"Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Adam Kitzes
12:03AM Apr 16, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Hi, you're listening to jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Today we're talking with Adam kitsis and asking, is Shakespeare still relevant?
There have been times when everyone knew what it meant to be educated, whether it was in classical Athens or 18th century Germany, there were certain things that every cultured person was expected to know. In Europe this meant natural science basic math, the Bible key philosophers smattering of languages, Greek and Latin, especially, schools were usually religious. So the clergy had a vested interest in teaching their traditions and arguing for their own conclusions. This is not said that everyone knew these things. Of course, the poor rarely had access to education, and the 18th century literacy rates in England topped off at about 60% and the aristocracy, the rich and the powerful, they were just as distractible by parties and gossip as they are now. But at least they knew what they had to fake. The advantage of having a well established curriculum is that people could identify the learned and they could communicate easily. If you made a reference to Homer, you knew an educated audience would get it. If you set it Aristotle, you weren't dismissed as pretentious. There was a homogeneity that made it easy to discern who was in and who was out. Education was as it has always been about money and power. The 1960s and 70s change this, the various rights movements in the US forced universities to widen their focus, especially when it came to literature. No more would American education be dominated by dead white men? Dante Milton Spencer, by the 1980s. They were replaced by Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These are wonderful and important additions to the canon, but ask any English professor of a certain generation and they will lament the countless students who pass through college without once encountering Shakespeare, Shakespeare. That's who we'll be talking about today, but I'll get To him in a minute. There are many advantages to the pluralistic and open approach to literature. It communicates a wide range of experiences putting every race ethnicity, sex and class on equal footing. In theory, this cultivates a kind of global empathy, and encourages the diverse democratic practices America strives to value. It also welcomes everyone into the educated classes. Our students, no matter where they come from, and what they experience can recognize themselves in at least one of these recent additions. And because of this, they grow to understand that education is as much for them as for anyone else. But if a common education made it easier to communicate with one another, a disparate one made it more difficult, because there was no longer an established curriculum, because every teacher could design his or her own literature course idiosyncratically. There were no longer guarantees that any one person no matter how educated would have read the same books. Bigger Thomas was no more reliable. reference, then oh decius How can we communicate through diversity if there are no connective threads between us? The theory behind the literary canon is that human experiences in some sense, universal, and that whatever our background, we can learn about ourselves, the eyes of Ishmael the oarsmen from Moby Dick or quick read the heart Spooner. The great insight of the 20th century is that universal does in fact, mean universal. And if we can all see ourselves in Herman Melville's book, then we can also all see ourselves in Ralph Ellison's, and we can, and we should, but what about the detritus littered on the side of the canonical road? If Ellison if Alice Walker of Juno DS are so immeasurably valuable, does it really follow that Shakespeare isn't? doesn't open canon really mean that his work is not simply complemented by contemporary diversity but that it is superseded? Is Shakespeare really no longer relevant at all? This is a question for today's guests. This is what I will ask him Fact is, it's easy to pick on Shakespeare because he's as much a cultural symbol as he as a playwright. Everyone knows him, although a few have really read him. And perhaps it is true that the symbol of Shakespeare has outlived its usefulness. Like Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, maybe it's time for someone new to stand in for humanity. Maybe we need a new face for the literary arts. But I doubt that the same can be said about Shakespeare the writer has just been too good to on task and too entertaining for too long to be swept aside by new insights. There's, there's a goofy line in the movie star trek six The Undiscovered Country, one of the characters remarks. You've not experienced Shakespeare until you've read him in the original Klingon. It's intended to be a comment on how fascists steal great art and call it their own. But it really does underscore the fact that no matter how alien one might be, Shakespeare still gets to the heart of the matter. If it is believable, that cling on see themselves Hamlet, why is it less so that an untouchable in India could or a struggling victim of sex trafficking? We all ask ourselves why and how. And we all sometimes stare into the darkness and wonder if we can go on. So To be or not to be is still the question. It just turns out that you may not need to be a prince of Denmark to ask it. You could be anyone from anywhere, even someone whose names we don't know yet, even someone who had been pushed down instead of propped up. And now our guest, Adam kitsis, is a professor of English at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the politics of melancholy from Spencer to Milton and has written numerous articles about Shakespeare and teaching literature. Adam, welcome to why
Hi, thanks for having me.
We're pre recording the show today so we won't be stopping for comments but please send us your thoughts at ask firstname.lastname@example.org post them on Twitter or Instagram at at wire radio show or visit our Facebook email@example.com slash why radio show. You can always find links to them and find our archives And send questions at why Radio show.org. So, I want to start with a question that feels like a dumb question. But I'll explain what I mean. Was Shakespeare white? And what I mean by that is, how different was the England that he lived in? Is it fair to think of it as similar enough that that someone can open it and see the England that they're in now or the America that they're in now? Is Shakespeare us?
