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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: October ::
Re: De-Canonization
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0853.  Monday, 30 October 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Maggi Kramm <
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        Date:   Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 12:43:15 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
(2)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 15:36:06 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
(3)     From:   Bradley S. Berens <
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        Date:   Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 14:30:31 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0837 De-Canonization (was "Importance)
 
(4)     From:   Stuart Rice <
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        Date:   Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 13:14:03 EST
        Subj:   RE: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
(5)     From:   Joseph M Green <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Oct 1995 11:00:54 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
(6)     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Oct 1995 16:57:43 -0700 (MST)
        Subj:   De-Canonization
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Maggi Kramm <
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Date:           Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 12:43:15 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
If people maintain that Shakespeare's plays haven't made them better human
beings, I'm willing to take them at their word.
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 15:36:06 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
I merely have another question.  Forgive me.  Isn't getting Shakespeare's plays
and poems out of the English curriculum something like getting the New
Testament out of Christianity?  If you get rid of your chief culture hero, what
do you have left? Cultures, even dominant cultures, surely have a right to
exist, no?
 
Yours, Bill Godshalk
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bradley S. Berens <
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Date:           Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 14:30:31 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 6.0837 De-Canonization (was "Importance)
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0837 De-Canonization (was "Importance)
 
This note is for Ronald Dwelle,
 
Wars used to be fought with canons, now they are about canons, no?
 
There's one pragmatic argument for keeping Shakespeare as a requirement for
English majors which can avoid the always irresolvable question about quality
(Alice Walker vs. William Shakespeare, now duking it out in the center ring):
Shakespeare has been (and is currently) a foundation of Western letters for
about 300 years.  There is no other early modern author whose works are
currently being made into SEVEN motion pictures (I count two Hamlets, one
Othello, two Romeo and Juliets, a Richard III and a Twelfth Night, have I
missed any?).  I doubt that there is another author of any period whose works
are so pervasive.  To state, though, that Shakespeare is and has been part of
the foundation is not to say that this is a good state of affairs or a bad one:
it just is the state of affairs.  Many a good course can be taught that has as
its central question "why do people still bother with this stuff?" rather than
the statement "this stuff is great, let me convince you that it's great."
 
I prefer an "is-ness" of Shakespeare to a greatness of Shakespeare argument
every time, even though I understand that to talk about the is-ness of
Shakespeare is to implicate oneself with the continuation of the is-ness
anyway.  But, since there's no outside position available, why not just go for
it?
 
Perhaps this is overly simplistic.  Shakespeare is still a living cultural
phenomenon and therefore deserves one semester's worth of attention by someone
who wants a bachelor's degree in English literature.  Is it a bad thing to
venerate statutes of dead white men and ignore literature by other people?
Yeah, sure.  But I think that veneration is never a good pedagogical strategy
anyway.
 
Prof. Dwelle, I want to be clear and pre-emptively apologize in case I have
been less than clear: I am NOT accusing you of using such a pedagogical
strategy.
 
The status of your argument with your colleagues seems to me to have derailed
if you are bothering with questions of quality.  Nobody can have effective
discussions about what to teach if taste is a central issue.  I don't even
think that the best texts always make for the best lessons, anyway.  I think
that John Montague is a better poet that Seamus Heaney, but I could probably
teach Heaney more easily.  I think that The Winter's Tale is a better play than
The Tempest, but boy is it easier to teach The Tempest.  Has anyone ever taught
BELOVED effectively?  It just seems too perfect.  On the other hand, Toni
Morrison's short story "Recitatif" has blown my last few years' worth of
students away.
 
I'm getting side-tracked.  Here is my central question: what is your
department's self-perception of its mission?  What does the department think
that a bachelor's degree in English is for?  If there is consideration of what
has constituted English and American culture(s) in such a mission-statement,
then you might be able to win over your colleagues using a "know your enemy"
argument.  If the mission of the department is purely methodological (how to
think about literary things without it being important what literary things one
is thinking about), then there's no hope.  Of course, asking for consensus
about a departmental mission is like asking chestnuts to grow on plum trees,
but it might at least be a more profitable discussion than one about quality.
 
My best wishes to you, and I dearly hope that you are successful in convincing
your colleagues to retain the course.
 
Sincerely yours,
Bradley Berens
Dept. of English
U.C. Berkeley
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Rice <
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Date:           Saturday, 28 Oct 1995 13:14:03 EST
Subject: 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
Comment:        RE: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
As much as I would like to defend Shakespeare against his *absolute*
disappearance from the canon, I must admit that it is time that Shakespeare was
reevaluated, for he has sufficiently choked our sensibilities.  What other
playwright could invoke such inordinately passionate responses -- that
Shakespeare teaches us "how to live better" and "he is the most widely read and
enacted playwright" -- that have as little grounding in empirical reality or
originality than some of Shakespeare's plots?  It is at this critical juncture
in time -- where the canon is, in general, most at question -- that we should
abandon our old justifications and begin a rational evaluation of
"Shakespeare."
 
