Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Shakespeare, Jonson, and Social Distance

This month, in our time of modern-day plague, I shall not write yet one more claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear or Macbeth while quarantined for the "pest," as they called it. (He did not.) Instead, I am offering my parody of a poem by Shakespeare's greatest rival, his brilliant contemporary, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson (pictured left of Will), who inhabited the early-modern theater world alongside Shakespeare and enjoyed insulting him from his bully pulpit of the stage. All evidence suggests that Jonson and Shakespeare were friends, though they varied greatly in their ideas of how to write comedy. In fact, plays by each written during the "Theater Wars" of 1598-1601 hilariously satirize not just each other's ideas, but each other. Shakespeare's melancholy Jaques in the 1599 As You Like It, with his penchant for useless social commentary, lampoons Jonson, while Jonson's Sogliardo -- a social climber from the country with a new-bought gentleman's crest, in his 1598 Every Man Out of His Humour -- is a parodic figure of Shakespeare. It's hard to know how tense Jonson's and Shakespeare's relations sometimes were, or whether the mutual mockery was all good fun. We can only guess it was good for business. We also can't know whether Shakespeare was ever

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Shakespeare and Socialism

Shakespeare wasn't a socialist. He was a businessman. He wrote for money, and invested, and got rich. There is no biographical evidence that he was interested in sharing his wealth, or doing anything but acquiring more of it. He was like everybody else.

Indeed, English Renaissance writers tended only to fantasize about what we would call socialism. In his 1513 Utopia, Thomas More envisions a society in which all property is equally shared, but in real life, he lived in a manor, and expended no effort, in his influential role as Lord Chancellor, to urge laws that might redistribute royal wealth, or the wealth of privileged men like himself. In The Tempest, written nearly a century later, Shakespeare's kindly old nobleman Gonzalo imagines a "commonwealth" where there will be neither riches nor poverty, no commerce or forced labor, and no "sovereignty," but places himself as "king on't," as though "the latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning." Renaissance literature is full of ideas about equalizing wealth and eliminating poverty, but the ideas are always

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Shakespeare in India, India in Shakespeare


A post-colonially-minded colleague of mine once asked to visit my Shakespeare class, and I said, sure! Turns out this professor wanted to tell my students the reason Shakespeare was a requirement for their degree was that in the prior century in India, the British Raj had determined that requiring the study of Shakespeare in schools was an effective instrument of cultural indoctrination and control. Cricket was the English national game, and Shakespeare was the English national poet. This data excited one of my students, who never did the reading, but the rest were simply puzzled.

I never invited my colleague back.

What that colleague told my students was partly true, but not useful. India was the first geographical locale to require Shakespeare for formal study in English, since Shakespeare was seen as a conduit to the appreciation of what was most admirably English. However, as most people who have read any Shakespeare know, Englishness and Raj aside, Shakespeare is an excellent writer with a lot of fascinating ideas, so requiring him to be studied in any English class, east or west, is not such a bad idea for a whole slew of reasons. In a Shakespeare class, there are more fruitful ways of discussing his poems and plays than by showcasing their dubious history as tools of cultural indoctrination. 

India didn't throw out cricket when they threw out the British, and they didn't throw out Shakespeare. He was too popular. As in other countries, Shakespeare has been used and enjoyed in India in all kinds of interesting ways, suspicious and otherwise. Knowledge of Shakespeare in English served as "cultural capital" for the "upper-class, elite Indians" of nineteenth-century Calcutta, to quote scholar Jyotsna Singh. But Shakespeare has also been translated into numerous Indian languages;

Monday, January 6, 2020

Happy Twelfth Night!

I usually post on the first of the month, but this month I held off for the Feast of the Epiphany. I had no idea what  "epiphany" meant growing up, and learned it as a literary term having to do with James Joyce before I ever knew what a liturgical calendar was (we were "low" Protestants) and before I lived in New Orleans and found out about Kings' Day (on January 6th, the celebration of the arrival of the three kings to visit the baby Jesus). This revelation was the Epiphany. In later years I discovered from the Oxford English Dictionary that my own last name, "Tiffany," originated in slang for "Epiphany," which in England was sometimes called "the Tiffany" (God knows why). And before that, I had learned what was meant by Twelfth Night.

In Shakespeare's England, Twelfth Night was the last night of the Christmas holiday, and (despite Puritan reformers' dismay) was still celebrated in many of the lordlier households and by many of the rowdier London youth in a Mardi Gras like atmosphere of mayhem and misrule. Twelfth Night is the fifth of January, or the eve of the Epiphany. In Shakespeare terms, Twelfth Night is of course the title of one of his most famous plays, although, true to Shakespeare's occasional habit of