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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: April ::
Re: Tragic Hero
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0974  Monday, 30 April 2001

[1]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Apr 2001 08:44:22 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero

[2]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Apr 2001 08:44:22 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero

[3]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Apr 2001 12:21:28 -0400
        Subj:   Tragic Hero

[4]     From:   Judith M. Craig <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Apr 2001 12:24:02 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero

[5]     From:   Brian Haylett <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Apr 2001 16:41:47 +0100
        Subj:   Re: Tragic Hero

[6]     From:   Judith M. Craig <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Apr 2001 14:38:26 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0942 Re: Tragic Hero


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Apr 2001 08:44:22 -0700
Subject: 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero

>As I have pointed out the topic of usury was a subject which featured
>largely largely in religious sermons, writings, and secular literature.
>People without the education afforded to Shakespeare had extensive
>knowlege of the doctrines; you are imagining a world shaped in the way
>your own is, not the way that it was.

Please do not judge my mindset. It appears I know a great deal more than
you about the attitude towards usury among the ordinary readers and
writers of Shakespeare's time.

There is also the question of knowing too much about something. If all
you've got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Frankly I don't
think a deep awareness of usury issues dating back to prehistory and up
to present day Iran brings light to more than a fraction of MOV. But if
that's how you see it, who am I to judge? It is you who have judged my
way of seeing the play and I am defending it. As long as we show respect
for each other, there is an opportunity for both of us to learn
something.

>  >  Bigger game? Are you saying that the then current controversy over
>>   Equity vs. Common Law was beneath Shakespeare?  That only the eternal
>>   verities, such as the nature of value and risk as debated by Aristotle,
>>   ever occupied his mind?
>
>Actually, I never suggested that anything was 'beneath Shakespeare'.
>I'm suggesting that a playwright writing about usury would be tackling
>one of the great questions of the age, and that if you do some basic
>research you will realise that the play is hip-deep in references to
>aspects of usury theory.  It is, in my view, perverse to suggest that we
>ignore all of those and decide that what Shakespeare was really doing
>was providing commentary a la CNN on day-to-day life in Jacobean
>England.  He wasn't a television reporter consumed with a burning need
>to find something *Relevant*, nay *Shocking* to comment on for the
>afternoon programme; I think that another poster, Sean Lawrence got it
>right when he described that sort of approach to the play as 'a sort of
>historicism gone mad'. It seems to me to be equally bizarre to ignore
>the overwhelming evidence and take off in pursuit of some mythical
>villain apparently easily identifiable by all the audience as being
>Shylock in disguise. This is the Merchant of Venice, not an episode of
>the X-Files.

If it had been written in the Ivory Tower of your imagination it would
never have earned its way to recognition in the marketplace.  However,
the audience I suggest, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court and JPs from
all over the nation gathered in London for the Parliament was, in fact,
a pretty well-educated bunch and may have been all ears for
Shakespeare's arguments re usury.

One of the measures of Shakespeare's greatness is his ability to weave
many themes into one fabric. If his play was only about an easily
recognized villain, a money-lender who spouted Protestant doctrine, he
might have made it big on the street but lost posterity.  Had it been
only about usury, he would never have made it to posterity as he would
not have made it big on the street. As for the X-files, take an
especially good episode, add some philosophy and an eternal theme or
two, and you've got the Shakespeare of 1597.

>From:           Sean Lawrence
>Stephanie Hughes writes:
>
>>How can suggesting a basis in current events be seen as "strictly
>>limiting" Shakespeare's meanings?
>
>One can suggest anything one wants, and of course suggestions are more
>or less by definition not limiting, since they open up new areas of
>exploration.  What we don't want to get into is the assumption that
>Shakespeare is only ever responding to current events.

Again (and again, and again . . .) I never said that because the play
was tied to a current situation, therefore it could not be about broader
issues. Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare, beloved of the centuries,
if he had ONLY dealt with current issues. On the other hand, had he
dealt ONLY with the broad eternal issue, he would never have made it
into history. Sigh.

