The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1459 Wednesday, 29 May 2002
Date: Tuesday, 28 May 2002 12:29:35 -0700
Subject: If Beowulf is dead, can Chaucer and Shakespeare be far behind?
The AnSax list, being full of defenders of Old English, is affronted by
a weekend article "Blazing canon" by the versatile
poet-professor-journalist James Fenton, in the Guardian
This is in turn an extract from his new book, An Introduction to English
Poetry (in the UK, pub. by Viking this Thurs.; in the US, to be pub. by
FSG in Nov.). I quote an extract from the article here because he has a
view of Shakespeare in text and performance, and an opinion on the
famous Leo + Claire film that some on this list will find disagreeable.
The extract follows.
Let us say that we have about five centuries of English poetry behind
us. This poetry did not emerge out of nowhere, but the fact is that
beyond those five centuries it becomes increasingly difficult to
comprehend. It is true that to understand Shakespeare (1564-1616) in
detail, we need the help of notes, and it has been true at certain times
in the past that readers have found large parts of Shakespeare
incomprehensible or barbaric. The current assumption that all the plays
are in principle both performable and worth performing is comparatively
But the really striking thing about, say, Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film Romeo
+ Juliet, is the effectiveness with which the poetry communicates, and
does so when delivered at great speed. Leonardo DiCaprio did not slow
down in order to get a complex point across. He simply made sure that he
understood the point and assumed that his understanding would be enough
to carry the audience with him. This is what any actor has to do. When
we study Shakespeare on the page, for academic purposes, we may require
all kinds of help. Generally, we read him in modern spelling and with
modern punctuation, and with notes. But any poetry that is
performed--from song lyric to tragic speech--must make its point, as it
were, without reference back. We can't, as an audience, ask the actors
to repeat themselves, or slow down, or share their notes with us. We
must grasp the meaning--or enough of it--in real time. That Hamlet still
works after 400 years is an extraordinary linguistic and poetic fact.
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