Monthly Archives: October 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Is Shakespeare Dead?

So did Mark Twain entitle his famous essay that is a sharp, satirical look at Shakespearean authorship. In it he calls attention to the fact that most of the things we “know” about Shakespeare’s life are based on conjecture, the kind of conjecture that is itself, as so often happens with historical authors, back-formed from various details in his corpus. Hilariously, at the opening of the second chapter, Twain writes, “When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him,” and he goes on to show how Satan’s reputation is built largely on conjecture, not clear facts. That, of course, is what he compares our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life to.

Twain’s satirical piece is meant to show us that the historical “Shakespeare,” himself largely a theory anyway, is not likely to be the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. He is, rather, likely to be a construct based on bits and pieces of that corpus. What we envision to be his physical body is reconstituted from the body of his work, causing his actual corpse to roll over in the grave. All amusing, all satiric, all well worth a few minutes of your time to read.[1]

I wish that the peevish students of the University of Pennsylvania, where I myself studied literature at one point, had read Twain before they demanded the removal of the picture of Shakespeare from the foyer of the building of the English Department. The painting was replaced with a picture of Audre Lorde, the well-known Lesbian feminist poet who passed away in 1992.

But returning to Shakespeare, I want to stress that while the physical human being, the man who was called Shakespeare is, like Audre Lorde, quite dead—whether he actually wrote any of the Shakespearean corpus or not—the one we call Shakespeare is in fact a tome, a ponderous tome, filled with marvelous plays that come alive for the reader and even more alive for the viewer and hearer of them, the person who goes to the theater to view the spectacle. I can remember my great professor, Philip Ambrose at the University of Vermont, stressing this very point with me in a Greek tragedy class. We were reading the Trojan Women, and he did not want us ever to lose sight of the fact that that play was a sight, a spectacle, visceral, real, meant to be performed, not just read. That is Euripides, and that is Shakespeare. Note the present tense. Euripides, like Shakespeare, is alive today. We can perform them both, we can pick them up. They have become their text and when we read them, when we perform them, we bring them back to life.

But we must, of course, read them, we must, of course, have access to them, and most importantly be encouraged to read them, perhaps in our teen years, especially at college or university. I don’t think most folks will just pick up a volume of Euripides in translation on their own and read him. I don’t think most folks would even think about learning ancient Greek to do so. Indeed, even the headiest college student is not inclined to take a language on his or her own, not inclined to study an ancient language without some reason to do so. Maybe the college will require at least some courses in literature. But the trend is going the other direction, of course, as colleges and universities are increasingly adopting a more practical approach, in some cases becoming more trade-schools.[2] I took a language in college because it was required. I took Latin because I had heard the professor was one of the best that Dickinson had. I only added Greek because that same professor, Philip Lockhart, encouraged me to do so. Years later, at Vermont, reading Greek with yet another Philip, this time with the saintly name of Ambrose, I was so glad I had added Greek those four years prior.

My point is this: if you send your child off to college, I hope you encourage her to go there to get an education, not a job. Of course, you want your child to be employed and to find a vocation that will make him happy, if indeed it is even possible “to find” a vocation. Rather, it is only possible to harken unto it, for the very word “vocation” implies that the job “calls” you, rather than you “find” it. Add to this that true happiness cannot be found in one’s job. It can only be found in one’s heart. You could have a rather unhappy job and still be happy. You could have the perfect job, and be quite unhappy. I know many college professors who fall into this latter category.

No, I’m not advocating that everyone study Greek. But I am suggesting that everyone who has the chance to read Shakespeare do so. He’s alive, even if he is no longer regularly required reading. The same goes for Homer, whether read more quickly in translation or more painstakingly in the original. And Euripides, yes, him too, and Virgil, and Dante, and Milton. Read them precisely because they are alive, and they will tell you something that will last you not one day but a lifetime. And if you’re listening carefully, they may, by the time you’re done reading, have whispered to you the very words that will provide you with happiness, the happiness that can’t come from “job satisfaction” or “finding the right vocation,” but can only come from within, from the heart.

Well, then, is Shakespeare dead? Only if we let him die.

[1][1] Easily found at pagebypagebooks.com.

[2] Alas, the university that I spoke about in last week’s blog did, in the end, decide to produce a rather slender core, cutting out, with a single vote, Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “The sword over my head”

I found myself confused by his reference to the “sword over his head.” There I was, at a gathering of some of the brightest stars of any university, enjoying a glass of red under the shade of a pavilion just a few miles from a major university’s campus, discussing, of all things, their core curriculum changes. I found it surprising that I, a mere novelist, should be invited. “Perhaps I have been summoned to this elegant wine-and-cheese gathering,” I ruminated, “because they know I care about liberal education. Or perhaps because I blog regularly?” I wasn’t sure.

It did not matter to me, as I knew that I should relish my conversations with them all—historians (for there was more than one there), a physicist, an art historian and, best of all, literature professors, for again there was more than one professor of literature. They were there to consider how the changes to their new core proposal would be implemented.