Since I do not hold to the view that Shakespeare was writing about only
current events, never said it, said the contrary in fact, I won't
address the two points that followed.

>  >If we're looking for the origins of a
>>play, for the reasons why the author bothered to write this particular
>>play at this particular time, we must look for current events and issues
>>that are reflected in the play that may have engaged him on a personal
>>level. This is common sense, not "not historicism gone mad."
>
>The "must" is the part that's a little absurd.  After all, the plays
>engage us on a personal level.  Why might Shakespeare not also have been
>engaged by reading Ovid or Plutarch or Plato or the Scriptures?  Why
>might he not come to similar conceptions, even without reading them,
>from the implicit Ovidianism or Platonism or Christianity of the western
>tradition in which he was immersed?

Shakespeare was steeped in Ovid, Plutarch, etc. Why does suggesting that
he was also discussing a current problem REQUIRE that he turn his back
on the works of antiquity that were in a sense his intellectual and
philosophical life's blood? Yet the "must" IS necessary. Popular theater
MUST be about something current or it fails at the box office. If this
play were only about Ovid or Plato, it might have had one or two
performances at a university, but it would never have gone an inch
further.

>>What kind of "ism" is it to suggest that he plucked the topic of MOV out
>>of thin
>>air?
>
>Of course he didn't choose the topic out of thin air.  Michelangelo
>didn't invent the idea of creating a Pieta, either.  But we don't limit
>ourselves to whatever little political games Michelangelo might have
>been playing by his artwork to recognize its engagement in great issues,
>Ovidian, Platonic and Christian, which dominated the entire western mind
>for the last few millenium or so.

What you regard as "limiting" I regard as fascinating. I am fascinated
when I read that a great painter has put his lover in the crowd
surrounding Jesus, or his patron, or himself. Art historians are very
interested in the date of a painting and what its iconography tells us
about it and the painter.

Often the "little political games" you feel to be so unimportant are the
very reason the work was created in the first place. No current event,
no play, no great writer, no SHAKSPER, no discussion. The history of the
theater shows that with it more than with any other art form, important
works grow out of the passions generated by heated current issues. By
ignoring, or denying, this, present day literary criticism has almost
completely cut itself off from its audience; becoming so inbred and
self-referential in the process that it is currently of interest only to
itself.

Stephanie Hughes

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Apr 2001 08:44:22 -0700
Subject: 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero

Stevie Gamble, again, has written a marvelous response in which
extensive, careful citations for each of point are provided for the
benefit of the ongoing argument about the role of usury in MOV.  An
inspiration for all of us.

Stephanie Hughes wrote:

> Luther and Calvin are your contributions, not mine.
> They are not English and have nothing to do with the
> issue at question ...

Given Ms. Hughes earlier arguments in which she invokes an influential
Protestantism in her reading of the play, this seems a rather odd case
of switching rhetorical horses in midstream.  The Protestant Reformation
is not my area of specialization, but certainly Luther and Calvin must
be at least peripherally relevant if one wishes to cite any kind of
"Protestant" sub-text to the play.  Please correct me if I am mistaken
(which I might well be) but their tracts and pamphlets, or tracts and
pamphlets written by those influenced by them (Knox, for example) would
have been widely available to London's literate population.

Ms. Hughes continues:

> The London merchants who were most interested in
> laws regulating finance were mostly Protestants
> at this time, some could be defined as Puritans.

Well, given the penalties for NOT being (at least publicly)
"Protestant," it seems likely that they were ALL "Protestant."  It might
be helpful at this point if someone more expert than I in these matters
were to more closely define "Puritan" -- I sense that many of the
attitudes under discussion here may be more closely aligned with
"Puritan" ideology than with conventional, publicly-conforming
"Protestantism."

> They were interested in reforms of all sorts, from
> religious to financial.  What shall we call
> them?

