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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: February ::
Re: Welsh etc.
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0443  Monday, 26 February 2001

[1]     From:   Ed Taft  <
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        Date:   Friday, 23 Feb 2001 10:39:24 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.

[2]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Friday, 23 Feb 2001 12:50:55 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.

[3]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Saturday, 24 Feb 2001 14:21:34 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft  <
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Date:           Friday, 23 Feb 2001 10:39:24 -0500
Subject: 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.

Larry Weiss asks, "Seriously, Ed, would you rather be an African
shopkeeper in Freetown now or when George VI was on the stamps?" It's a
loaded question, Larry, but I'll answer it honestly and then ask you a
question.

I'd rather be an African shopkeeper in Freetown when George VI was on
the stamps.  But I don't think it's my decision to make, either way.
There may be many African shopkeepers more sturdy than I who are willing
to go through hard times now because they believe in freedom and in a
better world for their children.

Now, Larry, would you rather be an average citizen in Moscow today or
before Communism crumbled?  If you answer honestly, then the Soviet
Union and its ideology must return, right?

As I wrote in my last post, it's hard to discuss the concept of progress
objectively.

--Ed

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Friday, 23 Feb 2001 12:50:55 -0600
Subject: 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.

Once more I'd like to call for a review of the bidding. I mentioned the
custom of visiting the inmates of Bedlam for a good laugh as an
indication of different attitudes between our own day and Shakespeare's.
When called to account for this, I offered what I could remember and
called on people with more current and expert knowledge for sources.
Some excellent scholarly sources have since been supplied. At the same
time, however, others have offered contrary opinions backed up by other
sources. These sources strike me as much less sound, but until I can
review the matter I can make no firm judgment in the matter.

But we seem to be drifting into argument here, and I prefer not to argue
(really I do). So I would like to clarify things a little.

1) Is this subject really a matter of scholarly dispute, with some
experts believing that observing the insane (and particularly by
visiting Bedlam) was a familiar Elizabethan custom, and some experts
denying it, and both offering sound research in support?

2) Or is one side or the other actually firmly established historically?

If (1) is the case, then we can continue to discuss the merits of the
two sides to the degree that our expertise allows us to do so with some
relevance and value. (I, for one, would read but not contribute because
I am no expert.) Or we can drop it.

If (2) is the case, then let's establish which is the most likely
historical fact and get on with it. If I am wrong, I will cheerfully
admit it and correct my thinking on the matter. If my earlier
information was correct, however, I would appreciate others going along
with that. It will not prove my larger contention, but it will clarify
why I made it in the first place.

No one who knows American history, for instance, can fail to note the
progress in the situation of African-Americans. It is a fact that things
are better for them than they were fifty years ago, which were better
than a hundred years ago, which were better than a hundred and fifty
years ago.  Although this improvement does not make the situation
perfect, nor mean that we are more moral than our ancestors, nor suggest
that I am foolishly unaware that many Black Americans have not been able
to take advantage of new opportunities, it is a fact that they are not
held as slaves, not routinely lynched, allowed to vote (and hold public
office), get good educations, find excellent jobs and live in pleasant
suburban neighborhoods -- like mine.

This I consider progress -- that is, the movement from a bad situation
to a better one. I suggested a similar if less dramatic possibility of
progress in attitudes toward the insane. If to have sympathy for those
afflicted with mental illness is morally better than to regard them with
amused contempt (and I believe it is), and if the attitude of decent
people has moved over the centuries from the latter attitude to the
former (and I think it has), then we have made progress in this area.

Accepting this (and no one is obliged to accept this if they dispute my
conditionals), we should then be careful in how we read Shakespeare in
his attitudes toward what is comic and what is cruel. The author may
portray as comic something we regard as cruel (as, for example, the
scenes from the Hal plays) but the question remains open as to who is
morally culpable -- the character, the author or the whole culture. The
theory that I was countering assumes that Hal is a cruel, contemptuous
man, and that the author was exposing these rather ugly characteristics
in the episodes under discussion. I find the evidence insubstantial
because it both takes too seriously the kind of rough teasing that is
very commonly found in largely male societies in many times and places,
and fails to take into account a much larger tolerance for cruelty in
Elizabethan England. A society which regarded Tyburn horrors as a
pleasant outing would not understand our outrage at the ragging of
Francis.

Neither judgmentalism nor relativism will help much here. Only a strong
moral sense coupled with as much historical perspective as can be
obtained and a strong dollop of humility will provide the basis for a
clear judgment. Disliking Hal, some people find a cause for their
dislike in episodes that I, liking him, see as trivial or irrelevant.
The like or dislike is not a matter for discussion, only argument. But I
recognize the validity of their finding the ragging incidents
unpleasant. Do they also recognize the possibility that Shakespeare and
his audience might not have found them so?

Cheers (and apologies for so long a response),
don

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Saturday, 24 Feb 2001 14:21:34 -0500
Subject: Re: Welsh etc.
Comment:        SHK 12.0441 Re: Welsh etc.

I know very little about the Bethlehem Hospital, but I have a research
student who's working in this area and she knows a great deal. Her work
suggests that there isn't much hard evidence in the early modern period
for the practice of visiting the inmates for the purposes of
entertainment.

The interesting question is why so many scholars want to believe that
there is.

T. Hawkes
 

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