I was skeptical, of course, about trimming too much out of their core, and some of them at least seemed to value my opinion. I cautioned them about removing history courses—as our country’s recent leaders, for example, seem to have forgotten to heed the lessons of history—and non-English language study as we live in a world where understanding other cultures through the way they think (i.e. their languages) is becoming more and more important. (Perhaps you will recall from previous blogs that I have a close friend who is a philologist and I often accompany him to conferences on literature, art or even linguistics.) I suppose that association alone has biased me a bit, since many of those conferences are in Europe. Fortunately, as do I, my friend can speak Italian, French, and German, so he gets around there pretty well. But to return to the wine-and-cheese affair, one conversation jumped out at me, and one phrase in it alone, to my mind, made the case all by itself for a robust liberal education.

That conversation was with a particular professor, whose department I don’t recall, and the phrase, or rather its particularly strange, in this case, application was “the sword over my head.” He said, specifically, “Well, when it comes to education these days, I really have the sword over my head.” The context did not in and of itself clarify the reference. He was speaking about how difficult it is to deal with students, and how parents complain. And he seemed to mean he was getting sick of dealing with virtually every aspect of the non-research bits of his job, i.e. teaching and all that involves, from disgruntled students to parents whose angry telephone calls he regularly receives to the occasional late homework or make-up test. It would all be easier, he seemed to say, if there were just less onerous requirements, a trimmer core that would give students more choice about what they were taking. The sword, he said, was over his head. And he seemed to say this last bit rather fiercely.

You just can’t escape when you are joined at the hip with a Samarai warrior.

I wandered off to another part of the pavilion, sipping on my Merlot. “What did this man mean?” I thought to myself. He seemed a reasonable chap, friendly and smiling, but then he closed his soliloquy on how a trimmer core would benefit most professors and students with that strange turn of phrase. Did he mean he had the sword poised over his head aggressively, like a Samurai warrior or Luke Skywalker fighting with Darth Vader?Or perhaps he meant he was holding it high, like Vuchetich and Nikitin’s grand statue of the Russian motherland perched above Volgograd, the city formally known as Stalingrad.

Well, I thought, he couldn’t possibly mean he was like Luke Skywalker. That was simply too aggressive for dealing with a parent, however disgruntled he or she might be. No, that simply wouldn’t work. But the image of the Russian motherland, perhaps that’s all he meant. Perhaps he just meant that he held aloft, via his PhD or his publication record or his status within his department, a symbol of power, a symbol that he was in control and that the parent or student or even disgruntled colleague or telemarketer who happened to call his work extension (for that, too, had come up in another conversation) would have to recognize that he, like the Russian troops who had boldly fought for Stalingrad, would not give up. He held the sword above his head, he was indeed on par with the Родина-мать!

“The Motherland Calls,” (Родина-мать зовёт!) unveiled in 1967 by artist/engineer duo Yevgeny Vuchetich and Nikolai Nikitin.

 

But surely, I thought, as I helped myself to a second (plastic) glass of Merlot, this is not what he meant. And then it donned on me, perhaps because I was thinking of my philological friend and his conferences, that this professor of whatever it was, must have meant, for all his bravado, the sword of Damocles. Yet he had forgotten or perhaps had never known the name of Damocles. Had he read Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, I wondered, in whose fifth book the story is featured?[1] Surely that’s what he meant. He knew of the story, but he didn’t know the story. He knew there was some story about a sword being over somebody’s head, but he didn’t know whose, he didn’t know how it happened, or even from what culture this marvelous story comes. “Did he even know who Cicero was or when he lived?” I mused.

Or did I in fact muse? Rather, I think, I was brooding. And that’s when one more thing donned on me. He was living proof of why preserving a robust liberal education is paramount. Yes, he had a PhD; yes, he was a college professor; but had he been liberally educated? He was his own counter-example. No, of course, a liberal education won’t enable everyone to cite every story correctly or catch all and any reference to each and every allusion. But it enables us to ask questions, formulate them better and more pointedly. It won’t remove the sword of Damocles from above any of our heads, but it might just teach us how to speak better, write better and to comport ourselves better. It might just prepare us to converse better, whether over wine-and-cheese or in a courtroom or at business meeting in France. It might just prepare us for life, to handle its pressure, how to deal gently and deftly with our fellow human beings. It won’t solve any of life’s problems, but it equips us to deal with them better. How I hope those folks decide to keep the most vital of their core requirements in place, lest they unwittingly take a seat beneath Damocles’ sword.

The Sword of Damocles, Richard Westall (1812)

 

[1] Cicero, TD 5.61: Certainly this very tyrant [Dionysius of Syracuse] made clear his opinion about how fortunate he had been. When one of his sycophantic followers, a certain Damocles, in conversation touched upon Dionysius’ prosperity, the majesty of his rule, the plentitude of his possessions, and his palace’s splendor, suggesting that there never had had been anyone more fortunate, Dionysius replied, “Well, Damocles, inasmuch as this life titillates you, do you wish to taste and experience my life and fortune? After Damocles indicated that he so desired, Dionysius ordered that the man be placed on a golden couch bedecked with a very beautiful woven tapestry, embellished with impressive works. … Yet Dionysius also ordered that amidst such luxury a gleaming sword, fastened by a horse’s hair from the ceiling, be lowered so that it dangled over that “lucky” man’s neck… Ultimately Damocles begged that tyrant to be allowed to depart as he no longer wished to be so fortunate. (My translation.)