Being interested in reform does not make one a "reformer."  An analogy:
I am interested in "reform" of the US electoral college system in that I
would like to see that institution's reform or abolition occur.
However, having not done anything tangible to further that objective, I
do not call myself a "reformer."

> Burghley was certainly both a Protestant and a
> reformer. He spent his life reforming everything
> from the coinage to the universities.

This is playing with words in order to defend a
basically invalid and indefensible position.  Earlier,
Ms. Hughes had suggested that Burghley was a "Protestant reformer."
That combination of words combines to form a specific meaning for many,
if not most, of those of us reading this thread, to wit:
Burghley reformed (x or y or z) to more closely conform with Protestant
theological or ideological premises.  To then retreat from this stated
position by attempting to separate the terms and assert a meaning in
contradiction to common understanding does not constitute valid
argument.  Another analogy: I happen to be (nominally, at least)
Catholic.  I have also been an activist for some causes.  If I were to
describe myself as a "Catholic activist," it would suggest that I had
been an activist in a specifically Catholic sense, acting in the
specific interests of the Catholic church, or acting on specifically
Catholic issues.  This is most emphatically NOT the case.  Therefore, I
would NOT call myself a "Catholic activist" if I instead meant that I
was "Catholic" AND "an activist."

> His close friends were religious reformers and he,
> like many others, was wont to spout religious
> doctrine at every turn.

To return to the previous analogy: I have one or two close friends who
truly ARE "Catholic activists." That does not make me one.

As to religious doctrine, Ms. Hughes undermines her own evidence: "like
many others."  Spouting religious doctrine was a conventional, perhaps
even fashionable, and most likely politically expedient, activity.  We
cannot call Burghley, or anyone else who participated in this activity,
a Protestant or religious reformer on the grounds that they participated
in Protestant or religious discourse.

> [young gentlemen fleeced by unscrupulous money
> lenders are] all over the place. If you're
> interested in the causes and the sorry results I'll
> be more explicit but digging up citations for
> something that is so egregiously plentiful is a
> waste of my time.

Stevie Gamble, the primary correspondent in this argument, has been
unfailingly generous in offering citations for every argument made.  No
doubt finding those citations took considerable time and effort.
Refusing to do the same in return may be charitably seen as academically
irresponsible, or less charitably, as simple arrogance.

Karen E. Peterson
University of Wales at Lampeter

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Apr 2001 12:21:28 -0400
Subject:        Tragic Hero

The recent posts by Stevie Gamble, Stephanie Hughes, and others have
certainly taken an argumentative turn, but I wonder why.  Haven't we
gone beyond the old new critical notion that art is always about only
one thing?  It can -- and usually does -- have more than one focus, more
than one level of meaning.  So MOV can be about usury (surely it is) and
about a Jewish moneylender, AND about contemporary money lending
practices, AND about social bonds, AND about economic bonds, AND about
differing religious views, AND about fathers and daughters, AND about
love, marriage, and money, AND about . . . . .

Golly!  I would suggest that in the near future Shakespeare studies will
focus on different levels of meaning written into the plays:
contemporary, allegorical, historical, spiritual, metaphysical,
psychological, etc.  There's going to be plenty of room for all of us!
Honest!

--Ed Taft

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Judith M. Craig <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Apr 2001 12:24:02 -0400
Subject: 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0960 Re: Tragic Hero

Karen P writes:

<So if we do not agree with Ms. Craig's reading of <MOV, we have failed
to
<get beyond our own prejudices.  And the purpose <of great art is to
teach
<us to be prejudiced, hostile, anti-sexual, and <arrogantly dismissive
of
<other's perspectives.

Surely Karen, you cannot mean to draw this conclusion from what I have
written.  I am merely offering a rejoinder to being called "shallow" and
mean-spirited by Mike and Sean. . . . and now by you.

