Canon blogging: Brush Up Your Shakespeare, updated
While I’ve been a compulsive reader all my life, it wasn’t until recently that I’ve become student of literature. Most of my life I’ve read an average of one book per week, and back in my NYC commuter days I could read two novels per week, easily, and I have always enjoyed the classics. When choosing a college major, however, I chose economics and business, since I needed economic literacy and find the subjects fascinating. Another reason was that as soon as I knew that I had to study a book, I’d dislike it – homework took the fun out of reading. Majoring in literature was out of the question.
It wasn’t until after I moved to The Principality that I had the opportunity to study books for pleasure. It all started several years ago with auditing Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent lectures at Princeton University, a wonderful opportunity to hear, not only one of my three favorite authors (Maupassant and Trollope are the other two, long-dead both), but a Master Educator. One could not ask for a more auspicious beginning.
Frequent visitors of this blog by now probably know that I’m from Puerto Rico, and skilled readers can probably tell that English is not my first language. I have no more in common with Ovid than Homer has with Homer (nothing in common with Faust — I was named after grandma Faustina). However, I find in Ovid’s
And while the other creatures on all fours
Look downwards, man was made to hold his head
Erect in majesty and see the sky.
And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.
a description of what makes man different from beast. That passage endures because of its merits.
Good literature, such as the brief quote above, has distinctive features:
It resonates within the reader
It enlarges one’s view of the world
It’s a glance into another mind.
Good literature is universal.
Apparently the folks at the Modern Language Association don’t see it this way. Jonathan Rose states in his essay The Classics in the Slums:
“In 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, authoritatively stated (as something too obvious to require any evidence) that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated. It was, she asserted, an undeniable ’fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.’”
This is a completely erroneous conclusion, in my opinion. Aside from the fact that the term “these people” smacks of bigotry, since we all are classically uneducated until we start our education, Ms Smith is ignorant of the historical facts. The Independent Women’s Forum explains:
As Rose points out, historical research into the actual reading habits of working-class people during the 19th and early 20th centuries supports the existence of an “amazingly vital autodidact culture” in which coopers, weavers, dressmakers and housemaids who had left school at early ages, avidly read and found rich personal meaning in Homer, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling
In more recent times, tobacco factories had readers who read the classics to the workers, something Nilo Cruz used as a starting point for his lovely play (which Mr. Rose mentions) Anna in the Tropics. The average worker at a tobacco factory had the equivalent of a third-grade education; at best, a sixth grade level.
The notion of the ordinary reader (be he/she from the slums or from that other locale feared and despised by the intelligentsia, the suburb) being outside the reach of literature is profoundly elitist and reactionary, as Jonathan Rose’s article demonstrates. Yes, teaching iambic pentameter to the hoi polloi is hard, and has no practical immediate value. But to teach Shakespeare you don’t have to be able to write your own iambic pentameter – you have to bring the words to life, and the only way to bring a play to life is through performance, as Kurt Wootton did with his students. The students, the MLA would have been surprised to see, were able to completely understand and relate to Shakespeare. And, better yet, “Doing Shakespeare honored them.” One doesn’t even have to start with Shakespeare – The Guardian’s list of The top 100 books of all time offers another starting point, but Shakespeare carries its own singular resonance.
Harold Bloom (yes, the Harold Bloom that was publicly castigated by Naomi Wolf in NY Mag a while ago) explains the difficulty Shakespeare presents to ideologues:
Here they confront insurmountable difficulty in Shakespeare’s most idiosyncratic strength: he is always ahead of you, conceptually and imagistically. He renders you anachronistic because he contains you; you cannot subsume him. You cannot illuminate him with a new doctrine, be it Marxism or Demanian linguistic skepticism. Instead, he will illuminate the doctrine, not by prefiguration but by postfiguration as it were
(The Western Canon page 24).
Literature endures because it reaches into the reader and illuminates the human condition. No ideology can bring that to the human soul.
Update: Speaking of Homer, Professor brings Homer to life in visit to Princeton High School: Robert Fagles reads from his much-acclaimed translation of “The Odyssey.”
The Fagels translation is also available in audiobook.