I actually think that's a, that's a fantastic question. And there are two ways that I could think about that. One is to think about how Shakespeare understood himself. How did he identify himself? He certainly saw himself as English. He was living in a room, certainly some stuff is English. He saw himself as a member of the Church of England. Maybe a casual member, maybe devoted member of the Church of England Protestant in its doctrine, but with family who maintained connections to the Roman Catholic Church. But he was living in a metropolitan city city, London That was fast becoming a the metropolitan city of Europe. And it was bringing people from all over all over England all over the British Isles, and bringing people all over the continent, an influx of populations, who spoke differently, who had different customs different habits, and he certainly was capable of recognizing them. Some of his plays speak about that directly to his own domestic circumstances and some of his other plays, particularly his play setting Mediterranean settings speak to similar themes ideas, and
so this vision we have of the New York's and LA is as being the new pluralism, the new diversity, this there's nothing new about it. The big cities had these experiences even at his time
he was. He was aware of it. his contemporaries were aware of it people working in the professional playhouses where he made his living. We're certainly aware of it, I would draw attention. Partly because it's fresh in my mind. There's a play that he's associated with about the story of Thomas Moore, the 15th century humanist politician, scholar, whatever. There's a play that he is associated with. He may have written a speech for whatever but the but the opening section of the play deals directly with a problem that might actually feel very close to home. Residents of London complaining about an influx of foreign immigrants coming in from Flanders, speaking different languages enjoying different legal privileges, enjoying different rights and so forth and the play begins with A with a local uprising, a group of citizens they're getting, they're getting together and they're going to hold a riot. And as far as we know, this material was, was very explosive. There's some reason to suggest that it was suppressed that was not allowed to be performed on stage in the way it was scripted. But it certainly shows that people were aware of an immigrant population and the xenophobia that it could provoke
and so the uprising is anti immigrant. It's it's a protest much like we're seeing now. Yes, yes. And and are the are the complaints the same? They're taking our jobs, they're changing our values, they're looting our stuff. They're raping our women is Is it the same sort of dialogue
it's disturbingly close to home? Yes. Taking take Yes, the properties vary slightly. But yes, taking our women taking our taking our food taking are enjoying rights, they're not subject to the same or that they enjoy certain liberties that London residents, native native English residents would not enjoy.
All of those come up in the script.
Okay, so how about his day to day life? I mean, in my head I have visions of chamber pots, which I tried to get out of my head, but but but how much is his life like ours?
clarify, clarify what you mean, like, what are you looking for? I guess
what I'm trying to ask is, you know, with modern conveniences with with televisions and refrigerators, we have a lot of time and our work, which is you know, when we're lucky nine to five, five days a week, and there is a sense of awkwardness to me. Reading life. When you see films or hear about these times you see visions of peasants who are in basically servitude. You have senses of the aristocracy that live in palaces, but you have very little, you have some sense of merchants, but there's no middle classes as far as they're depicted. And so, to what extent is both the ease and the trials and tribulations that a person is in his time would experience are they analogous to ours?
I see. I see the world that he was living in is primarily a city world and urban, an urban world. A city that was was expanding very rapidly. And that was dealing with all kinds of problems, many of them just very basic municipal problems where the house were to take care of sanitation, how to take care of policing issues, crime with us. was a problem, how to white streets that dark, you know how to how to make sure that traffic could flow relatively seamlessly. I mean there was there was quite a lot of traffic when it was probably boat traffic or different kinds of obviously not hard cars or anything like that. My expectation is that on any given day he could have run ins with any number of people that he had never seen before and never would see again. But by also this might be just my own projection as an artist, he took notice of all of them and tried to find ways to observe and assimilate them into his own writing. So he saw a world that was kaleidoscopic, and that he was doing his best like everybody else to make sense of,
and and would these categories of white of black wood they make sense to him what he thinks himself as white I clearly he think of himself as English. But we know from American history that when the Irish came to the United States, they weren't considered white When the Germans came to United States, they weren't considered white. So would those categories the identity politics makes sense to him in such a way that he would say to the activists of the 1960s and 70s? Well, of course, I'm a dead white man. That's what I am.
I think he saw himself as English. I think he saw himself as English at a time when certainly the the monarchy wanted to see up. It's the extent of its powers Extending across the kingdom as broadly as it could. I think he wanted to see a national culture as as much as he could. At the same time, he recognized regional differences he wrote about those regional differences in his place, often made fun of those regional differences. Yeah, he has, he has placed with characters making fun of each other for their, for their accents for their dialects, even variations in English in the way people speak English. So he's very he's, he's, he's fully aware of the idea that people from different parts of the kingdoms speak differently and they behave differently. So, you know, he's he's aware of that tension. He probably saw himself as, as Christian, and probably at the very least made some casual distinction between Christian and non Christian. He doesn't really write about this that much, but that might have been certainly shared among his contemporaries. Some maybe Islamophobia. I'm using a contemporary time to describe but certainly, certainly that was, that was a common common concern. He wrote, he wrote a couple of plays that were set in, in different parts of the Mediterranean. And my sense in reading those places that he was fascinated with these regions as commercial centers that bring together people from from very large distances and kind of gather them together. I don't think he saw them as a melting pot the way that we as Americans would use that term melting pot, but he was certainly aware that like commerce, springs, traffic of different different regions, different people and so forth
when he makes fun of the differences. Is it affectionate is it judgmental? Is there a sense in his plays that the working classes or some other people are worth looking down upon?
Yeah, I think that a lot of his jokes are what we would what we when I was a kid we used to call tasteless Yes, certainly, I remember them to and certain people got a thrill out of them. And I recognized that they were they were not for polite society. But yeah, he had a lot. He had all kinds of jokes that were really, really designed to be as as aggressive and and as ridiculing as as
circumstances. Was there any discourse at the time that you know of that approximates what we would unfortunately call political correctness? I mean, was there a sense that you shouldn't make fun of these people and he's
challenging that or was it just normal and and and to extent that people got made fun of that was just, that was the way things were. It would be very difficult for me to address that question without starting to think about individual cases plays that he wrote or was familiar with, I suppose like if I think about individual players plays one play that comes to mind is a play called The Merchant of Venice, right? Which is filled. There's this is one scene in particular where two characters are introducing principal characters. And they do their business in the first 30% 40% of the scene. And then it's almost like they've run out of things to do in that scene, and they have a few minutes left. So the two characters, just trade ethnic jokes, jokes about the different nationalities of the people that are coming in and out of this particular court. And to the extent that I think that Shakespeare had some kind of commentary on it, I think it really illustrated two characters who had very empty lives and had nothing else to do with themselves to occupy their time. So they filled it up with these kinds of jokes.