I have an essay on "The Tempest" politely declined by Hardy to be
available to members of this list, but published in "Providence:
Studies in Western Civilization" (Fall/Winter, 1999) in which I assert
that Shakespeare's early experiences with Anne and perhaps with incest
within his family made his early life so difficult that he had very
little sexual experiences after the affair with the Dark Lady.  Perhaps
he was not a member of the favored Southampton circle in his youth, even
though he was accepted early on, (I am relying on a reading of "The
Sonnets" here), because he rejected the Earl's homosexual advances.
Such a debate has been current in Shakespeare criticism over the past
twenty years and even such an august critic as Stephen Orgel has
proposed that Shakespeare may have fathered children in London in such a
raucous climate ("Prospero's Wife").  I have gone into print suggesting
the opposite:  that Shakespeare's life, and the evidence that we have
seems to confirm it, was not a series of affairs with society woman (ala
the film "Shakespeare in Love").

He was no Lord Byron.  Moreover, I suggest that a very close reading of
the plays, as I have provided in the opening scene of MOV suggests a man
critical of the accepted masculine sexual morays of his time (and of
ours)--i.e that rampant male sexuality is a good thing.

My intent in adding Shylock's plight to my reading of the play is to
insinuate that Shakespeare's sympathies were not with Antonio, nor with
Bassanio, who were rich but prodigal, but with the people impoverished
by their attitudes and greed.

In his culture.   They were the Jews--banished from England, hated for
being non-Christian, and given ugly characteristics in the emblem
literature of the time.  I would also add Portia to this list--the
daughter of such men.  Her face in the casket is a symbol of her doom by
her father's "will."

Shylock's famous speech, "hath not the Jew eyes," etc. surely
communicates Shakespeare's sympathy with people doomed by the attitudes
of men whose lives seemed to prosper from being endlessly fueled by
illicit sex (sex not within marriage).

I find it intriguing that so many of Shakespeare's plays are about
attempts to make marriage work.

I could go on, but I am also intrigued by how many people are put in
prison in Shakespeare's plays for attitudes of revenge or immorality
towards others--Malvolio, Claudio in "All's Well," Berowne in LLL who
escapes prison in a court devoted to study without women only to find
that the society woman he courts prefers honoring the death of her
father to joy with him.

I certainly don't think I am wasting the time of 2000 people on this
list with just mentioning that imprisonment may have been a fact of
Shakespeare's life:  outcast from his town by personal family horror to
life in a gruesome city to grind away at his books in a society
dominated by greedy and immoral men was surely a form of prison.  I
personally maintain that Shakespeare worked at being religious in order
to survive in such a climate.

I had a similar experience in my own life--I was accepted as a student
of an ambitious Shakespearean, J. Dennis Huston, at Rice University in
the seventies, who was actually greedy from money from wealthy oilmen in
my hometown of Midland, Texas and eager for a film career.  When I
refused to be his mistress, (I was married and he was married), he used
connections from my town and ex-husband to institutionalize me as a
schizophrenic and make films with me as a subtext and with Midland oil
money.  "Star Wars," "The Indiana Jones" trilogy, "Out of Africa,"
"Driving Miss Daisy," "The English Patient," "Eyes Wide Shut," "American
Beauty" all have my poor experience as a subtext.  I was replaced with a
young more liable woman in 1975 as Mr. Huston's screen actress--Jodie
Foster, now heroine of the Hannibal Lector series based on cannibalism
of the brain.

This renegade of the Jewish liberal camp has converted to the Republican
"elephants" of West Texas, while I have moved up East to defend to
Jewish liberals Shylock's torture at the hands of the Protestant fathers
and the benefits of a conversion to Christianity.

This is only a cursory summary of the horrors I have endured, being a
Portia from a moneyed town, and I feel that after years of wrongful
institutionalization, I can have some insight into suffering.
Shakespeare, I can tell you, was no gad-about-town or light poet.

