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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: October ::
Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0719  Monday, 22 October 2007

From:		Jan Hammerquist <
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Date:		Sunday, 21 Oct 2007 14:48:53 -0400
Subject:	Presentism

During my one visit to London a few Februaries ago I had the chance to 
stroll through St. James Park at night. At one place in the park there 
is a small cottage overlooking a duckpond, and that night, when it 
appeared to me in the foggy night it struck me as the very place the 
Bard could have grown up. "Look! It's where Shakespeare was born!" I 
said to my friends. "What?" they both said, incredulous and indignant, 
wondering at such a sure tone of such a bizarre statement.

I explained myself, saying that the quaint and mysterious cottage in 
the night was just as viable an option for my imagination to place 
Shakespeare in as Stratford-upon-Avon. The latter, though clearly more 
legitimately historicized, is nonetheless subject to idealization like 
anything else in the past.

So if we are to exercise our Utopian appropriation of the past and its 
vast catalogs of data, what is keeping us from exercising where it seems 
to mean most? That moment in St. James Park, I felt the signification of 
the cottage right before me much stronger than any associations formed 
within me by the rather dull pictures I had seen of his supposed 
childhood house in Stratford.

This is not to say we can't also imagine Shakespeare growing up where 
most agree he has. Rather, once we admit the impossibility of fully 
integrating the past, we are free to let it signify it whatever ways it 
may. Note that I did not say: signify with the past in whatever way WE 
may. No, not exactly, though that can also be the case. However,  the 
past is certainly a determined set of information-- it is composed of 
facts we have inherited, as sure as 1776 or 1066, as sure as facts CAN 
be facts-- we are more like the vehicles of its signification rather 
than the other way round. But THIS is not to say that we are  merely 
passive instruments. We, rather, have survived the past; every  present 
moment means the supplanting of a former one and we are certainly 
inheritors of a past and are ourselves a past to be inherited by the 
future. In this fashion we have inherited Shakespeare, and he is a 
living part of us.

Perhaps this is saying we are free do to with him as we please. But the 
crucial challenge is: could anyone do better than he has already? The 
responsibility to Shakespeare's texts is necessitated by nothing more 
than how masterful they are. Why else would we feel compelled to 
preserve and war over them so? But as the revisionary nature of the 
Quarto/Folio shows, Shakespeare is not a stable entity. Rather, having 
his words with us today, he becomes part of our everyday language, and 
Shakespeare himself is a textual phenomena; even as a man, he is a poet, 
whose mind is composed of texts; what need do we have of the 
flesh-and-blood man if it his texts that he is re-membered by, his true 
tissue? Moreover, "Shakespeare" is transformed through our imaginations 
of him; how can one put on a performance without (re)interpreting him? 
Most importantly, how else do you interpret him outside language? It is 
that inheritance above all which generates all others. Sure, we have 
also inherited from the past the surrounding context we call "theater" 
so that we know what to do with the plays, so arguably language isn't 
all. But we have also inherited legs, and voices, and hearts, and 
brains. If in the 17th century all the Shakespeare plays were destroyed 
we would still be performing Jonson and Marlowe. His language has been 
preserved, and that, today, IS Shakespeare, as far as I can tell.

In conclusion, one wonders: isn't the past itself more real through a 
"present" iteration of it? Wouldn't it otherwise be truly nothing? It 
has been mentioned that the Early Modern Period evolves to our "late" 
period, and just so, the tide of language has borne forth William 
Shakespeare in his little ink-bottle and miraculously preserved his 
intelligibility.

What I think is most right about Presentism could be summed up as 
follows: we are lucky we have Shakespeare with us (today) at all. After 
that hurdle, then we are lucky we can understand him at all. The past's 
continuity being contingent upon its inheritance (and legibility) by 
future observers, why not make the most of Shakespeare's possibilities 
right now?

Sincerely,
Jan Hammerquist

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