The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1855 Monday, 1 November 1999.
From: Sean Lawrence <
Date: Thursday, 28 Oct 1999 17:21:31 -0700
Subject: 10.1841 Re: Old Bill
Comment: Re: SHK 10.1841 Re: Old Bill
I think your last post, although I don't agree with it, carries us to
the philosophical issues at the heart of a presentist criticism. I try
to tease them out a bit in what follows, and while we seem to have
fundamental differences of opinion, they needn't stand in the way of
continuing to pursue this matter. If you feel that this is moving off
the topic of the discussion group, I'd be amenable to taking it
off-line. In the meantime, people who aren't interested in these issues
might just want to hit "delete".
>I thought we were talking about cultural meanings in modern Britain.
>Don't these tend, as elsewhere, to derive from and reflect systematic
Actually, I'm occasionally struck by how many presuppositions are shared
by people across political divisions, or divisions internal to a single
culture. George Buchanan, occasionally held up as a symbol of dissident
opinions in the Jacobean period, and King James, the poster boy of
non-dissidence, seem to be diametrically opposed. Since Buchanan was
James's teacher, however, it is reasonable to believe that they held a
large number of ideas, or at least the presuppositions behind ideas, in
In fact, I would confidently assert that there is some philosophical
common ground between supporters of both sides in any given political
binary. This may put me completely beyond the pale, but it seems to me
to offer the possibility of some sort of peaceful plurality within a
multicultural and democratic society.
Moreover, I would further assert that labels of dissident and
non-dissident are pretty much completely arbitrary, in the way of most
binaries, I suppose. The 16th-century church lurched murderously around
between extremes of the (then extant) Christian spectrum. Under Edward,
Pole is a dissident and Cranmer is a member of the establishment. Under
Mary, their situations are reversed. Under Elizabeth, Cranmer's memory
is reverred. Being a dissident is as much an accident of one's
situation as a measure of one's views.
I think that the arbitrariness of the labels of dissident and
non-dissident seem to be clearly the upshot of your second argument,
regarding the Oxfordian lord. The man's Oxfordianism clearly makes him
a dissident, off the main stream of Shakespeare criticism. His
fanatical adherence to the hereditary peerage system makes him a
dissident to the current government, which doesn't want to retain
hereditary peers. His position as a lord makes him a member of the
establishment (probably), though if we measure dissidence against the
majority, rather than in distance from the centres of power, the same
baronage makes him a dissident.
The fact that one of these labels may have been temporarily, tactically,
uncomfortably and arbitrarily attached to the New Globe says nothing at
all about that company's production style, about any political position
it may or may not officially or unofficially espouse, or about any more
than incidental meanings towards which it may briefly be deployed.
>Under the heading of things to which Mr Jiang
>Zemin should not be exposed was 'dissidence'. Under the heading of
>things to which he should be exposed was the new Globe Theatre. Is it
>unreasonable to suggest that this hints at -even coyly proposes- a
>certain meaningful role for Shakespeare in the general scheme of things
Possibly. But then again, the French take a lot of pride in cheeses, as
well, and there's a level of politics tied up with the appellation
system. None of what you're saying seems to question my inference that
if there are non-dissident theatres (or theatrical experiences? or
playwrights?) then there are also non-dissident cheeses. For your
argument to have much force, in my opinion, you would have to argue that
Shakespeare is more non-dissident than everything else to which Jiang
was exposed on his visit.
My larger question is whether the fact that something is caught up in
notions of "things British" (or "things French") really changes it. Is
the Globe stage really a non-dissident setting, or is it merely labelled
non-dissident, arbitrarily? To return to my self-consciously cheesy
analogy, is the fact that roquefort is non-dissident make it any the
less piquant? Does the fact that Jiang was taken to the Globe really
tell us anything about its production?
To move to an example somewhat nearer the subject: some time ago, a
poster on this list mentioned a production of Coriolanus in 1930s Paris,
which provoked simultaneous riots by both fascists and communists, both
of whom claimed it was a work of propaganda designed to aid the other.
Clearly, the fact that such riots took place tells us very little, other
than that there were people then as now who insisted on seeing
capitalist running dogs or communist conspiracies all over the place.
We cannot, on the basis of the riots, confidently say that the
production was communist or fascist in its politics. Similarly, we
cannot, on the basis of Jiang's visit, say that the Globe is either
dissident or non-dissident. We can only say that somebody in a position
of power (which is to say, someone in opposition a few years ago)
considered it non-dissident. Even this limited statement should be
modified with the recognition that Jiang's visit is dissident to the
opinions of those (both within and outside the government or the acting
company) keen on freeing Tibet, maintaining human rights in China and
hosts of other issues.
>Would it, do you think, please or displease the new Globe's
>onlie begetter, Sam Wanamaker, Commander of the British Empire?
No answer I could give would avoid falling into the intentionalist
fallacy, if indeed it is a fallacy. But more to the point, I'm not
absolutely sure if or how much Mr. Wanamaker's opinion matters. The
fact of the production being labelled "non-dissident" hardly means that
the production, much less the performance space, was intended to be
non-dissident. Your appeal to his title to argue his conservatism
(apparently) is irrelevant, since, if the fox-hunting demonstrations or
the pickets outside the courthouses deciding the fate of Augusto
Pinochet show anything, it is that conservatives can also be dissidents.
Don't get me wrong; by all means pursue a presentist criticism of the
use of the Globe to entertain foreign guests. I'll look forward to
reading it. I don't think, however, that the Globe's (tactical) use by
the forces of (temporary) authority should be used to cast aspersions on
the acting company, their productions, their stagecraft, their
dramaturgical assumptions, the architecture of their stage, or the man
who thought to build it.