That's really interesting. And I think and a little later, I want to talk about the Merchant of Venice. I want to talk about Shylock and the purported anti semitism but um, This sense that they had nothing better to do. When you see when I see film depictions of Shakespeare plays at the time and the Globe Theater, there is always presented as he's talking to the high culture folks at some point, and then the masses at some point and that the dirty jokes and the tasteless jokes are throw our gifts to the lower classes so that they can enjoy the play too. Is that accurate? Did he have two audiences in mind that he was speaking to in order to appeal to both? Or are these things more integrated into the discussion and more of his holistic vision of the story that he wants to tell?
Yeah, that's a good question. I think part of the way I would think about that, in terms of the way I study it would be to the way I studied his plays in the and the, the Playhouse is that he worked in, I would, I would draw attention to To the fact that he, he actually worked in several different play houses. Some of them were, were designed, they were all designed for different audiences. And some of them were public. They were designed to just, you know, bring in whoever had whoever had the disposable income. And I think as I understand it, roughly, the price of a ticket was roughly the equivalent of a day's food. So people had to have enough disposable income to to cover that expense. He also performed his plays was company performed plays in slightly more pricey theaters and their records that show that he performed plays at work at the world court for for court performances. And the expectation is that script and the performances would have been tailored for each of those audiences is different So when we read a Shakespeare play today, what we're actually looking at is kind of in some ways, it's like a fossil. It's really a collection. It's it's a collection put together by different individuals, editors, publishing houses, and so forth and doing their best to put together a coherent script that only partially reflects what actually might have taken place in any of the
settlements is there's no definitive Shakespeare what we read when we read Hamlet, or as you like, it is not always what was presented to the audience.
Well, we know we know for from the scripts that we do have, that they were revised all the time. It both in Shakespeare's case and and some of his contemporaries. The place of some of these were just for strict commercial purposes if a play for instance was performed in a year like 1599, and then it was in a went through its run, and then revived Three years later, five years later, whatever, almost always with revisions to the script updates. Shakespeare's play some of the plays that Shakespeare makers made his mark on. We're all touch ups adaptations.
What do you mean by that? reboots? Okay.
Hopefully our audience is familiar with the idea of a reboot. I actually just watched the the trailer the sneak preview for a reboot of one of my favorite all time favorite horror classics Halloween. It still has Jamie Lee Curtis in it. But it's the idea being that the story is familiar enough but the audience has recycled enough that you can take a take an old story and recast it for an audience. And that's what, that's what as a young guy just coming into a commercial Playhouse, that's what he did. He took old place and touch them up. And they made them contemporary again. And certainly the plays that that he worked on, if they got stage, they went through a run until they lost their commercial appeal. And if there was any sense that they could be revived, they were revived, but the changes were part they were they were part of the experience.
At what point when we come back? Yeah, I want to start by asking you why Shakespeare wrote plays in the first place. What is it that a play gives us that say, a novel or a treatise or something does not? And then I want to ask you about whether or not he was regarded As a genius and this idea and the ways in which he changed the language and the culture, yeah, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. You're listening to Adam kitsis and jack Russell wants to know why philosophical discussions with everyday life. We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Weinstein. I'm talking with Adam kitsis, about Shakespeare and asking whether Shakespeare is still relevant. In the first half of the show. We started talking about the life of Shakespeare in the context asking to what extent his political categories were the same as ours and identity politics and begin to unfurl this question of whether or not Shakespeare has a place in the modern University. But Shakespeare was a playwright. And he was he wrote to be experienced as a play and I think about the best Shakespeare play I've ever seen. And I haven't seen that many honestly. But the best one I ever saw was actually at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival last year, two years ago. It's a group of high school students who did a version of Midsummer Night's Dream that was about 45 minutes long. They had almost no props They understood it in a way that I can't even articulate. And they use the original Shakespearean language. And they play at presented perfectly. And I understood everything. And my daughter, who was, I guess, about 10, at the time understood everything at everyone was laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And there is this tradition in Shakespeare, of changing the performance of working with different props of putting it in different contexts. So I want to ask you, Adam, if we set Hamlet in the year 3000, or if Macbeth is takes place in Nazi Germany, is that a reboot, in the sense that that Shakespeare worked on early in his career, or is that a violation somehow with the integrity of the play? How important is the text and how important is the artistic vision that the director and the actors bring to the table,
it's actually back it up just a little bit and go back to what we were just touching on right before the break, which is why Shakespeare was a playwright. Okay. I think that is one of the greatest questions. And it's one that I can't answer. I don't know if anybody can answer the question. Why did it occur to a young man to start writing plays for a living? And part of that has to do more broadly, like, if you were if you were living in Shakespeare's lifetime? How did it occur to you to become a professional writer and actually make a living make make an income that you could live on? He had a family after all that he had, that he had to account for. If you wanted to make a living, what were the avenues? What What were the opportunities? A lot of his contemporaries, people who are professional writers, did actually write all kinds of different assignments. They wrote political pamphlets. They were propaganda for the government. They've some, some of them are polar. As some of them wrote, stories and so forth, with regard to Shakespeare with the exception of a very, very brief detour into poetry. And my sense is that he wrote the bulk of those poems when he was out of work as a playwright, when the play houses were shut down for various circumstances. He spent all his time in the professional playhouses. And he saw this as an opportunity for for making his mark. I don't know where where he got the idea that that he could become part of this culture. I think he just probably my sense is that he saw these new these playhouses were fairly new cultural feature. There were still a handful of people that were doing what he ended up doing. And they were taking these stories and these scenarios and they were applying what they knew about Poetry and about how to make the language really, really come alive. And they were just making it really cool. And at some level, he must have thought I can take part in this and so forth. He comes in he comes in though he's a nobody. And you know, he's got a, you know, he's gotta do whatever, you know, hold the towels and whatever. It's got a hustle. Yeah, yeah.
