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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: May ::
Re: Tragic Hero
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1118  Monday, 14 May 2001

[1]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 May 2001 17:01:58 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0807 Re: Tragic Hero

[2]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Sunday, 13 May 2001 12:44:52 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1104 Re: Tragic Hero


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Friday, 11 May 2001 17:01:58 -0400
Subject: 12.0807 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0807 Re: Tragic Hero

I have been too busy with student papers and my interminable orals prep
to keep up with this discussion.  There has been a great deal said about
the issues of Antonio's sexuality, his reconciliation of Bassanio and
Portia, the Puritanism of Shylock, the pound of flesh, etc. with which I
have agreed and disagreed.

No one, I believe, has addressed the question posed by Graham Bradshaw:

>The story of the bond comes from one source, pretty intact
>though changed.  Why did Shakespeare want to add the caskets

which is also for me the center around which all of the above issues are
tied together like a knot to form an overarching theme.

The conflation of two or more source narratives, originally folk tales,
but extending in the Renaissance to classical and late classical themes,
characterizes much of English drama from the Second Shepherd's play
forward and is used extensively by Shakespeare, especially in the
comedies.  The tale of the caskets, an ancient oriental folk tale found
also in Gesta Romanorum where the bride makes the choice, cannot have
been arbitrary and must serve to amplify the theme of the play.  It is
first and foremost an allegory (as it is in its sources) and its
incorporation into the Il Pecarone tale of the pound of flesh points to
the allegorical meaning of the play as a whole.  The protagonist of the
allegory makes the correct allegorical choice among allegorical
alternatives after bad choices by his allegorical antagonists.
Shakespeare complicates the trial by introducing ambiguous behavior by
Portia the allegorical contestor, judge and prize.  The casket trial
itself is a distillation of the larger allegory at work in the comedy.

While loosely following the medieval four level scheme of medieval
allegory, MOV is a truly Renaissance allegory.  Just as medieval
iconographic painting attempted to represent a complete allegorical
meaning within the frame of a perfectly symmetrical visual space,
medieval literary allegory attempted complete consistency and symmetry
in overlaying its four levels of allegorical narrative as Dante claims
to have done in the Divine Comedy.  And just as Renaissance painting
moved away from perfect symmetry of representation to the suggestion of
larger symmetries extending beyond the frame of a naturalistic canvas,
Renaissance literary allegory contents itself with intermittent
suggestion concealed under an illusion of naturalism rather than
complete iconographic representation as in Dante and the medieval
morality genre.

Without making claims to absolute denotative consistency, MOV
nevertheless connotes the literal, allegorical, tropological and
anagogical levels of meaning adopted by medieval poetic allegory from
medieval biblical hermeneutical exegesis.  Taking the casket trial in
isolation, the literal level presents us with a highly unlikely, though
naturalistically represented, situation of a rich heiress following the
bizarre behests of her dead father in choosing a husband and an untitled
but noble suitor triumphing over more aristocratic, but less deserving
rivals.  The tropological level connotes the struggle of everyman for
salvation which requires looking away from outward appearances and
personal merit to self sacrifice.  The two remaining levels: the
allegorical, involving the history of mankind; and the anagogical,
involving divine providential teleological principles depend upon the
way these principles were defined within the cultural context in which
the play was produced.

MOV was written during the period of Shakespeare's history plays and is
a comic extension of their epic of Tudor imperialism.  While the history
plays provide the Elizabethan empire with a pseudo mythological
political history, MOV addresses the fundamental theological issues
currently undergoing violent contestation.  These issues involved both
political and spiritual aspects of the English Reformation and are
worked out on the allegorical and anagogical levels of the comedy.  In
looking for subtexts in Shakespeare's plays, I tend to focus on the
clowns and rogues as they seem to me likely figures for the artist
himself whose status in society if without patronage, was little better
than vagrant, and if liveried, akin to court jester.  Too much of the
discourse of these characters has been dismissed as meaningless babble
for the amusement of groundlings.  Far from mere verbal slapstick, the
dialogue of Launcelot Gobbo with his blind father and his role in
unifying the drama constitute a similar kind of distillation of the
play's themes to that accomplished by the casket trial.

Launce tells us he is caught between a rock and a hard place.  He is
bound by sacred principle to serve his assigned master.  The
master/servant relationship enjoyed the same sacred status as
king/subject, father/child, husband/wife, host/guest, and to break it
was a form of sacrilege.  What, then, he asks us, if his master is the
devil?  To flee his master is sacrilege, but so is serving the devil.
Just as he resolves to flee Shylock, heaping damnation upon himself, he
is saved by the fortuitous arrival of his old father Gobbo, and we soon
learn that Shylock has already agreed to sell him to Bassanio.

