Thursday, June 1, 2017

Too Dumb For Tragedy



A friend who works in Washington tells me the only way people can understand current political craziness is to read Shakespeare. I know what she means. I think Shakespeare is connected to everything and vice versa. So many other folks also think this that Shakespearish interpretations of Trump have been a feature of news and commentary since well before the election. The New York Public Theater is staging a "Trump" Julius Caesar, and just the other day a Washington Post article compared the U.S. president to the mad and erratic King Lear. It's easy to understand the association. Like Lear, Trump is childishly sensitive to insult and makes rash decisions based on his sense of personal injury. And the actions of a president, which have momentous implications for an entire people, naturally prompt thoughts of tragedy, which since its origins in Aeschylus has represented mistakes in high places.

But at the same time I'm offended by these comparisons, not on Trump's behalf, but on behalf of King Lear, Richard III, and Macbeth. I consider these characters friends. The fact is, Trump is way too dumb to be a credible real-world analogue for any of them. Despite their huge flaws, Shakespeare's heroes are highly intelligent,

Monday, May 1, 2017

Kalamazoo, Syrians, and Shakespeare

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I live, various churches and charities have been busy helping about 30 newly arrived Syrian families who have managed to acquire refugee status in the United States. Most of these families have a lot of children (one has nine), and so the total number of relocated people is over 200. The first of the families got here in November. Coming from a dry and temperate region, and from refugee camps which lacked room for lots of personal belongings, they arrived for the Michigan winter wearing thin pants and slippers and, for the most part, no overcoats. So the first order of business was clothes.

They got them. Within days, local citizens coordinating charitable efforts were wading through piles of donated ski jackets, snowsuits, hats, mittens, and gloves of all sizes, and looking for a large central warehouse in which to store the extras. Space was soon provided by a mosque near Western Michigan University's campus, where Kalamazooans also brought household items, and a regular Saturday morning

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Shakespeare Scholar Admits He Doesn't Know the Answer to a Question

A  ripple of alarmed confusion coursed through the Sheraton Grand Ballroom in Washington, D.C., yesterday when Professor Daniel Travotti, lecturer in early modern English literature at Britain's esteemed Touchstone University, professed inability to enlighten a questioner who was pretending to be interested in Shakespeare's influence on post-Reformation English theological debates. The public interchange, surely the most startling of this year's Global Shakespeare Conference, took place during the question and answer phase that followed Travotti's keynote talk, and went as follows:

Questioner:
 Is it not also the case that Macbeth's interrogation of the equivocal Witches both registers and promulgates England's growing rejection of interpretive license in the perusal of sacred texts?

Travotti:
I don't know. Whatever.

(Audible breath intake among listeners, followed by a buzz of whispers.)

Questioner (regrouping, after a pause):
What I mean is, given that in the early years of King James's reign, tropes suggestive of Jesuitical doublespeak in the popular theater were at once superficially orthodox yet indirectly subversive, did no central ambiguity result from the early-modern ethos that stressed any individual's power to interpret texts? I mean, an ambiguity which undercut all claims to stable meaning?

Travotti:
You're asking me?

Questioner:
Yes, what I mean is, wasn't Macbeth implicated in this cultural trend toward the destabilization of language-systems as generators of reliable truth claims?

Travotti (shrugging):
Couldn't tell you.

At this point the meeting broke up in confusion. The greater number of attendees, clearly shaken by the breakdown of acceptable conference discourse, solaced themselves with hotel-issue coffee outside the ballroom. Within minutes, rapid exchanges of polysyllabic shibboleths such as "hermeneutical circle," "cultural imaginary," "monolithic hegemony," and "inescapable binary" had restored color to cheeks, and good humor reigned once more.

Yet the effects of the event still reverberated among a large proportion of younger scholars, some of whom were applying for academic jobs at the conference. One Ph.D. student, in answer to an  interviewer's question regarding her dissertation's implications for the "presentist deconstruction of late-Victorian Bradleyism in Shakespeare studies," was heard to reply, "Sir, I have no idea. I was writing about something else."

Reports differ on whether she was abruptly dismissed or offered the job on the spot.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose, but When Is Shakespeare Fakespeare?

Like many of my fellow Shakespeare professors -- like all of them, in fact -- I have students who like books or movies whose plots are based on Shakespeare. "It's The Taming of the Shrew in an American high school," they say, or, "It's Hamlet, but with animals."

It's not.

When I tell them so, I take care not to criticize the book, movie, play, Youtube short, or TV commercial in question. Each might be good, bad, mediocre, or excellent in its own right. I like the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate and the film 10 Things I Hate About You and Disney's The Lion King. Having myself written two Shakespeare-based novels, to roll my eyes at such adaptations would be hypocritical. In fact, I can add some celebrated titles to the conversation: Huxley's Brave New World, Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. There are hundreds of adaptations out

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Updates from Auden, etc.

One of the most annoying idiocies of contemporary internet life is Google's and other corporations' faux-friendly offers to help you out by selecting products for you! Friends for you! News "Recomended For You." Based on the deep understanding of your spiritual and intellectual needs revealed by the last thing you bought on line, the infinitely caring algorithms are making our lives better, easier, and more enjoyable all the time. (Please read E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," by the way. Also see Pixar's Wall-E.) Every once in a while these mindless intrusions are as funny as they are annoying, as was the case in an offer a friend of mine received from Amazon a few weeks ago: "Receive updates from Auden!" She and I had fun thinking up some possible updates W. H. Auden might post via website or Twitter, even though he's been dead since 1973. These included:

- Spanish Civil War For Losers. Glad I Didn't Go.
 - Can't Decide Whether Poetry Changes Anything or Not
- Seven Tips for Staying Gay and Sane in Oxford c. 1955

and so on.

Now, it occurs to me that if we can sign up to receive updates from Auden, even more enthralling possibilities exist. As far as I know, William Shakespeare has at

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In the Bleak Midwinter

Often when people learn I'm a Shakespeare professor they ask me what my favorite play is. To this the answer varies according to what I'm teaching students at the moment. I do have favorites, but when we're in the middle of discussing, reading (silently and aloud), and watching scenes from a particular Shakespeare play, that play tends to self-maximize in my esteem. Sometimes it's King Lear, sometimes it's The Merchant of Venice or Macbeth. Most often it's Hamlet, probably because I teach Hamlet most often. I had a colleague at the University of New Orleans who taught a three-credit class in Hamlet which lasted a full semester; it probably wasn't enough time. At the same time -- though probably not literally at the same time -- another professor I know of taught a class exclusively