So what what is it that a play gives us that other kinds of art don't I mean, we see on television and occasionally in films, these attempts to put plays on film are on the screen while preserving the sort of the play feel of it. Aaron Sorkin will do that occasionally in the West Wing, and movies like my dinner with Andre with which half of our audience will not know. But but there are these there's a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf right, these movies that yes, they're movies, but they're plays and you can tell their plays. What is That makes a play special and what is it that a play gives us that other kinds of performance? Do not?
I thought the audience the interaction with the audience is probably I mean, there are there are other things as well. But I would list that as the number one element that distinguishes Theatre Arts from certainly from the Cinematic Arts, its life. And, you know, audiences don't necessarily have to intervene or, or, or shout back and forth, but they just have to be there. And the idea that you're performing in front of real people, and that you're able, like as an actor, for instance, that you're able to register. What, you know, you would call maybe like the energy of the room. Mm hmm. And to be able to adapt to that. That is something that we're with cinema in particular, I mean, cinema and a lot of money. theater experiences both have the same thing in common, what is the lighting condition of a room when you sit when you sit in a movie theater? Start right and you and you're actually in a room that is designed to make you forget that there are other people around. Actually, in some more extreme circumstances to make you forget that you are around as much as possible to make you forget the conditions that make you a physical person, it's just your senses are still picking up the actions on the on the screen or whatever, or even on the stage in some versions of theatrical performance. But Shakespeare never had those conditions, meaning most of his plays were performed in natural lighting conditions, audiences could see each other. If we were watching, if we were spectators, we were aware of our own presence and that forces us to acknowledge each other in ways that I've certainly, you know, to put it negatively modern cinema certainly does not achieve that. But but but more positively it forces us to acknowledge each other and take account of each other's presence is this
does this make theater? And I know this isn't an either nor question, but does it make it a collective experience? Is Shakespeare writing to the collective or Shakespeare writing to the individuals and trying to speak to each individual? What, what, when, when he's presenting these stories? Does he want everyone to have the same experience at the same time? Or does he want each of the individuals to have their own relationship with the play?
Yeah, that's a that's a great question. And you know, this is a question that would come up in my own scholarship and research and whatever and my my sense certainly admit The place more interesting if I can produce interpretations that suggests that different parts of the audience different parts of the population responded in very, very different ways. And that the the plays were actually calculated to provoke as diverse a range of responses as he could get, but also from like a production standpoint, in terms of who he had involved. I mean, plays are intrinsically collaborative experiences. And this is the second element. I think this is something that it actually shares with, with cinema, a little bit more directly. Shakespeare would produce scripts, but he didn't perform his own materials, typically. As the actors who took his her took whatever it is he had written, and they were they had the responsibility of making it work. My sense is that they had some responsibility and also some privilege in terms of shaping what actually took place on the stage. If they needed to cut, revise or whatever came up during rehearsal, but that there had to have been some, some give and take between the players and the the playwright. But that the emphasis really went to the player, so they're gonna stay with it. They're the ones who have to stand in front of the audiences and make this make this stuff look pretty. There's one other, there's one other feature in terms of like thinking about collective versus individuals. characters, I guess, what are the terms that we could use to describe the different people that come up on on the stage and perform we could call them characters we can call them players. My favorite term for calling for identifying them as parts. Everybody was everybody had a part? Okay. The word part really, I mean, you could you could play around with that term. But the idea that you had a part meant that you that you were part of something larger than your thing, your own baggage or whatever. You certainly had an important part. But no one individual could claim monopoly control over the over the ideas.
So how do these actors interpret or deal with insofar as anyone can answer this question? The things that Shakespeare brings, that didn't exist before him. So for example, he invents words, right? He creates words for the English language. I'm hoping that you know, some of them because they've all fallen out of my head, but also some of them I can't say on the right, but also, he's really struggling with ideas that are new. I always tell my students and you can tell me if I'm wrong, that part of what's going going on in Romeo and Juliet is that that Shakespeare is exploring with this idea of exploring this idea of romantic love. That's new. Yeah, that that before that marriages is arranged and political and other things are going on. And there's a meme going through on the internet that says something like, you know, don't forget that the story of Romeo and Juliet is about a 13 year old who spends one night with an 18 year old and then everyone dies. Right? Um, you know, it's it's not a romance in that sense. It's a tragedy in that sense. It's it's, it's every parent's have a high school students worst nightmare. Right? So, yeah, he's inventing romantic love in a certain way. He's inventing language. So a how and why does he do that? Yeah. And be how did the actors deal with this material? That's culturally new.
Yeah, those are great questions. And with reference to Romeo and Juliet, specifically, which is one of my one of my favorite of Shakespeare. plays and I think about that play from my standpoint as a as a professor. One of the biggest challenges is that everybody is so familiar with the story and they're so familiar with it as a cultural artist shows up in popular music and Everywhere you look, MTV, that it is very difficult to recapture just how revolutionary that play was. on so many, that play completely changed what people expected a tragedy to be like both in terms of its subject, most most, most, all productions of what people thought and expected a tragedy was supposed to do involve totally different subject matter.
