The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1016 Wednesday, 16 June 1999.
Date: Tuesday, 15 Jun 1999 13:34:49 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Future of the Classics
Roger Schmeekle's deft comments on the Future of the Classics lead me to
add that perhaps those of us who love classic literature should not take
too much comfort from the current Shakespeare revivial in American
popular culture. Shakespeare (and Jane Austen) seem to have a staying
power that other "classic" authors lack. No one is making an epic movie
of Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queene, and no one seems likely to.
Ditto, Chaucer, Dante, and so forth. In fact, in our English department,
the disinterest in anything except women's studies and postmodern
literature in general is pervasive. Our undergraduate and graduate
students have to be dragged kicking and screaming into any class that
features an author before 1900 -- except for Shakespeare, of course.
There are lots of reasons for this state of affairs, and I'm sure that
readers of this lost can easily come up with more than one. For my part,
I think that English departments are in the same position that classics
departments were in near the turn of the century. With the advent of
engineering and business schools, the classics (which meant Greek and
Roman literature especially) were quickly marginalized and down-sized,
so that by, roughly, 1930 or so, their prestige, power, and numbers were
all close to zero. I fear that the same thing is about to happen to
English departments, which will split into departments of rhetoric and
Shakespeare's staying power is curious indeed. But like Jane Austen, the
popular culture seems to use him (and her) as a kind of substitute for
the Bible-eternal verities and all that. So, paradoxically, as we become
more and more secular-and more and more multi-cultural-Shakespeare and
Austen thrive. But they are NOT read as scholars read them, but as
markers from the past to light our way in a confused and confusing
present and future.
Or so it seems to me.