Wednesday, 2 October 2013

What a piece of work is a man

Firstly, a word with Mr Peter Rhodes about 'news values'.

I made a passing comment recently about my university restructuring its departments, resulting in a Faculty of Arts. People have been referring to it as FArts, which isn't very funny but is fairly predictable. My preference would be for the more accurate Faculty of Arts and Humanities, but I'm just not that bothered.

Although I can't link you to his column in the Express and Star as it isn't considered worthy of webspace, Mr Peter Rhodes thought that my comment was a) worth repeating (without payment) and b) 'whistleblowing'. Then again, he does think that the term 'school lunch' is bourgeois political correctness. Unless he's joking. I can no longer tell these days.

Whistleblowing is when you reveal dangerous, illegal or unethical activity in the workplace. It's worth column inches. I'm very pleased that Mr Peter Rhodes is a regular reader of Plashing Vole, because he might learn something. Not because I'm particularly well-informed, but because he's even less well-informed. It's just a shame that he feels it's important to recycle lame fart gags rather than reconsider whether, for instance, supporters of equal marriage are 'fascist', as he claims (clue: fascists put gay people into concentration camps and make them wear pink triangles, rather than legalising marriage between same-sex couples).

Anyway, that's as much space as Mr Peter Rhodes deserves. But I'm afraid I'm going to upset him again by telling you all what I did in class today.

The first class of the day was a two-hour lecture on Shakespeare, with me as the boss's minion. Or lovely assistant, depending on how myopic you are. An introductory session, we spent a lot of time talking about the cultural blocks around having a rich and dynamic relationship with Shakespeare. We talked about the way Shakespeare has been appropriated by the state and cultural authority as in some way emblematic of Englishness and Britishness. For instance, this 1944 Olivier version of Henry V was clearly part of the patriotic propaganda drive:

But it needs some editing to make it Glorious Brits versus Evil German Scum. Principally, the lines in the next scene in which Henry orders 'every soldier kill his prisoners' are cut - we can't have a king of England, or English people, committing war crimes (even though they did, and do, quite a lot).

We talked about Shakespeare as a businessman, as perhaps being Catholic, perhaps being homosexual, of definitely being a creation of each age. There is no Shakespeare, we said: there are Shakespeares. There's the man churning out bums-on-seats material and negotiating the political vicissitudes of a dangerous period. There's the uncouth dullard who slipped into obscurity for 150+ years after his death,  to be revived in cut-down versions and tragedies with happy endings (really: in one popular staging, Romeo and Juliet wake up and live happily ever after). There's the prophet of Empire (the Victorians saw The Tempest as justifying Empire as a means of civilising the brutes and the anti-Imperial Shakespeare, such as the Irish seashore version I saw this summer which played The Tempest as an examination of the evils of invasion and colonisation. There's Straight Shakespeare and Gay Shakespeare, all working off the sonnets, and there are Conservative and Lefty Shakespeares. Most of these send the guardians of conservative culture off the deep end, but they're all there in the texts, waiting to be uncovered. That's why Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) are so fascinating. Yes, you end up less certain at the end of the course than at that start, but I consider that an intellectual victory.

Our point was that you could easily do a degree in Shakespeare Studies without even opening a copy of the plays because in the absence of authorial intent, all texts and especially plays, can be read (or not read) in a variety of ways. Shakespeare didn't leave manuscripts, didn't do interviews in the Sunday papers, didn't arrange publication of the plays (the cash came from performances, and he co-owned a production company). There's no Authorised Version, only varying texts cribbed from actors' notes and friends' memories. Hence the Shakespeare Industry, which puts him up on a pedestal. World's Greatest Playwright. Timeless. Immortal. Always Relevant. Englishman of the Ages.

All crap. This stuff gets in the way of close, informed readings of the texts. Resistance to Shakespeare is often a result of this patronising guff, most often found in education ministers' speeches and little-Englander editorials in the Daily Mail. Once you've cleared all this cultural undergrowth, you can start reading the texts: asking how (and whether) they work on stage and on screen, what the cultural context was, what perspectives are being privileged and which are being silenced. I'm with Derrida: the author's dead. His opinion no longer matters, but the words he (probably) wrote do, and so does the relationship the reader and audience have with those words.

What we want to do is strip away the unthinking hierarchisation of Shakespeare v other authors, English Literature versus Others (such as MacAulay's assertion that a single shelf of European literature was worth 'the whole native literature of India and Arabia') and get back to texts and contexts. Down with Great Men. This is what the know-nothings refer to as Cultural Relativism and Political Correctness Gone Mad. We need to do this: there's nothing intellectually stimulating or informative about constructing league tables of playwrights. You can't compare The Frogs, Hamlet and Shopping and Fucking in qualitative terms: what you can do is compare technique, staging, setting, their relationships to each other and their contexts and learn things through those comparisons. This isn't controversial in my world, but there are plenty of reactionaries (most of whom haven't seen a play since they were the Third Ass in their primary Nativity) who think this is treason, subversion and filth.

As an encore, I went straight into a class which pulled apart the concept of universal morality based on utilitarianism, Bentham and Mill's formula which problematically relates ethics to a complicated calculation of pleasure, pain-avoidance and consequences while covertly relying on very subjective ideas (we don't agree on what constitutes happiness, nor on how to acquire it). We successfully demolished conventional bourgeois morality in one two-hour slot and thus it was a day well-spent.

Peter: if you're lacking material for next week's column, you're welcome to turn up at any of my classes.

1 comment:

The Red Witch said...

Aw, man. The Kenneth Brannagh version of the St. Crispin's day speech is so much better and more rousing.