So here's talk a little about this because this is really interesting. Okay, so if you
went to a tragedy in 1589, for instance, you actually expected it to involve either historical subject matter or maybe a variation of classical Latin. There were there were some Roman, Latin writers and they provided models. They were they almost always revolved around individual heroic figures. And we could spend some time talking about what it meant to be a hero. I don't think it's that important for this discussion. They usually involve themes like revenge, they usually involves all kinds of
violence, a lot of blood.
You could look at a play, like Titus Andronicus, as an early example of the tragedy that Shakespeare wrote, setting, setting late Roman Empire. villains mess with the hero. They destroy his family hero gets revenge. The plot is, is that and that's basically the plot this the action is all blood people cut off their VMs they send them a reboot of Halloween you know culminates in the scene where the hero gets revenge on on the villain by killing her sons baking them up into a pie and serving them to her. That's what I mean buckets of blood. And the language was anything but the language of romance. So, here is, here's this pipe, this pipe comes along and it's shocking. It's about these two kids, that it's about these two kids in love.
My sense, are they kids at the time? Are they are they is the age different such that they were considered more adult.
They are young. They are old enough to get married. Okay. But yeah, 18 and 13 How old is how old is a 13 year old girl you She was she was still, she's just entering into that public world. Okay. But there's part of it is that there's two of them. And I tell people that the most important word in that title is Ent. And the idea that this play is about bringing together two people who have to come from different, different families. They come from different, different customs. I mean, the the experience of being a boy growing up in Verona would have been completely different from the experience of being a girl growing up in Verona. The responsibilities, the pressures and so forth would have been that Romeo and Juliet do not see their romance the same ways. So whatever Romeo thinks is going on is completely different from whatever Juliet thinks it's
just the play acknowledge this. It's
Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And, and that's, that's what part of what makes it such a fascinating place. It acknowledges the idea that there are different In the way that we come into our relationships, and those kinds of those kinds of differences are both exciting. And in this case, in this case, but there's no blood in that plate, there's very little blood. There's all kinds of love language. I mean, this is like, I it is hard to come up with an equivalent without sounding a little cheesy. But this is their, this is Shakespeare Sergeant Pepper, and you know, I'll just stick with Sergeant Pepper. This is this is his Sergeant Pepper, which is completely changing the way that people think about a genre.
So let me ask them as as a teacher, and then with a thought on any of the theater folks who are listening. Yeah. Is it possible to recreate that experience for the audience? Is it possible for for any person steeped in the cultural mythology of Roman Juliet to get to the Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare was writing.
I don't i don't think so i think that I mean, that's it this is one of the disadvantages is that
once it's, it's, it's once you have an invention, and you've learned how to live with it, you forget what it was like. It's like, it's like trying to recreate the experience of turning on the lights for the first time or answering a telephone, it's, it's once you've got it, it's difficult to imagine a world that came before it. And so part of from a teaching standpoint, part of my responsibility and part of what excites me about a playwright that is trying to find ways to just impress upon upon people. I mean, I I, you mentioned genius, I think earlier in in this conversation. I have some misgivings about that term, but on a certain level, like when I actually think about what he was doing, there are certain certain moments history of art that I, just for lack of a better term, I can only describe them as miraculous. And this is one of those,
you know, it's funny, I'm thinking about how to communicate some of the newness and what comes to mind is, and I think you will remember this I don't know how many of our listeners Well, the movie Harold and mod Harold and mods 1960s film that tells the story of a 21 year old boy who falls in love with an 80 year old woman. Yeah, and I show it in my class and my students, right. They're all raised on the internet. They've seen everything they've seen everyone do anything. You know, since they were 10 years old. And they think of themselves even even the the folks from from rural North Dakota think of themselves as worldly and have seen it all. And they don't think they'll ever be shocked by a movie. And they walk away from Harold and Maude. And they're they're completely blown away and Some of them refer to Maude as a pedophile even though he's Harold is 20 years old and and and every kind of relationship in the world they've already seen but but but the age and youth they can't grasp and so I wonder if this is one of these attempts to try to get to that new way of of communicating what's new about relationships there? I
don't know. It just popped into my head showing Harold and Maude as a way of like, as a way of at least demonstrating that there's some there's there's still room for novelty. Yeah, yeah. And that's a particularly interesting pairing. It actually does come up in Shakespeare on one occasion in a play called Othello, which I also have a I have a ball teaching that play for all kinds of reasons, but it does actually come up early on in my discussions in a in a classroom setting what audiences would have been most shocked and most they would have had the hardest time getting their minds around was the difference in age. A fellow and testimony fellow comes to know Desdemona because he's visiting Desdemona his father, they're their friends. And I mean this is this is something that would send real shivers down any any father spine, the idea that you could invite a friend over for dinner conversation, whatever. The next thing you know, he's often married your doctor. This is that's a lot more shocking than anything else that we might think that
that plays about
and going back to the original conversation that we started with. Othello when people talk about to sell what they know is that he's Morrish that he's black is a fellow black is Morrish the same thing.