Judith Matthews Craig

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Haylett <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Apr 2001 16:41:47 +0100
Subject:        Re: Tragic Hero

> >Some 18 months ago - and evoking deathly silence, as
> >I remember it - I
> >suggested that the reason for Antonio's sadness was
> >his failure to 'know
> >himself', that the play was about his unconscious
> >discontent with his
> >mercenary life, and his subsequent climb to
> >fulfillment. ....
>
>This is an intriguing idea.  Before launching into full-fledged debate,
>Brian, could you provide us with some specific line citations that
>support this interpretation?

I did not wish to try the patience of the list by repeating citations
which I have given in the past; unfortunately I cannot point you to them
at the moment, because the search function is down at the archive site.
The lack of any other response than Karen's makes me wonder if any
further elaboration would be welcome - but I suppose it is as valid as
Antonio's sexuality.

Off the top of my head, I suggest a look for ambiguities in the opening
speech: 'I am to learn' (sc. in this play), 'much ado (sub-meaning 'to
do') to know myself'.

I point also to Antonio's hazarding his wealth for Bassanio, in the
spirit of the lead casket's injunction. I assume - but am not certain -
that the ring is dual-natured: a material thing that can be given to the
'lawyer', but also a symbol of love, to be fully recognised in Act V.
Both actions are prompted by Antonio, as I said. I have quoted the
contrast between the pound of flesh and the more spiritual realisation
in 'my soul upon the forfeit'. There is Antonio's reward after he
pledges his soul: the return of his argosies. (Is there a continued
wordplay on Argo in the use of this word? It would continue the metaphor
of the Golden Fleece, mentioned in Act I.) Finally, for the moment, do
not all these happenings evoke Biblical texts (to be dug out later)?

Sorry that not all of these are citations, but dramatic actions and
juxtapositions are also of critical interest. I do feel there is much
more textual reference here than has ever been offered for Antonio's
supposed homosexuality, which seems to me completely irrelevant to the
play. What seems most interesting is the way the group keeps getting
drawn back to this play in a way that is out of proportion to its
supposed place in the canon.

Brian

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Judith M. Craig <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Apr 2001 14:38:26 -0400
Subject: 12.0942 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0942 Re: Tragic Hero

Dave Knauer writes:

<I don't know what source you 're consulting for <early modern ideas
about
<the effects of sex on male physiology, but all the <ones I've seen
<clearly suggest that sex depletes vital energy, not <increases it.
Hence
<all the fun with words like "dying," "spending," etc.

Thank you, Dave, I certainly agree.  I was just thinking about Shylock's
situation--a widower, the object of hate from the male community where
he must make an living, and deceived by his own child.

I suppose I was making an implicit connection between Shylock's
situation and Shakespeare's:  Shakespeare was separated from Anne and
his daughters, and perhaps an object of ridicule in his own hometown as
a cuckolded husband.  He then was forced to flee to London to make a
living in a corrupt city dominated by men who made a lot of money by
hatching grand schemes such as  colonies in America, fleets of ships
sent beyond the limits of the known world, etc and  having lots of sex.
See Terence Hawkes' article on "Swisher Swatter" about Sir Walter
Raleigh.

Would it be too much to suggest that his sympathy for Shylock, which
certainly comes through in the play, is founded on similar loneliness
and the need for the "pound of flesh"  (or just sex) that enabled greedy
men to flourish in the corrupt society of Venice?

As I read Shakespeare, he at least married his pound of flesh, while
Bassanio and Antonio just screwed women, left them.  Bassanio is now
after a lovelorn heiress to hook in an essentially loveless marriage to
redeem his fortune.   The contempt for these men is interestingly
sublimated in the trail scene of Shylock, where Shylock, tortured as he
is, is not only denied his pound of flesh but made to be a
Christian--the religion of these horrible men.  I am merely suggesting
that imprisonment and conversion may have played a part in Shakespeare's
life as it did Shylock's to keep him from wreaking horrible acts of
revenge on a society that would not grant him justice anyway.

I do, of course, agree with your central point that sex in these plays
is given adjectives of depletion and eventual emasculation.  The age old
question, is, of course, does it really, and do these manuals, or even
Shakespeare's metaphors convince anyone?

Judy Craig

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