First, we must abandon this concept that Shakespeare somehow is the only
playwright that adequately expresses the "eternal" themes of power, love, et
cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  Instead, let us turn an eye to his sources and
source persons -- what of Kyd who probably wrote the first modern revenge play,
the first play-within-a-play, and gave Shakespeare a strong model for how to
produce his "opus magnus:" Hamlet?  And what of Marlowe, who wrote the Jew of
Malta?  If we say that Shakespeare was the source of inspiration for many
playwrights and poets after him, must we not also say that Kyd and Marlowe were
inspirations for their worthy successor?
 
Second, we must admit that some Shakespeare is bad.  Of course, one could argue
that in some way -- via a kind of T.S. Eliot-like paradox -- that the very ways
in which these plays are bad makes them good.  Be that as it may, Romeo and
Juliet is still a piece of fluff (sorry, had to say it).  In all seriousness,
however, we cannot say, in candid honesty, that all of Shakespeare's plays are
perfectly crafted (and by this I mean at the source text level, not with the
mending of modern editors).  There are unbelievable plot contrivances,
vagueness of time/place specificity, and other such imperfections.  One could
argue, of course, that Shakespeare was merely using the devices of the day (and
even farther, one could say he used them more brilliantly then anyone else).
But that admission makes him some how mediocre -- you mean he DIDN'T transcend
his time?  At that, of course, is a critical admission.  Yes, he was bound by
his time, and as such, though he deals with universals, he nevertheless deals
with them in the context of his socio-historical perspective.
 
Finally, it is important to say that Shakespeare has a place within the English
or undergraduate program.  But he must be, like everything, relative -- we
cannot study Shakespeare without studying Fletcher, Marlowe, and Kyd (for
example).  If we are so interested in letting our students learn for
themselves, let THEM decide who is better.  How are we to know, having served
them only Shakespeare for so long, that they will not like Fletcher, Marlowe or
Kyd more than our beloved bard.
 
In the final analysis, I think a course including Shakespeare with his
contemporaries is essential to a core English curriculum, but that a course on
him should be left to the realm of the elective or seminar.  To be sure, I
would be in that seminar, but I would also be in that core course as well.
 
Yours,
Stuart Rice
Kenyon College
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joseph M Green <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Oct 1995 11:00:54 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0849  Re: De-Canonization
 
Dr. Dwelle will, no doubt, find some of the responses here very useful. More or
less he can expect the reaction to his presentation to be something along the
line of:
 
        I do not like thee Doctor Dwelle.
        The reason why I cannot tell.
        But this I know and know full well.
        I do not like thee Doctor Dwelle.
 
Anticipating this will, perhaps, prevent swooning when, of a sudden, a fellow
in a "rage" announces that HE owns no Shakespeare coffee mugs, no Swan of Avon
wind socks and that Shakespeare can't teach HIM anything about himself and why
should he since they were born 400 years apart?  Dr. Dwelle will, no doubt,
keep his Shakespeare worry beads in his pocket and clear his office and home of
any forbidden Shakespeare paraphernalia before making his pitch.  He can also
expect, if he dares to mention that reading Shakespeare a certain way can help
teacher and student to be "better and brave and more like human beings," to be
understood as advocating mass atrocity and intending to create legions of
Rupert Brookes who leap into cleanness in this or that war remembering St.
Crispin's day.  He will not be understood as someone who might think that the
plays could have anything to do with assumptions about culture, taking
responsibility for actions and thoughts (a very Catholic longing there) and
learning to think for oneself: this is the program advocated by the annointed
who are certain that because Shakespeare is long dead (as are Buddha, Socrates,
Mohammed) he can have nothing to teach about the "myself" which seems so
important.  Eliot's reply that, in fact, these dead fellows are that which we
know might come to mind but, perhaps, should not be mentioned.  Maybe Dr.
Dwelle could cut out Philip Levine's piece in yesterday's NY Times, "Keats in
Detroit" and slip it into the right mailbox.  Levine writes of attending Wayne
State ( of all places it is implied) and encountering Keats' poetry for the
first time and reflecting that:
 
"It is curious and wonderful to realize that the man who has served as my
mentor and model all these years was one-third my present age when he passed
from poetry.  Wonderful, too, it seems to me that I found him at Wayne State
University, a campus of old homes and temporary buildings bursting with the new
students the postwar years deposited.  Rereading Keats's poems, his letters,
now, I'm not sure what I regret the most. I think it is the denial of his
simple daily life, for who else have I encountered through life or books who
lived with such intensity or fulness?  Remarkable to consider the power and
grace his presence conferred."
 
