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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: September ::
Re: Importance of Shakespeare
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 729. Wednesday, 27 September 1995
 
(1)     From:   Robert Appelbaum <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Sep 1995 11:06:21 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Importance of Shakespeare
 
(2)     From:   Marcello Cappuzzo <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Sep 1995 21:02:50 +0100
        Subj:   Re: Importance of Shakespeare
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Appelbaum <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Sep 1995 11:06:21 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Importance of Shakespeare
 
The problem with considering Shakespeare a "historical watershed," it seems to
me, is that it is historically wrong, and probably involves a confusion of
cause and effect.  One can make a case that the writings of Ben Jonson, John
Donne, and even John Dryden were more important in the development of the
English language between (say) 1610 and 1750 than those of Shakespeare (which
of course were not only widely available until about 1710, whereas, say,
Donne's sermons were reprinted often.).  How many playwrights or poets can
Stephanie Hughes name from that period who were imitating WS's diction?  How
many intellectuals can she name from that period who were actively drawing on
Shakespeare's "synthesis" of mythology and Christianity?  Unfortunately, one
can even say that William Waller was the more influential crafter of language
during the late 17th and 18th centuries; and apart from a few successful
adaptations of Shakespeareanism on the English stage (like Otway's *Venice
Preserved*) one will find, I think, few direct effects of Shakespearean
mentality in English culture during that time.  (It should not be forgotten
that the Shakespeare being performed from Dryden on was a Shakespeare whose
language had been cleaned up -- Dryden corrected it into heroic couplets!-- and
whose moral ambiguities had clarified if not erased.)
 
The Shakespeare who reinvented the English language is, I think, an invention
of a later time.  It is true that WS brought together in his work more cultural
material from more sources than any other writer of English before or since
(though Chaucer comes close); and it is true that WS came to have a
disproportionate effect on literary and theatrical production beginning in the
late 18th century.  It is also true that plausible claims can be made (as
Fineman did in *Perjured Eye*) that WS somehow "discovered" modes of
subjectivity and writing which have become central to Western traditions.  But
I don't think we have to reify WS into a kind of force of historical
determinism in order to recognize the value of what he achieved; and I don't
think that we can really *find* WS's work actually *doing* the kind of cultural
work that Stephanie Hughes assigns to it until other individuals of a much
later date come along and *assign* to the work the kind of historical force she
wants to assign to it.
 
Certainly, it was not Shakespeare's doing that he was being adopted as a
cultural deity at about the same time that the industrial revolution, the slave
trade, and a devastating navy were making England into the most powerful
country inthe world.  It was in any case the English military, and not the
actors of the West End, who made English into the official language of India,
Australia, Canada, Nigeria, Jamaica, etc.  And it is the English military that
would have made it into the official language of much of the world even if
Shakespeare had never "reinvented" it.
 
We are probably doing Shakespeare a favor if we assign the repsonsibility for
the cultural imperialism of the modern era to something or someone else.
 
Robert Appelbaum
UC Berkeley
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Marcello Cappuzzo <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Sep 1995 21:02:50 +0100
Subject:        Re: Importance of Shakespeare
 
     "Certainly Shakespeare did not set out to create a worldwide language;
     but I must repeat, had he never been born, had Sidney, Raleigh and Bacon
     been the best writers of their time, we might be making these posts in
     Spanish."   Stephanie Hughes, Sept 26.
 
What is wrong with Spanish?  Ms Hughes seems to believe 1. that WS "created"
(ex nihilo) a "medium" known as the English language;  2. that the history of
this "medium" begins *and* ends with WS;  3. that English is perhaps the best
possible language, certainly "the most important" (Hughes, Sept 8), and 4. that
therefore "to make these posts in Spanish" would be...what?  inappropriate?
inopportune?  unbecoming?  would it be an insult--given the topic of this
conversation?  I do not share any of Ms Hughes' opinions;  however, should Ms
Hughes be monolingual, I would understand her sense of relief for not having to
learn a second language to take part in this international conference--though
one or two other reasons could perhaps be found.
 
Marcello Cappuzzo
University of Palermo
 

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