The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.125 Thursday, 12 March 2015
From: Jinny Webber <
Date: March 12, 2015 at 10:56:35 AM EDT
Subject: Shakespeare in Tehran
In April 2014 I received a letter from the University of Tehran, inviting me to deliver the keynote address to the first Iranian Shakespeare Congress.
Instantly, I decided to go. I had dreamed of visiting Iran for a very long time. Many years ago, when I was a student at Cambridge, I came across a book of pictures of Achaemenid art, the art of the age of Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes. Struck by the elegance, sophistication, and strangeness of what I saw, I took the train to London and in the British Museum stood staring in wonder at fluted, horn-shaped drinking vessels, griffin-headed bracelets, a tiny gold chariot drawn by four exquisite gold horses, and other implausible survivals from the vanished Persian world.
The culture that produced the objects on display at once tantalized and eluded me. A Cambridge friend recommended that I read an old travelogue about Persia. (I had completely forgotten the name and author of this marvelous book, forgotten even that I had read it, until the great travel writer Colin Thubron very recently commended it to me: Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, published in 1937.) Byron’s sharp-eyed, richly evocative descriptions of Islamic as well as ancient sites in Iran filled me with a longing to see with my own eyes the land where such a complex civilization had flourished.
In the mid-1960s, this desire of mine could have been easily satisfied. Some fellow students invited me to do what many others had been doing on summer vacations: pooling funds to buy a used VW bus and driving across Persia and Afghanistan and then, skirting the tribal territories, descending through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and on to India. But for one reason or another, I decided to put it off—after all, I told myself, there would always be another occasion.
By the time the letter arrived inviting me to Tehran, it was difficult fully to conjure up the old dream. I knew from Iranian acquaintances that, notwithstanding some highly sophisticated and justly praised films—many of them shown only abroad—censorship of all media in Iran is rampant and draconian. Spies, some self-appointed and others professional, sit in on lectures and in classrooms, making sure that nothing is said that violates the official line.
Support for basic civil liberties, advocating women’s rights or the rights of gays and lesbians, an interest in free expression, and the most tempered and moderate skepticism about the tenets of religious orthodoxy are enough to trigger denunciations and arouse the ire of the authorities. Iranian exiles have detailed entirely credible horror stories of their treatment—pressure, intimidation, imprisonment, and in some cases torture—at the hands of the Islamic Republic. A small number of aid organizations, such as the Scholars at Risk Network and the Scholar Rescue Fund, have struggled tirelessly, though with painfully limited financial resources, to help the victims escape from imminent danger and begin to put their lives together again.
If I went to the Iranian Shakespeare Congress, it would not be with the pretense that our situations were comparable or that our underlying values and beliefs were identical. Sharing an interest in Shakespeare counts for something, as a warm and encouraging phone call from the principal organizer amply demonstrated, but it does not magically erase all differences. A simple check online showed me that one of the scholars who signed my letter of invitation had written, in addition to essays on “The Contradictory Nature of the Ghost in Hamlet” and “The Aesthetic Response: The Reader in Macbeth,” many articles about the “gory diabolical adventurism” of international Zionism. “The tentacles of Zionist imperialism,” he wrote, “are by slow gradation spread over [the world].” “A precocious smile of satisfaction breaks upon the ugly face of Zionism.” “The Zionist labyrinthine corridors are so numerous that their footprints and their agents are scattered everywhere.”
[ . . . ]
What did it mean that Shakespeare was the magic carpet that had carried me to Iran? For more than four centuries now he has served as a crucial link across the boundaries that divide cultures, ideologies, religions, nations, and all the other ways in which humans define and demarcate their identities. The differences, of course, remain—Shakespeare cannot simply erase them—and yet he offers the opportunity for what he called “atonement.” He used the word in the special sense, no longer current, of “at-one-ment,” a bringing together in shared dialogue of those who have been for too long opposed and apart.
It was the project of many in my generation of Shakespeare scholars to treat this dialogue with relentless skepticism, to disclose the ideological interests it at once served and concealed, to burrow into works’ original settings, and to explore the very different settings in which they are now received. We wanted to identify, as it were, the secret police lurking in their theater or in the printing house. All well and good: it has been exciting work and has sustained me and my contemporaries for many decades. But we have almost completely neglected to inquire how Shakespeare managed to make his work a place in which we can all meet.
This was the question with which I began. The simple answer, I said, is encapsulated in the word “genius,” the quality he shares with the poets—Hafez, for example, or Rumi—who are venerated in Iran. But the word “genius” does not convey much beyond extravagant admiration. I proposed to my audience that we get slightly closer perhaps with Ben Jonson’s observation that Shakespeare was “honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions.”
