Make a Donation

Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER.

Subscribe to Our Feeds

Current Postings RSS

Announcements RSS

Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: February ::
Re: Postmodernism; Anti-Semitism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0098  Tuesday, 3 February 1998.

[1]     From:   Stevie Simkin <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Monday, 2 Feb 1998 08:58:49 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism

[2]     From:   Stevie Simkin <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Monday, 2 Feb 1998 09:33:54 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism; anti-Semitism

[3]     From:   Thomas H. Blackburn <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Monday, 2 Feb 1998 09:43:07 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re Anti-Semitism

[4]     From:   John McWilliams <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Monday, 02 Feb 1998 11:05:50  +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Simkin <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Monday, 2 Feb 1998 08:58:49 -0000
Subject: 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism

Bill Godshalk wrote

> If we say there is no "meaning by Shakespeare," i.e., Shakespeare was
> not, is not able to force his audiences to interpret his plays in any
> given way, how can users of Shakespeare's words, like Conservative
> politicians who quoted Ulysses' speech, force their audience to
> interpret these words in any given way?

This is a useful point and I guess I should clarify the point I was
making - while everything is open to interpretation by an
audience/reader, and while the interpretation any individual makes will
be closer to or further away from the interpretation of the "projector"
of meaning (whether it be a Tory politician or a director of a
production, or, Lord help us, a literary critic), there is still a clear
intention on the part of the projector to mean a certain thing by (or
via) Shakespeare in each case.  And the context for each projected
meaning will be different and will heavily influence the meaning that is
picked up:  so the dominant interpretation of the Ulysses speech at a
Tory party conference will be that intended by the speaker (Shakespeare
liked hierarchical society, therefore hierarchical society is good); if
the same speech was given (or attempted) at a Socialist Workers Party
conference, the dominant interpretation would probably be very
different.  The point is that Shakespeare is used for his "halo" effect
(as Bill Godshalk terms it), to lend weight to a particular argument.
And while, wrenched out of the playtext, Ulysses' speech can be made to
look like Shakespeare is endorsing that point of view, it is easy enough
to interpret it in a contradictory fashion.

What disturbs me is that a play like *The Merchant of Venice* can be
played to promote anti-Semitism (as we all know it was in Nazi Germany -
and it that context an audience would have been particularly susceptible
to endorse such an interpretation); it can be manipulated to say
something *about* anti-Semitism (as it has been numerous times since
1945); or it can be played "straight" (as I believe the RSC have played
it in this case).  Each time, we are "meaning by Shakespeare" in
different ways. In none of these cases does Shakespeare simply "mean".
The latter mode ("straight") is perhaps most dangerous because it leaves
the text's (more or less - lots to debate) tacit anti-Semitism in place,
buried under layers of romantic and comic plotting.  (Buried, but still
a crucial part of the way the play operates).  The fact that "straight"
is often taken to mean "letting the text speak for itself" (which it
never does, of course) makes the danger all the more insidious.

Stevie Simkin

 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Simkin <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Monday, 2 Feb 1998 09:33:54 -0000
Subject: 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism; anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism; anti-Semitism

Apologies for a second post before the first gets digested, but reading
back what I just sent, I don't think I fully addressed the centrality of
Shakespeare as cultural token:  while Shakespeare's meaning may always
be up for grabs, as long as the notion of Shakespeare as universal
genius continues to hold sway, it will remain to be taken by many as
something that is *necessarily* (by virtue of being Shakespearean) true
and insightful about human nature (whatever that might be).    There is
little room for claims that aspects of Shakespeare's work might reflect
something local and historical about early modern ideology that we might
today find distatesful.  That is why I'm so hung up about the RSC
Merchant of Venice I saw last week, I s'pose.

An anecdote that solidifies and might clarify what I've been attempting
to argue:

Working with second year undergraduateson a module called Shakespeare
and Ideology during the winter of 1996-97, the decision had been taken
to focus on Shakespeare and race, and after a couple of weeks exploring
various aspects of ideology in Shakespeare and the place of Shakespeare
in ideology (in cultural, educational and other contexts), textual study
was concentrated around The Tempest, Othello and The Merchant of
Venice.  Having discussed The Merchant with the students, talked about
its performance history (including its appropriation by the Nazis as a
piece of anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1930s), and worked alongside
them as they devised performances exploring some of the issues the text
raised, we attended a production of the play at a local repertory
theatre.  Unfortunately, this company had managed the not inconsiderable
feat of staging a production  which almost completely effaced the play's
ideological dimension.  There were probably a number of factors involved
here, not the least of which was the fact that this particular theatre,
the Salisbury Playhouse,  was almost entirely reliant upon the patronage
of school and college parties on the one hand, and middle to old-aged,
middle to upper class citizens on the other.  Inadvertently, then, this
group of students who were prepared to engage with a production that
would grapple with the question of the text's anti-Semitism might have
been instrumental in the director's, or the company's, decision to brush
ideology into the wings.  What was presented was an anodyne fairy tale
designed to please those looking either for a so-called 'straight', set
text production of the play or else a harmless evening's entertainment
in the company of Shakespeare the universal genius and eternal
humanist.   Discussions with the students were fruitful only in so far
as we were able to debate the conditions that determine the production
and reception of a potentially explosive text such as The Merchant of
Venice in a repertory theatre based in an affluent cathedral city in the
south of England (contexts and dominant interpretations again).  In this
respect, the attempt to efface the text's anti-Semitism served to
highlight the reasons why such a decision might have been taken in the
first place.

Thanks for listening

Stevie Simkin

 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas H. Blackburn <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Monday, 2 Feb 1998 09:43:07 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Re Anti-Semitism

I also saw the RSC <italic>Merchant</italic> a couple of weeks ago, and
I agree completely with Stevie Simkins. The stage "Jew" portrayal of
Shylock in a production which, as my British wife suggested, seemed
geared to helping "A" level exam candidates who did not want actually to
read the play, seemed to epitomize the casual and endemic anti-Semitism
which is still a part of English society. Sometime in the future my
brief review of the production will show up in <italic>Shakespeare in
the Classroom. </italic>
Tom Blackburn

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John McWilliams <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Monday, 02 Feb 1998 11:05:50  +0100
Subject: 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0095  Re: Postmodernism

> What troubles me is Simkin's (and I think Hawkes's)
> assumption that users of Shakespeare's words can make those words
> "signify" something definite, for example, "that Shakespeare approved of
> a hierarchical society - therefore a hierarchical society is a good
> thing (because we all know that Shakespeare was a universal genius, and
> what he says must be eternally true) - therefore every right-thinking
> person should vote to re-elect a Conservative government."

I second that concern. But people DO make Shakespeare's words signify
something exact, indeed this is characteristic of 'politicising'
criticism in its various forms. And mostly it's just bad literary
criticism, on the level of asking 'what did Shakespeare REALLY think
about royal authority' and finding a definite answer in the plays. If
you suggest that a play constitutes a dramatic exploration of an issue
which can't be reduced to a one line conclusion then you are accused of
being in the grip of a liberal ideology or whatever.

John McWilliams
Cambridge
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.