One question arises as to whether, as he was no longer actually
Shylock's servant, had he run thinking he was, would he still be
culpable of the sin of violating the master/servant bond?  Whatever the
case, the breaking of this bond figures the central theme of the comedy
as bonds and bond breaking, just as the casket theme figures the hard
choices they involve and the dear price for choosing wrong.  The bond
represented by the allegory is the bond currently in dispute for each
member of the audience, namely the ten century bond to the Roman
Catholic Church and its breaking by the Tudor monarchy.  In this
allegory, on its historical/allegorical and anagogical levels, both
Launcelot and Bassanio figure EveryEnglishman (with perhaps some
distinction of social class), and the comedy moves them together from
the bondage of Venice to the state of grace of Belmont.

I would contend, then, that, while there is a critique of antisemitism
in the play, it is not of central importance to the subtext implied by
the casket trial and Launcelot's liberation.  Antonio's bond to Shylock,
taken from its Italian source, with the bond of conscience it imposes on
Bassanio, serves Shakespeare for an allegorical and anagogical
representation of the bond of England to the Roman Church.

Shylock (while also serving as a figure of Puritanism) is on the
historical/allegorical level, the Pope, and Portia instructed by
Bellario is Elizabeth using her ecclesiastical courts to establish a
legal justification for persisting in her dead father's schism.  The
"middle way" her Anglicanism attempted is alluded to by Nerissa when she
says: "it is no mean happiness therefore to be seated in the mean."
Bassanio before the caskets is England itself faced with a hard choice
between essentially theological principles. His rivals are the Moslem
Morrocco and the Catholic Aragon and their theological errors are
figured in the gold and silver they respectively choose.

It is a matter of critical contention whether Portia's musical hints or
his own noble character leads him (and England) to his salvation. Her
rhyming (i.e. literary) hints, while comical on the literary level of
the text, do not constitute cheating on the three other levels of
meaning, but rather reflect one of the theological principles at the
heart of the Reformation: that without the grace of God, man alone can
not merit salvation.

Clifford

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Sunday, 13 May 2001 12:44:52 -0700
Subject: 12.1104 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1104 Re: Tragic Hero

Well, okay. Since Mike Jensen has adopted a tone more amenable to true
discussion, so I'm ready for another round, I guess.

>Ms. Hughes wonders:
>>I am truly perplexed as to why the idea that Shakespeare based MOV in part
>>(note: IN PART) on a current situation (snip) why it should be necessary to
>>haul out citations to prove it.
>
>Because that is what scholars do.  They don't assume.  They demonstrate.

Of course that's what they do in books, articles and lectures, but an
online group like this is a different sort of animal and I don't see any
reason to force it into old formats.  It falls somewhere between a
debate and a conversation. There's certainly nothing wrong with using it
to prove or support a thesis. But to limit discussion here only to that
which is supported by documentation (in reality, documentation
acceptable to you and certain others) is effectively to eliminate such
ideas from this forum.

>  >I never sought to prove it, only to suggest
>>that such a thing was likely. Are we to
>>restrict ourselves on this list to discussing only that which has been
>>"proven" to the rest
>>of us?
>
>Possible, yes.  Likely?  Prove it.

That's a good idea and I think perhaps I'll add it to my list of things
to do. If you are genuinely interested in my notions about MOV (though I
suspect that you are not) and I see some interest from those who post me
off-list, I will garner those points that you and Miss Gamble have
requested and put them into a paper which I can then advertise on the
list and post to those who request it. This will take time, of course,
so I can't promise it until the fall at least.  I will have to be
getting off SHAKSPER soon anyway, as I must utilize the time that's
available to me for several other projects that won't wait. But as long
as Hardy lets me back on, I'll be back. As I've said before, I learn a
lot from the posts herein, even those that aren't backed up by the  kind
of documentation you require.

>Is it likely that there were bed tricks, people sneaking into wives
>rooms to steal bracelets and look for moles, and ghosts going to their
>sons to request revenge?  Why would *MOV* be more likely to be based on
>a real event than these incidents?

Actually, there are indeed real incidents behind the first and last of
these that are to be found in the biography of He Who Must Not be Named.
(Those who are interested in my reasons for saying this are welcome to
post me off-list.)

>  >I know from gong through this kind of thing
>>before and from watching these same tactics
>>used on others, that nothing that I offer in
>>the way of evidence will be sufficient and so to dig it out will be a waste
>>of time.
>
>This is wrong.  Most of us will gladly follow the evidence if you
>present it.  Your suggestion would be a fascinating addition to our
>knowledge of the play, IF it is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling.

Well, Mike, I'm thrilled to hear it and I'll take you at your word.

>  >I don't post for Jensen, who has shown his
>>animosity towards my ideas frequently over
>>the years,
>
>Not your ideas as much as your inability to back them up.  Discourse
>should be on the level of what is known, not what you hope is true.

As I've explained over and over, I don't think it's necessary to "back
up" everything I say. When I can find the necessary citations (and/or
when the interest seems genuine) I have often backed them up, usually to
a deafening silence.

>  >Why can't Jensen and Gamble do as I do to
>>them or to anyone whose posts don't interest
>>me or with which I don't agree, simply ignore me?
>
>Because I care about getting at the truth, and I care about using sound
>tools so we will know the difference between facts and fancy.

