Thursday, July 19, 2007

That Shakespeherian rag

We don't know much anything about Shakespeare, one of the most pivotal artists of the modern West. I don't know if he wrote for all ages but he certainly did write for ours. It was all laid out almost before the age, our age, had even properly begun. Only we don't know much anything about him as a person: just a very bare outline of facts can be sketched. This seems to be hard to take for the more commercially inclined academia - there is today a veritable Shakespearean biographical industry in place with the most outrageous, farfetched and elaborate interpretations loudly presented. And not only outrageous, there are also some fairly plausible arguments, just totally unsupported by any evidence. There is next to no evidence.

What we do have is the body of his work and so these modern scholars mainly work backwards from that: based on this and that reference, a few lines in a play, a few plays, he's a catholic, or no, he's a protestant, atheist, you name it, gay, straight, bi-sexual, soldier, sailor - anything does go, anything can be claimed. It is after all a huge body of work, in all senses of the word. Previously it was quite typical that somehow miraculously, the Shakespeare that emerged resembled in his views and attitudes quite a bit his humble biographer. In these, more practical days the interpretation just needs to be anything that can be marketed as "new and groundbreaking".

We just can't know. We won't know. Some writers can be fairly obvious in their sympathies and experiences of life (though even then we can't extrapolate any detailed biography out of the text), some then can be like chameleons adapting into all kinds of skins and shapes. Shakespeare very obviously belongs to the last category - contradictory positions get marvellous lines, no obvious lessons are learned, no perspective underlined as being the "correct" one. There is a scary comprehensiveness, a scarily life like openness and uncertainty of view. To cherry pick individual positions and experiences from this kind of almost uniquely multidimensional text is not only folly, but criminally stupid: forcing, flattening arbitrarily one note out of a polyphonic melody. Of course we can't help ourselves, we read the text and form impressions, guesses about the author. It is natural, even fascinating, but no material for a serious study.

For what it's worth, for me he remains a mystery: this open endedness, this incompleteness is baffling, scary. Who knows, maybe it was accidentally dictated by the pressures of commerce or the primitive Tudor era politics, or perhaps it was innate, his organic vision of the world. It would seem to be a clue that he absolutely didn't write any religiously motivated text which would have been perfectly easy even for a secret Catholic of the time. Instead he seems to be only concerned with this chaotic, uncertain human experience of the world and not in any proposed supernatural aspect of it. (Strangely enough this position would, surely coincidentally, be sympathetic to my own preferences...)

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