There's actually a lot of scholarship about this and a lot of people study this I've actually I talked about this in the class. There's some disagreement About what a more what the term more actually meant even to speak basically down to what part of Africa Shakespeare might have had in mind. I do think there's a lot to be said for the idea that he is a he, he's living in Venice, which was a commercial center. He's the top military rank. He's a general.
there's, there's some sense that the other characters are aware of his, that he's not Venetian or whatever, but I don't know how much they make of it. How different is he from the community that he's living in? It's one of those. It's one of those questions that nobody can really fully answer and it's not answerable in a way that makes that his his circumstances interesting. So it would be less interesting. If they could, if If we could definitively say, a fellow is black and living in a white community,
but it didn't matter to Shakespeare, if he were black,
I think what mattered to Shakespeare was that that kind of question couldn't be answered. And it in, in, in art, presumably an ethics, there's nothing more difficult than ambiguity. Right. And I think what makes To my mind, a play like a fellow compelling is that it's ambiguous. And there are there are clearly ways in which he is a US citizen of Venice, just like any other resident in that city, and then there are some other ways in which he is made to feel I mean, there are actual references to his to his skin complexion. He describes himself as black. There are some references to his physical characteristics that But I'm not even going to repeat them. They're just there, right there to off the off the rails but so there there are characters who are who are using language that I don't know of any other other way to describe it then just racist or, or. or. Yeah, I realized that that word didn't exist for Shakespeare he invented a lot of words. Racism wasn't
what would he would he? I mean, this is pure speculation but would he object to it would he would he have had some concept of racism? The the Denzel Washington version of Much Ado About Nothing. Yeah, the film. Yeah. They never mentioned and it's completely irrelevant to the story. What that that the actor is black, regardless of what Shakespeare, as far as I recall, is that Shakespeare put in the play. Yeah. So no one I mean, I don't remember any discussion about that. Film being a problem for anyone as it shouldn't be. But for our world, and I'm focusing on this, because in America, you know, racist is a primary category, it probably shouldn't be. But it is. Yeah. And so we as as, as American audiences, can't experience things past that without acknowledging it, in some sense, even if we're approving of it. Would Shakespeare have had that experience too? Would Shakespeare have seen race as a primary category? Or are these less interesting nuances as far as he's concerned? Yeah,
that's I mean,
I'm, I'm sure that modern Europe has had its experiences with race and racism in ways that I don't feel comfortable even addressing because I'm just not it's not it's not my My upbringing, there's an American experience of race and racial divides and racism that I think we're a little bit more I'm a little bit more familiar with, just from my own upbringing and so forth. That's distinctly American. And, yeah, I mean, it's a very good question and, and it and it's, you know, how do you want to bring Shakespeare in to discussions about ethnic, different ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, racial diversity in the United States, I think that there are some very clear ways that he is brought in some very definite ways that he's brought into these discussions. And it's in some way we can bring Shakespeare bring our discussion back to some of the things that you mentioned in the introduction to this conversation, questions about what it means to be educated, right. And I think there Shakespeare comes in very nicely. So if I can just back up for a second, I don't know how productive it is to look to Shakespeare. Your writings, as though they had some kind of message for us to take with us. So I don't like I mean, people sell these kinds of books all the time if they're Shakespeare and love Shakespeare and what it means to be a hero Shakespeare on forgiveness under these collections of quotations and so forth. And if you look at these, these books are almost always awful. For the main reason that they're awful is because they have these quotes, these little sayings, these chestnuts, and they're taken so far out of context that if you actually knew what, how these lines worked in the place where they're being lifted from, you'd think that this is the last like, I don't want to know what I don't know what I want to know what this character thinks about love much less to remember it and apply it for my own. Those those kinds of books I find, I guess there's a market for them, but I find them really ludicrous. And I also more broadly, I think that it's It's probably questionable and maybe not too productive to look to whatever it was Shakespeare wrote, as though he had some nuggets of wisdom. I don't think that's where the, where his talents lie.
And so you don't think he saw himself or his what would become literature as as, as as a font of wisdom as as a teacher? Now he was an entertainer first and foremost he was,
I think, I mean he was a very good entertainer she's very skilled with language Don't get me wrong. There was he performed to mixed reviews in his own lifetime. It's very it's very difficult to know when people started to look to his language as though it were the most important category. But if you have you ever seen like a no fear Shakespeare or a cliff notes where they try and transform Shakespeare into those, those those Those into contemporary but in contemporary English, those books do you know when those books started to appear, like 1660, with about 50 years after a died and, and whatever, like immediately people started looking at this language and they couldn't make heads or tails of it, they always had to put it into their own contemporary. However English was spoken at the at the time, otherwise the plays. But at some point, people started to think that the language was a feature that deserved special attention that he was doing something with language that went beyond what any of his contemporaries are really what anybody else had ever done with language. It's it, it's kind of unexpected. I mean, there was nothing about his place that's that would have suggested that this kind of regard for his language ever would have. It. It's not something that you would have looked at those plays and thought yet 100 years from now people are going to be thinking this The greatest language ever put down on on on a script, it
sort of happened is, is I want to ask but this isn't really what I want to ask. I want to ask is Shakespeare overrated and but what I mean by that is okay if if if the language is not at the time perceived as the pinnacle of human speech of English speech. And what what is it? What is it that Shakespeare, is it the story? Is it the dialogue? Is it the unexpected nature the card what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare? Yeah, if so, much of the individual parts are so subject to the time or or what people think or what makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare.
Um, the canned answer that I would give would be what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is that He provides so much material for so many other. So many other artists that go so far beyond anything he could have imagined for him.
So what makes Shakespeare important is that artists think he's important.
