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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: October ::
Shakespeare and "Literature"
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0795.  Monday, 16 October 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Thomas G. Bishop <
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        Date:   Sunday, 15 Oct 1995 18:26:06 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0787 Shakespeare and "literature".
 
(2)     From:   Ed Gieskes <
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        Date:   Sunday, 15 Oct 1995 19:58:13 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0787  Re: Importance of Shakespeare and Related Issues
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas G. Bishop <
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 >
Date:           Sunday, 15 Oct 1995 18:26:06 -0400
Subject: 6.0787 Shakespeare and "literature".
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0787 Shakespeare and "literature".
 
Terry Hawkes, one of my favorite SHAKSPERean clowns, offers the following
thought:
 
>> 1. Shakespeare was a playwright. 'Literature' is something that has been
>> thrust upon him.
 
Now, as far as I can recall, "literature" in around 1600 meant something like
"acquaintance with authoritative cultural writings, mostly classical poets and
philosophers."  In this sense, "literature" was something one had rather than
something one did, and W.S. had it thrust upon him at Stratford Grammar School,
not very thoroughly if we choose to believe Greene and Jonson. In this sense,
then, he did "have" literature. But more than this, what he was by the
standards of his time, was a _poet_, a very ancient profession whose basic
canons were well understood by most Elizabethans. He was fully recognized as
such in his own time. He worked for a living in the theater, writing and acting
in plays (and so produced "literature" in the slightly later sense of "things
written down") and at one time tried to get a toehold on the poetry/patronage
circuit, but gave that up for reasons we do not know. So that though we could
say that "literature" was thrust upon him, "poetry" was a vocation he chose for
himself (or one that was the product of some divine thrusting on, if you like).
 
Much that we now call "literature" was once covered by the category "poetry"
which still does a pretty good job of pointing us at certain recurrent
questions about human imaginative activity, questions very relevant to what we
now call "Shakespeare". Is anyone going to object if I choose to talk about
Shakespeare as a poet?
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Gieskes <
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 >
Date:           Sunday, 15 Oct 1995 19:58:13 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 6.0787  Re: Importance of Shakespeare and Related Issues
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0787  Re: Importance of Shakespeare and Related Issues
 
Stephanie Hughes <
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 > writes:
 
>I have been pondering Terrence Hawkes statement that what Shakespeare produced
>was not literature. What was it then? And if what he produced wasn't
>literature, who did "produce literature"? Is this observation the result of
>some four-syllable ism that has somehow passed me by? I hope someone will
>enlighten me lest I continue to operate under what appears to be a vast
>misunderstanding.
 
It's a fairly simple issue.  Shakespeare wrote (primarily) plays for the public
theatre in early modern England.  Such plays were not considered "literary"
(this term itself is problematic in the period) until later.  "Literature" is a
category invented later (the OED dates the earliest use of the term in the
modern sense to 1779 (Samuel Johnson)). The observation is the result of
attention to the contemporary reception and evaluation of what Shakespeare
produced, not any -ism in particular.
 
Literature meant something more like learned written discourse in the period
and did not necessarily (or even often) apply to what we might call literary
art.
 
I hope that helps.
 
Ed Gieskes
 

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