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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: December ::
Re: Titus and the Value of Shakespeare/Literature
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1335  Sunday, 27 December 1998.

[1]     From:   Jason N. Mical <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 22 Dec 1998 11:06:54 -0600
        Subj:   Titus and the Value of Shakespeare

[2]     From:   Robert Neblett <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 22 Dec 1998 12:44:17 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1321  Re: Titus Andronicus


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jason N. Mical <
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Date:           Tuesday, 22 Dec 1998 11:06:54 -0600
Subject:        Titus and the Value of Shakespeare

>Why does this make it necessarily a bad play?  Fine if you want to focus
>on ethical issues in Shakespeare.  Don't blame Shakespeare if you find
>some of his drama doesn't fit the system of ethics you have chosen to
>use as an interpretive framework, which I assume (by your reference to
>an Aristotelian middle path) is a broadly liberal humanist one.  There
>are other ways in which one might judge the play "worthwhile",
>"interesting" or even, dare I say it, "good

OK, I set myself up for this one.  It seems very strange that nearly
every play fits the Aristotelian ethic "lesson" of finding a middle path
(or destruction wrought because someone cannot find the middle path)
except for _Titus_.  As I wrote that sentence, it hit me like a
thunderbolt that _Titus_ is maybe one of the best examples of the
destruction that can happen when one cannot find the middle path.  I
guess I was too busy dismissing the more distasteful aspects of the play
to look at it that way.

I therefore stand corrected! (Who says scholars cannot change their
opinions!)

Of course judging a play based on ethical lessons is not the only way to
judge its value.  After all, it is art, not math.  I am reminded of the
scene in "Dead Poets Society" where the teacher has the pupils graph a
poem's worth based on two factors-utterly laughable.  When I said value,
I was referring to the things people (the average audience) can get out
of the play, ethical lessons being one of the most obvious.  I am deeply
entrenched in a debate among other students, professors, and my mother
(believe it or not!) about whether Literature in general and Shakespeare
in particular has any relevance in the "real world."  I am contending
that it does, and one of the primary reasons it does is that the
audience can learn from the characters on stage.  The primary argument
against me is that Shakespeare and Eliot and Dante and others have no
value outside of literary circles, and that the average person cannot
"understand" them to the depth that scholars can and "get" the same
meaning from them as scholars can.  I think this is utter hogwash (so to
speak), and am therefore left to defend my position primarily based on
the ethical value of a play.

Just out of curiosity, how have others dealt with this issue?  It
troubles me greatly that so many others write off literature as
worthless so readily.  One of the reasons I decided on English as a
major was that I thought I could reach people with literature and
writing, but I've gotten a lot of resistance to this idea.  Am I just
being an idealistic undergraduate or what?

Happy Holidays!
Jason Mical
Drury College

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Neblett <
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Date:           Tuesday, 22 Dec 1998 12:44:17 -0600
Subject: 9.1321  Re: Titus Andronicus
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1321  Re: Titus Andronicus

In response to Jason Mical's comments of 12-18-98:

>I read Titus as part of an undergraduate research course I took this
>last semester, the object of which was to focus on ethical issues in
>Shakespeare.  We read Titus more as a joke than anything else, and
>unless I am missing something profound (in all my undergraduate wisdom
>grin), the play seemed to me to be an early version of some later
>tragedies, notably Richard III, Hamlet, and Coriolanus.  Or, to be more
>precise, I noticed elements / scenes from each of these plays in Titus.

>There seems to be no ethical lesson to the play.  Someone made a joke
>about its appealing to modern audiences because of the appalling amount
>of violence (apologies for not cutting and pasting your name, gentle
>scholar).  Indeed, it would seem that Shakespeare's audiences liked
>violence as much as Americans do today, because I can see no other
>reason to write this play.  The Aristotelian appeal for a middle path is
>not to be found anywhere in Titus unless I am horribly mistaken.  It was
>interesting to read it and compare it to Shakespeare's other works, but
>I see no real value to the play except as a curiosity, in much the same
>way that _Inventions of the March Hare_ is a curiosity to T. S. Eliot's
>readers.

I agree with listmembers who point out that the critical approach which
bases literary merit on the ethical lessons presented in the text is a
faulty one.  If you look at the majority of Shakespeare's best plays,
there are immense ethical breaches; accordingly, if one judges them on
ethical/didactic standards, they are inferior pieces of literature.  A
couple of examples:

THE TEMPEST teaches us it is ok to punish your enemies and drive them to
madness, as long as you apologize in the end.  It also advocates
slavery.

HAMLET advocates murder as a way of solving a legal dispute or family
troubles, because the main character's "sin" is not that he kills
Claudius, but that he waits to do so.

We must begin to look past what literature "teaches" us, and start to
examine what we learn from it.  The latter is more subjective and allows
for the narrative and stylistic gaps which are the basis for
interpretation.  If we begin to look at literature in such a way that we
ask ourselves, "Was it right for Lear to excommunicate Cordelia the way
he did?" or "Was it right for Henry V to invade France?" rather than
leaving it all to Shakespeare to tie up the loose ends, we begin an
examination of our own humanity and ideas.  I know that this is a
Brechtian approach to literature, but Brecht was influenced by the
multiplicity of voices and perspectives in Shakespeare's works.

Another point: as long as teachers and scholars approach TITUS as a
joke, it will never be given any serious critical attention.  I have
seen TITUS several times and have enjoyed it every single time.  It is
one of Shakespeare's plays, I believe, which makes the case against
Shakespeare belonging solely to English departments in this country.
TITUS is a performance text, and as such establishes Shakespeare as a
dramatist, not only a poet.  This having been said, its performative
success does not negate its potential literary merit.

Finally: As an Eliot scholar, I find the poems in INVENTIONS OF A MARCH
HARE highly intriguing because the majority of them were interludes
excised from THE WASTE LAND by Eliot and Pound.  When you think about
what the poem COULD have been and compare it to what it has become.
Considering the refusal of Eliot's estate to release other documents
which would be helpful to Eliot scholarship, we take what we can get.

Robert L. Neblett
PhD Student in Comparative and Dramatic Literature
Washington University in St. Louis
 

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