[ . . . ]
To be honest, open, and free in such a world was a rare achievement. We could say it would have been possible, even easy, for someone whose views of state and church happened to correspond perfectly to the official views, and it has certainly been persuasively argued that Shakespeare’s plays often reflect what has been called the Elizabethan world-picture. They depict a hierarchical society in which noble blood counts for a great deal, the many-headed multitude is easily swayed in irrational directions, and respect for order and degree seems paramount.
But it is difficult then to explain quite a few moments in his work. Take, for example, the scene in which Claudius, who has secretly murdered the legitimate king of Denmark and seized his throne, declares, in the face of a popular uprising, that “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king/That treason can but peep to what it would.” It would have been wildly imprudent, in Elizabethan England, to propose that the invocation of divine protection, so pervasive from the pulpit and in the councils of state, was merely a piece of official rhetoric, designed to shore up whatever regime was in power. But how else could the audience of Hamlet understand this moment? Claudius the poisoner knows that no divinity protected the old king, sleeping in his garden, and that his treason could do much more than peep. His pious words are merely a way to mystify his power and pacify the naive Laertes.
Or take the scene in which King Lear, who has fallen into a desperate and hunted state, encounters the blinded Earl of Gloucester. “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes,” Lear says; “Look with thine ears.” And what, if you listen attentively, will you then “see”?
See how yond justice rails
upon yond simple thief. Hark,
in thine ear. Change places
and, handy-dandy, which is
the justice, which is the thief?
Nothing in the dominant culture of the time encouraged anyone—let alone several thousand random people crowded into the theater—to play the thought experiment of exchanging the places of judge and criminal. No one in his right mind got up in public and declared that the agents of the moral order lusted with the same desires for which they whipped offenders. No one interested in a tranquil, unmolested life said that the robes and furred gowns of the rich hid the vices that showed through the tattered clothes of the poor. Nor did anyone who wanted to remain in safety come forward and declare, as Lear does a moment later, that “a dog’s obeyed in office.”
That Shakespeare was able to articulate such thoughts in public depended in part on the fact that they are the views of a character, and not of the author himself; in part on the fact that the character is represented as having gone mad; in part on the fact that the play King Lear is situated in the ancient past and not in the present. Shakespeare never directly represented living authorities or explicitly expressed his own views on contemporary arguments in state or church. He knew that, though play scripts were read and censored and though the theater was watched, the police were infrequently called to intervene in what appeared on stage, provided that the spectacle prudently avoided blatantly provocative reflections on current events.
[ . . . ]
My talk took more than an hour, and when I brought it to a close, I expected there to be a rush for the exit. But to my surprise, everyone stayed seated, and there began a question period, a flood of inquiries and challenges stretching out for the better part of another hour. Most of the questions were from students, the majority of them women, whose boldness, critical intelligence, and articulateness startled me. Very few of the faculty and students had traveled outside of Iran, but the questions were, for the most part, in flawless English and extremely well informed. Even while I tried frantically to think of plausible answers, I jotted a few of them down:
In postmodern times, universality has repeatedly been questioned. How should we reconcile Shakespeare’s universality with contemporary theory?
You said that Shakespeare spent his life turning pieces of his consciousness into stories. Don’t we all do this? What distinguishes him?
Considering your works, is it possible to say that you are refining your New Historicist theory when we compare it with Cultural Materialism?
In your Cultural Mobility you write about cultural change, pluralism, and tolerance of differences while in your Renaissance Self-Fashioning you talk about an unfree subject who is the ideological product of the relations of power: Renaissance Self-Fashioning is filled with entrapment theory. How can an individual be an unfree ideological product of the relations of power and also at the same time an agent in the dialectic of cultural change and persistence?
What the questions demonstrated with remarkable eloquence was the way in which Shakespeare functions as a place to think intensely, honestly, and with freedom. “Do you believe,” one of the students asked, “that Bolingbroke’s revolution in Richard II was actually meant to establish a better, more just society or was it finally only a cynical seizure of wealth and power?” “I don’t know,” I answered; “What do you think?” “I think,” the student replied, “that it was merely one group of thugs replacing another.”
[ . . . ]
This article will appear in a different form in the forthcoming Shakespeare in Our Time: A Shakespeare Association of America Collection, edited by Dympha Callaghan and Suzanne Gossett (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare Publishing Plc, 2016).