The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1538  Monday, 18 June 2001

From:           Gabriel Egan <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 16 Jun 2001 19:07:55 +0100
Subject: 12.1518 Re: Conflicts
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1518 Re: Conflicts

Jane Drake Brody wrote

> So, yes, I do believe that the persons Shakespeare met
> in early modern England embodied all the conflicts which
> ever, and could ever take place even though the specifics
> of the conflicts may vary.

How did these persons embody the current conflict between the US
government and the developing world over greenhouse-gases emissions?
Only by reducing a modern conflict to one of the cardinal conflicts
which Shakespeare is supposed to have dramatized (about greed, or
jealousy, or ambition, say) can this position make any sense, but at the
cost of draining all historical, political, and culture specificity from
Shakespeare. Perversely, those who practice this reductionism frequently
claim that everyone else is deforming Shakespeare to their own
particular ends.

The universalist-reductionist school would have us believe that in its
lineaments the rise to power of a political leader in a modern
industrial capitalist democracy is like the wars and murders instigated
by competing would-be kings in medieval Europe. Or that modern sexual
politics are underpinned by essentially the same urges as caused Othello
to murder his wife. That there are features of the modern world
discernible in Shakespeare does not warrant such totalizing collapse of
historical and cultural difference. However, in avoiding this Scylla we
should not founder on the Charybdis of denying some value in Brody's
assertion that:

> Elizabethans were simply people whose history may
> be different to our own but whose basic humanity was
> the same.

Some people find this kind of assertion terribly problematic, to the
great surprise of others for whom it's almost self-evident. A "basic
humanity" imposed from above (say, defined by a religious organization)
is likely to be oppressive (say, by excluding homosexuals as deviants).
However, oppressed groups do display an encouraging tendency to do a
kind of 'bottom up' universalizing of their own in making common cause
with other groups.  Those who understand the twentieth-century
colonization of Palestine by Zionists are well equipped to understand
the twelve- and sixteenth-century colonizations of Ireland, and indeed
Irish republicans do identify common experiences and aspirations with
Arabs who were moved during Israel's periodic ethnic cleansings and with
South Africans partitioned in 'homelands'. Utter (or, in the light of a
recent semantic thread, 'mere') cultural relativism would inhibit such
progressive political identification of assaults upon "basic humanity".
I mention this only because I didn't use to think so.

Because 'Shakespeare' is a cultural token bearing enormous weight
throughout the English-speaking world, it is hardly surprising that for
many people Brody's assertion looks like an arrogant, 'top-down', and
prescriptive notion of "basic humanity" in its suggestion that everyone
everywhere is (and only ever could be) essentially like English people
around 1600.  However, I hope it needn't be.

Gabriel Egan

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