Yeah. And I can use him in some in some very interesting ways. Although, I mean, like, I, I'm not a I'm not a practicing artist. I'm not that I'm not a contemporary novelist or poet or anything like that. I don't know, like how you would actually like draw from from Shakespeare's plays as a model. You know, the way that if he could be an influence in in in that way. But yeah, certainly over over time. I mean, I think that the best thing that Shakespeare has done is that he's given he's given other artists, other scholars, other promoters, other cultural promoters, whatever material for for them to work with intuition. With
so so is then the initial answer to is Shakespeare relevant. Simply, Shakespeare is relevant insofar as we decide he's relevant and the second we decide he's not relevant. He's not relevant anymore. I mean, is there no independent power that Shakespeare has, that gives us for lack of a better phrase, a moral imperative to care about Shakespeare, we've just decided to share it back Shakespeare and artists reference him and and make variation and, and that's what keeps him important. But in and of itself, he's no more or less important than anyone else.
in some regard. It's just as hard to answer. Why Shakespeare became a playwright, as it is to answer why Shakespeare came to be the symbol of, of universal genius. And to some extent, it it did involve personal choices and involved Selecting and in some cases, ignoring other writers and so forth. I want to go back to something that you said in the introduction
about what it means to be educated.
Because by my own interests Take me to the history of Shakespeare in America history Shakespeare in the United States. And there's actually there's a really great anthology Can I promote it? edited by James Shapiro, it's called Shakespeare in America. It's published by a nonprofit organization out of New York called The Library of America. And it's an anthology, it's a collection of writings, that deal or to deal with how Shakespeare came to be part of American culture. And there's there a pair of essays
they were both
both of these essays were written by two people that were Heads of the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington DC the Folger Shakespeare life. Henry Henry Clay Folger was the was a president of Standard Oil. He had a lot of money, apparently, so much money, they didn't know what else to do with it. So he bought, he built a museum. He built a library. And there are two, two heads of that library. And, and they introduced two ideas that I find really fascinating and I, that I, that I like to work with. One was the idea of literature as something of something that warrants serious attention, roughly the equivalent of chemistry or physics or any of the natural sciences that in order to really engage in literature, you have to take it seriously. and study it with with all of the kind of scientific rigor that you would. And it seems like the path to that kind of mentality leads directly through Shakespeare. There was another head of that library. His name was Joseph quincy adams who delivered the the anthology includes a lecture, I think a speech that he about how how Shakespeare came to be part of American culture. And it's mostly about our, our nation's connections to England about the the relation between Queen Elizabeth in Virginia and so on and so forth. But he gets to this point where he talks about life after the Civil War. And, you know, the number of casualties in those battles, be the rise of industry and the need for labor for cheap labor and see the influx of immigrants of non English speaking immigrants that had formerly been of the thousands now by the millions. And he is perfectly candid and how he feels about this influx and what he perceived as the dangerous One of the dangers that he perceived was what's the opposite of homogenization? heterogenous ation? That sounds awful. Yeah, pluralism, thank you that America would lose its cultural heritage, right? What did he see as the solution? Well, thank goodness there was this new cultural institution called compulsory education. Students had to go to school, they had to learn things they had, and this provided an an opportunity. I actually did look, look over this lecture before even I met today. The word he uses is discipline. Shakespeare could be brought into American culture and brought in through public education, compulsory education, and he would serve as a kind of cultural discipline
is terrific. I had a friend This, is it possible to think about Shakespeare separate from the uses of Shakespeare, you're using Shakespeare now as a tool for discipline and assimilation. And we use Shakespeare in school to help people think about language and stories and all the stuff and their place to get a lot of attention and place to to get attention. Yeah. Also, you suggested that part of what makes Shakespeare relevant is simply that artists think that Shakespeare is relevant. Yeah. Where is Shakespeare? In and of itself? Is it possible to think of Shakespeare without thinking about the way we think about Shakespeare the way we use Shakespeare? Or has, it just becomes such a historical artifact that we can only interpret it based on the perspective that we choose to start with?
Yeah, I mean, I think part of what makes that question interesting to me is that Makes me start to, I try to imagine what it would be like to come to Shakespeare, completely fresh, with no context, no background. And there are examples of this that you could probably, I don't want to get into them because they're probably a little too obscure, or people who have had no, no previous contact. There's there's one famous essay called Hamlet in the bush which was written by an anthropologist who, who came into whatever population he was studying she, I think, with this expectation that the, the, that Shakespeare's themes were so universal that anybody could hear for the first time fresh. So the essay is about how about her attempt to the anthropologists attempt to recount the story of Hamlet and really falls upon these, these people listening to it, they couldn't believe. Yeah, there questions about the ghost that never would have occurred to anybody who's familiar with the play. So it's a complete disaster. And the moral of the story is be careful about what you think are your universals and the common bonds of humanity. And it does suggest that if, in the course of history have played out a different way, and we had come to it fresh I mean, here, here's a, here's a, here's a nice little exercise you can you can do this with students, you can take 510 plays of Shakespeare, and put it in a classroom and then throw in a play by written by any of his contemporaries. None of his contemporaries would have recognized a huge difference in terms of language or in terms of like what he was doing on the stage, his theatrical tricks, his you know, whatever it is he did to make a play come off. It's pretty much like who's pretty much like everybody else, but get modern readers into a play by any of Shakespeare. Colleagues, and see how they see how they respond to it. I think that, you know, that might give us a hint about how we would feel if we didn't have all of this history and all of these different things to latch on to. So,
all right. As we close, I have to say, the conversation didn't quite follow the path that I thought it would. Right. I I thought that at the end, I'd walk away with a stronger sense of Shakespeare as being objectively great. Yeah. Instead I'm getting a sense of doom Johnston contextual contextually that that which makes Shakespeare so relevant and so important, is simply the uses and misuses that that we have. Yeah. Should I be bummed out? I mean, you know, there's something I mean, I'm enough of a conservative in certain ways that I like the idea of implicit greatness. Yeah. I like the idea of unchallenged. Great Should I be bummed out that the Shakespeare scholar, the Shakespeare teacher, who's who's sitting here is saying, Yeah, he's really fun. And we like talking about him. But there's other stuff to me is that? Am I wrong to be bummed out by that?
