakespeare or the
India Colony.  After some meditation, it turns out that by keeping Shakespeare,
England will get the India Colony back, because now the English have a gift --
a source of language and culture -- that will make it worth it for the Indians
to be colonized.  Giving the colonized world Shakespeare will be to give it its
voice -- and Carlyle ends by fantasizing English as the language which conquers
the world (the Tzar has cannon and cavalry; we have Shakespeare).  Thirty five
or forty years later, Matthew Arnold makes a similar pitch in *Culture and
Anarchy* -- this time its Can England Give Up Shakespeare or its Coal Mines.
 
I don't think it takes a lot to see how "Shakespeare" is being both created and
made to perform as part of project that isn't literary or about sacred
individualism, despite, perhaps the good intentions of the authors.  A more
compelling question might be to compare these two authors with Jonson in "For
William Roe" -- with the idea of an English essence that can travel through the
continent and extract the best things and return with them unchanged; or with
Ascham's comment that one year of serious study of Hoby's translation of The
Book of the Courtier is better than three years of being in Italy.  Maybe by
doing this we can tease out a sense of what has been behind this discussion so
far, and ask ourselves how it has happened that we are thinking the way we do
about these matters.
 
Michael Harrawood
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Marcello Cappuzzo <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Oct 1995 18:51:51 +0100
Subject:        Shakespeare & Democracy (was Importance of WS)
 
        First we must, as far as we can, eliminate the "moral" issue that
        Marcello Cappuzzo appears to be so sensitive about: "that behind a
        bigger gun there is necessarily a linguistically and culturally
        bigger man!"
                (Paul Crowley, Oct 8)
 
I have the impression that the "moral issue" Paul Crowler wants to get rid of
is much stronger than his reasoning, whose main terms -- if I may take the
liberty of summarizing them -- are the following:  1. wars and genocides are
just historical facts, therefore to abhor them is "almost futile [...and]
certainly unhistorical";  2. the English and, later, the Americans became the
most powerful nations "by having very stable governments";  3. what makes
governments stable is democracy;  4. "literature and the absence of tyranny (in
other words: a broad democracy) go hand in hand";  5. "English literature [...]
starts from WS.  And his influence was the deepest and most intense of all."
 
This discourse, it seems to me, does *not* answer the question I posed, which
was, approximately, "is it always true that behind a bigger gun there is a
linguistically and culturally bigger man?"  Behind the bigger gun Crowler sees
"the Brits and then the Americans";  he may be right;  but, as to the
"*linguistically* and *culturally* bigger man, he himself admits he cannot make
any real comparison ("My Spanish is non-existent," etc.). Moreover, what is the
exact meaning of Crowler's statement according to which to abhor wars and
genocides is "almost futile [...and] certainly unhistorical"?  Isn't this the
same as saying that commoners (let alone intellectuals) should not meddle in
state affairs?   Is this the "democracy" that makes governments stable and
nourishes literature?  And, by the way, supposing that WS produced "literature"
(Professor Hawkes' suggestion of Oct 10 did not fall on deaf ears -- I intend
to come back to this subject another time), what makes Paul Crowler so sure
that "Literature and the absence of tyranny (in other words: a broad democracy)
go hand in hand"?  If it were so, if literature could not exist without
democracy and civil liberty, then, I believe,... many shelves in our libraries
(English sections included) wouldn't probably have much to boast.
 
Marcello Cappuzzo
University of Palermo
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul Crowley <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Oct 1995 22:38:20 GMT
Subject:        Importance of Shakespeare
 
Terence Hawkes asked:
 
> What makes Paul Crowley so sure that Shakespeare produced 'Literature'? He
> didn't. And what makes him so sure that you can't come from a performance of
> most of the plays 'in a mood prepared to tolerate tyranny'? Audiences in Nazi
> Germany did. Finally, who decides who 'all those who matter' are?
 
The topic we are trying to discuss is so vast, and our space and time so
limited, that broad generalities must be forgiven.  Professor Hawkes is almost
nitpicking, given the breadth of some of my other statements; certainly he is
on the definition of 'literature'.  Collins has: 'the art of composition in
prose and verse'.  In any case, I was referring to Stephanie Hughes's points
about the various arts and their respective wider influences.
 
If I say that only one person mattered in Germany 1933-45, everybody knows what
I mean, accepting the over-simplification.  Who 'matters' is a question of
historical fact:  who had the power, influence, money, votes or voice at the
time;  who made the decisions and took the initiatives;  whose existence made a
difference to his/her fellows, for good or ill (e.g., Karl Marx).
 
You can certainly come from a WS play unaffected in mind or body.  I left out
the words "having understood the ideas".  I can only turn the question back on
Professor Hawkes and ask him why he would never be prepared to tolerate
tyranny. It is, of course, his sense of personal dignity, his sense of history
and national identity, and the affront it would be to the traditions of his
country.  The expression of such concepts in a WS play (usually deeply embedded
in the context of English history) would hardly, in 1935, influence a German
audience.  Most, if not all, of the idiom would be lost.  That such concepts
have never been better expressed, before or since WS, hardly needs stating.
And that literature (please don't quibble) can have great influence is
evidenced by the artists imprisoned by dictators.  It's the Pasternaks,
Solzhenitsyns and Havels who are the most feared.
 
I believe that WS's works were far better understood in his time, and close to
it, than they are now;  that his theater audiences were much more
knowledgeable, literate and politically aware, than we are usually given to
believe; that the performances of his plays in private places were much more
common.  Only occasional references come down to us; one example is that on
board the ship on its way to India (in 1614?).  Further, his printed works had
an excellent circulation and were read by those "who mattered".
 
I must admit that I regard the effect of most academic teaching of WS as
baleful.  He lies dead in the pages.  Nothing he says is taken seriously as
though it were a real person saying something he meant to say in a real
political and historical context.  Everything, even the expression of the most
profound thoughts, becomes a 'convention' in a de-politicised, de-
historicised, banal puppet show.
 
Paul Crowley
 

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