But Levine is a poet.  What else can be expected?  Keats is dead, after all.
Perhaps, if it wasn't for the impossibility that Keats could affect the living
in the way mentioned or be affected himself in the way mentioned, we might
speculate that the kind of bravery the deluded seems to think might be learned
from reading Shakespeare was the sort that allowed Keats to worry about the
effect his dying might have on the friend who was in the room with him as he
was dying.  One can read this -- but, of course, this can have no possible
effect on who one is. Keats is dead and we are all honorable and modern
fellows.
 
Dr. Dwelle can also expect that his assertions will be taken as the assertions
of a rather simple fellow.  If he mentions that, perhaps, Homer and Shakespeare
were "lords and owners of their faces," he can expect to be told that many were
and are not -- as if this thought could never have possibly been thought by him
and as if this were not part of his point.  Even though it is obvious that he
(if he takes the line of another poster) locates the power of Shakespeare's
plays in a concept of the literary, of excellence, of surpassing and
penetrating thought that exposes a reality beyond reductive theory, he can
expect to be told that he has never wondered about the source of that power.
What is meant, of course, is that he has never accepted the conclusion that the
sources of that power are elsewhere and that he must subscribe to this and that
theory to be able to talk sensibly about it.
 
In other words, no matter what one says, one will be understood as crying up
roast beef and Old England and, by the way, if anyone has one of those Lear
cigarette lighters (I mean the ones inscribed with the Wheel of Fire), I will
be glad to receive it in the mail.
 
(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Oct 1995 16:57:43 -0700 (MST)
Subject:        De-Canonization
 
To Ronald Dwelle and other interested parties:
 
A course in Shakespeare is no longer required of majors in my department.  But
many students still (we're only a year into the change) seem inclined to choose
the course.
 
I didn't put up a big fuss, but I do see value in having English majors know
older English literature (including Shakespeare) and something about the
traditions (including the classical tradition) that lie behind it.  Not only
that: I see value in having majors read widely, so that they know something
about the "literature" (or whatever we're calling it) of most periods,
including the twentieth century.  (My wife is a contemporary novelist and short
story writer--which is to say she's still living, thank goodness--and has
introduced me to a great deal of contemporary literature, a portion of which I
think is really worth reading.)
 
My own interest in Shakespeare is fueled by what I have found and continue to
find in the plays.  I'm glad I haven't been condemned to read or view nothing
but Shakespeare.  But even with my need for occasional breaks, his plays seem
to me to offer great riches (capable of nourishing, stimulating, challenging,
upsetting) and to do so with greater power and in greater abundance than most
of the other texts I'm aware of.  But arguments like that don't seem to work
very well in persuading colleagues.  The most persuasive arguments seem to be
pragmatic.  I'd like to offer two (the first is maybe more pragmatic than the
second, but both work reasonably well):
 
(1) Students who read contemporary writers--or any writers from the eighteenth
century onward using English as their medium--need to know something of what
those writers knew.  Almost all of the writers in question (this includes the
most avant-garde among them) knew, and many were strongly influenced by, a
certain body of older texts, including the Bible, Shakespeare, and some of the
Greek and Roman classics.  An example is Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). Several of her
works (e.g., *Helen in Egypt*) are strongly influenced by the classical
tradition.  *HERmione*, an experimental work that has been lately receiving
increased attention, has obvious connections with *The Winter's Tale*. (H.D.
named her own daughter "Perdita," by the way.)  I've met an "expert" on
*HERmione* who didn't know *The Winter's Tale*, a fact that I think diminishes
her understanding of the book and of H.D.
 
(2) Another argument that might encourage the reading of older literature
(Shakespeare or other) comes from C. S. Lewis--a writer who, by the way, has
never made it into the *Norton Anthology* but whose fiction, IMHO, is at least
as good as that of the canonized writers.  Near the end of *An Experiment in
Criticism* Lewis says:
 
"My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.
Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough.  I will see what
others have invented.  Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough.  I regret
that the brutes cannot write books.  Very gladly would I learn what face things
present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory
world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of
individuality.  ...  Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad
eyes, but it is still I who see.  Here, as in worship, in love, in moral
action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when
I do."
 
Actually this is a good argument for reading anything at all, and it is as good
a rationale as any I know for opening the canon and increasing our attention to
texts from various cultures as well as from various periods.  Here is Lewis's
more specific argument in favor of old texts (from "On the Reading of Old
Books"):
 
"Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths
and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the
books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And
that means the old books.  ...  Not, of course, that there is any magic about
the past.  People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many
mistakes as we.  But not the *same* mistakes.  [I would amend this to say: "Not
*all* of the same mistakes."]  They will not flatter us in the errors we are
already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not
endanger us.  Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible,
but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure,
the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the
past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."
 
Both of these arguments, of course, depend on Shakespeare's plays not simply
being whatever we make of them.  But I guess I take being able to see more than
one's reflection to be one of the premises of mental health and one of the main
aims of an education: I must become aware, in some degree, of my biases and
limitations and at the same time I must--at least if I want to end up doing
more than talking to myself--become increasingly attentive to, and willing to
learn from, the otherness of others.
 
Bruce Young
 

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