The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0549  Tuesday, 21 August 2007

From: 		Ros King <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Tuesday, 21 Aug 2007 11:09:10 +0100
Subject: 18.0543 WashPost: Ourselves in Shakespeare
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0543 WashPost: Ourselves in Shakespeare

The recent posts on this thread have rather demonstrated my point: 
there's been a lot of both cherry picking and then (wilful) misreading. 
John rather needlessly, but citing authority, mentioned "Leeds United", 
not "football" per se, which of course does feature briefly in "King 
Lear", as we all know, Terry. The historicism/presentism merrygoround is 
endless fun, no doubt, but no longer getting us anywhere and I would 
like to try a new approach.

I didn't know that "King John" featured so much in gothic novels, John, 
but I'm not particularly surprised, since it was popular on the stage. 
Constance is also the sort of character who might appeal in that context 
of emotion and sensibility - as she appeals to many of my students. But 
the question I would ask is whether the text was cut or adjusted in 
performance (and also in criticism) in order to make that preferred 
reading more 'the' meaning of the play. (Certainly, a scene was added to 
"Richard III" at about that time in order to present more pathetically a 
mother's and her children's emotions at their forced separation.)

In the mid-nineteenth century, by contrast, Kean's production of "King 
John" improved on Shakespeare by including a tableau of what was at that 
stage the most important part of John's reign, the signing of Magna 
Carta. Why?  Ongoing political reform: Gladstone was present at Kean's 
retirement banquet and Era reported, "the love of English people for the 
drama is second only to their love for liberty" (August 1859). I don't 
quite see extension of the franchise as being a central feature in the 
play (or in the barons' charter, for that matter, although I remember 
being taught at junior school that that was what it was! History too is 
subject to reinterpretation.) But this isn't a case of "meaning by 
Shakespeare". It's a case of altering "Shakespeare" in order to make 
meaning. Analysing what interpreters have had to do to a text in order 
to make it mean what they wanted it to mean can be very revealing of the 
structure and possibilities for meaning of the earliest printed texts of 
the plays.

And no, Cary, I don't suppose that a text is a "sentient being" 
(although a text in performance either in one's head or on the stage can 
invoke quite a bit of sentience all round, and I'm interested in why and 
how that can be the case). But trying to deny a millennium's worth of 
usage of the word "mean" as "to have a certain signification" (OED v1; 
3) does rather smack of King Canute. I suggested looking at linked texts 
because that at least gives us a base line, if not a control. The 
"Troublesome Reign of King John", like Bale's "King Johan" and like 
Holinshed's chronicle of the reign, is clearly meant to be protestant 
propaganda. Shakespeare's "King John", just as clearly, isn't. Unlike 
those others it is not trying to preach the "meaning of life". Rather, 
it raises interesting, satirical questions about commodity, power and 
inheritance, and yes responsibility for children, which don't have to be 
made relevant today because, as questions, they remain relevant. The 
crying shame is that because it didn't fit twentieth-century critical 
paradigms - the first or second tetralogy; the Elizabethan world picture 
- we forgot what a good play it is.

Performance can only ever take place in the present, and the best 
performances are achieved not just in the present but in the moment. 
They are not, however, *prepared* in the moment. That involves a complex 
interaction between the remembered personal past, shared knowledge of 
the cultural and political present, and the researched cultural and 
historical past. I am interested in achieving a criticism which looks at 
the relationship between a playtext (with all its bibliographical 
problems) and a whole set of historical contexts (relating to story, 
time of writing, and of successive revivals), while analysing what might 
be written-in to groups of words in terms of sound, colour, picture and 
gesture, those building blocks of the emotions simulated in characters 
and strangely experienced by readers and audiences. I am not interested 
in any kind of hagiographical approach to Shakespeare or overly 
concerned with the often impossible task of trying to determine what he 
originally wrote. I am, though, interested in what, for example, the F 
text of "Hamlet" enables one to think, which the Q2 text of "Hamlet" 
does not allow one to think, and vice versa, and why and how that happens.

With very best wishes,

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

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