Then use them yourself and either ignore those who don't or politely
suggest how they might better make their points, and IF they continue to
ignore you, THEN ignore them. Don't seek to damage either their
self-esteem or the opinion in which others regard them. You are fond of
lecturing others on how to behave, but you yourself are the most liable
to say wounding things. Some remarks on the list are simply not worth
bothering with. If they are worth responding to, they are worthy of a
respectful attitude, which is different from genuine respect, but works
just the same.

>  >Why try to beat me, or anyone else, to death
>>with words? Is this your idea of scholarship?
>
>I hold you to the same principles of discourse that I want to be held
>to.  I consider it a kindness when I make error if it is pointed out to
>me.  If there is a lack of gentleness in the way I point your errors out
>to you, it is due in part to frustration over your pattern of doing this
>that remains proud and uncorrected, and some rather annoying off list
>messages you sent a few years ago.  Remember the one when you wrote, "I
>don't care about critical thinking.  I care about thinking."  That
>reveals so much.

I am truly honored that you remember my words of long ago.

Of course the quotation is out of context, which I'm sure would reveal
that the point I was making was that the function of thinking, sans
modifier, is far more important to a search for the truth than the
modified version you call "critical" thinking. Critical thinking is
useful, but only when something needs to be critiqued, that is, closely
examined, compared with other data, ideas, etc. There may be many kinds
of thinking, but certainly an important one is the opposite of the
either/or of critical thinking but an "and/and" sort of thinking. It is
out of this kind of thinking that we get the right questions.  Without
the right questions, no amount of critical thinking will find the right
answers. I happen to believe that in the areas we discuss, we've been
asking a lot of wrong questions, or even, no questions.

This "and/and" thinking comes from a whole different part of the brain,
it sees things in a broad spectrum, it connects one set of data with
others that the critical faculty simply can't see until this other kind
of thinking brings it within range of its attention.  The best metaphor
is a camera that has two modes, macro and micro.  Macro cannot do
critical thinking, but micro is of no value until the areas that need to
be closely examined have been determined by macro.  You may be less
concerned that we are asking the right questions than I am. This is not
to say that you are wrong and I am right, simply that there may be more
involved for me, and possibly others who remain silent, than there is
for you, who are comfortable with the questions as you see them.

>  >Are we to have a vote on whether or not
>>Stephanie Hughes is a fool and should be
>>peppered to death with paper bullets or
>>shall we proceed with courteous discourse,
>>state our own views  (when we have them and
>>when they are relevant) and politely refrain from pointless diatribes once
>>it becomes clear that the argument can go no further?
>
>If I understand this, do I?, I really think it misses the point.  I
>appears to assume that all opinions have equal weight, and should be
>simply stated, not held up to scrutiny.  Obviously, this list debates
>ideas all the time.  If an idea is bad, it will be pointed out.  If it
>has no known basis if fact, as does your idea about *MOV* being based,
>in part, on an actual incident, that too is pointed out.  I encourage
>this.  It is part of the process.  This is actually a good thing.  Not
>all ideas have equal merit.  Some are wrong, and that should be noticed.

If you think they are wrong you are of course within your rights to say
so, but there are any number of ways of doing that and hurling brickbats
never led anyone to reconsider. What it does is discourage others from
speaking and it makes you look as though you care more about what some
group thinks of you than you do about maintaining the discussion. You
say you do care about maintaining the discussion and I take you at your
word, but you could certainly find some better methods of displaying it.

>  >I worry about Mike Jensen. He gets so worked
>>up over infractions of the rules, rules that as far as I can see are purely
>>of his own making.
>
>Worry?  Gee, thanks.  Nice of you.  Hmmm.  The principles of good
>scholarship are of my making.  Well, thanks for the promotion, but I
>can't claim credit.  I've had good teachers.

We don't begin to truly mature until we begin to examine what we've been
taught. No teacher, however great, is a hundred percent right.

>  >How nice it would be if Jensen's courtesy
>>extended to those who don't share his views.
>
>Actually it does.  I read something every day on SHAKSPER with which I
>disagree, or regard with caution.  I seldom address those issues because
>the poster has sound reasons for making the claim.  Those reasons are
>given in the post.  I remember it for the next day's posts, then read
>and consider the new comments.  Other reasons are given in those posts.
>It is one way that I learn, and when discourse is on this level, it is
>very useful.  That you would assume I go after everyone who does not
>agree with me, tell us a lot more about you than it does about me.

By occasionally posting ideas that are not in line with current
paradigms I run the risk of being judged by you and others.  Despite the
risks to my ego, I value the debate itself, and have renewed respect for
you for pursuing it. As somebody once said, our adversaries are more
valuable than our friends. Often it is only through a fight that we get
to see things the way others see them.

I will flesh out my view of MOV as soon as I can and make it available
for those who are interested. Simply digging out a handful of citations
won't work. Despite all the hoohah I have seriously considered it, but
it needs a more complete presentation than I can make here.

Best always,
Stephanie
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