Hey, I'm also a fan right Shakespeare fan. And I share a sense of his greatness. And there are when I think about what's going on in some of those plays, there are things that get me excited. So I still think on a certain level, so it's not objective Lee Great. So what it's still great by other by other definitions of greatness, and there are still plenty of things that if we had more time, or if listeners want to take a class, I think when there are ways that we can make these plays really come alive and resonate and and ways that that maybe other writers can or maybe they cannot As you know, as for the idea that, you know that Shakespeare doesn't have that singular command, he I think he'd be okay with it because I think that his own working conditions made him okay with it. You know, he recognized that he was part of an ensemble, and he never, never saw himself at the head of the ensemble taking over the rest of what his group was trying to, was trying to do. But, but what does that mean, if he's not the only one like if you can get the same kinds of you mentioned, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. If we can get similar kinds of experiences if we can, if we can read native sun and be blown away or Invisible Man, this woman would be blown away. Is that a bad thing? I mean, why not spread it out? Why not see those experiences on a certain level, I'm a fan of Shakespeare's but on a certain level, I'm also a fan of literature's and if we can recreate similar kinds of experiences or even entirely new kinds of experiences.
unbalanced, I see that as a as a huge positive.
So then one of the arguments for widening the Canon and including these authors that that for some people are still controversial. It's they can recreate a kind of newness about romance, that William Shakespeare can't because they're unfamiliar in a way that William Shakespeare once was that that a larger wider more inclusive cannon gives people access to the novelty Yeah, that Shakespeare can no longer provide
Yeah, I mean, I think you know, a certain level if it's not knocking you off your if your sense of composure, then it's not doing its job. This As a literary work on a certain level, it should make you uncomfortable, it should challenge you and your preconceptions, and so forth. And if that means that it's on a certain level, if that means backing away from the idea that you know, but even backing away from the idea that there should be premier figures. And I share with you a lot of the mixed, it's mixed about it. On the one hand, I think it's really nice to have a common text that we can all refer back to it makes life easier it in conversation, we can have certain kinds of shortcuts. On the other hand, from an aesthetic standpoint, and probably from an ethical standpoint, I'm much more comfortable with the idea of diversification of pluralism and of the idea that hey, you know, no, nobody's got this. Nobody, nobody, no one culture has control over We think about what it means to be educated or what it means to enjoy art and so forth.
What you're suggesting, if I understand correctly, and a really nice place to close up is to suggest that the experience of literature is still incredibly Paramount, and that the novelty that the wider conversation brings in, can help substitute for or reproduce Shakespeare and that it's not as I suggested that they superseded Shakespeare is just that Shakespeare is now so familiar. That part of what made him so wonderful is now so mundane that we need to find it somewhere
else. Well, from from a director standpoint, or a producer standpoint, one of the hardest challenges to get past as an audience that goes in reviewing Shakespeare, right? Because if you revere that, that what that potentially closes off is that opportunity to win gage. And again, I mean, he wrote for a live audience. He wrote for four people that he wanted to engage on on some level. And if and again, I mean, if you can get it from someplace else. Why Why would that be a bad thing?
Well, Adam, that is unexpected, and yet incredibly wonderful and powerful place to end this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us online.
It's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
You've been listening to jack Russell Weinstein and Adam kitsis. on why philosophical discussions about everyday life, and I'll be back with a few thoughts right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions with everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Adam kitsis, about Shakespeare and asking whether Shakespeare is still relevant. And I like I suspect many of you ended up in a place that we weren't expecting. It's not that Shakespeare isn't relevant. It's that Shakespeare is relevant because we make him relevant. There's nothing inherently great about Shakespeare that gives us the moral imperative to read him. But in a certain sense, that's a wonderful place to end up because it restores our choice. It restores the sense that we can read Shakespeare because we want to, because Shakespeare provides us something not because we ought to imagine a world in which we We only read literature because we're told to or imagine a world in which we only read literature, because it's supposed to give us cultural authority or privilege. This is how many people think about school. And this is one of the reasons why people are so I'm thrilled by spending so much time in school. Imagine instead, if everything we read and everything we love, are the things that we choose to read and we choose to love. Can we re encounter Shakespeare then? Can we look at Shakespeare as a core piece of who we are, and then try to rediscover him in a new way? Maybe that involves reading different authors. Maybe that involves walking away from Shakespeare maybe that involves rethinking our assumptions about the cultural tropes of things like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet holding a skull that we've experienced so many times that we don't even really experience it at all. What is it mean to experience Shakespeare. If that means experiencing the way his audience experienced it, then that's probably impossible. But if experience Shakespeare means trying to look at what else is out there, and compare, contrast and learn and explore, for the love of literature for the love of our experience for the love of each other, then that means that Shakespeare is relevant, not because he's the best, but because he has another tool of inquiry and another tool of exploration. And I'll tell you, when I first heard that, I was, as I said, bummed out, but now I'm happy because it is about what I want and what you want to make your life and our life better. If we can find that with Ralph Ellison with Toni Morrison, with whomever, that's wonderful. But we will come back to Shakespeare, and if we do come back, shouldn't we come back fresh? and excited as opposed to coming back obligated. You've been listening to Jack Weinstein and why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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