by carl wilson

Death of the Author II: Reanimated!

Critics listen up: From Adam Gopnik writing on Shakespeare (and Stephen Greenblatt's new book on that freest of Willies) in last week's New Yorker, excellent counsel for the profile writer - and the best justification of the biographical method I've run across except for the justification that to gossip is human, to err divine. Gopnik can be a bit of a prig but when he is on, he's on.

After mentioning Greenblatt's disc. of Falstaff's patterning on Elizabethan celebrity writer Robert Greene (a longer-standing theory than Gopnik makes it seem, tho I don't think anyone's ever described Greene as the Peter Cook of the University Wits before!), Gopnik says:

"One need not accept the identification to value the discovery. Biographical criticism may be a practice without certainties, but it is not a game without rules. Each time we come closer to Shakespeare's life, we escape from the aridity of formal criticism or the cheap generalities of social history into a recognizable world of real experience. When A.L. Rowse insists that Emilia Bassano Lanier, the tempestuous, adulterous, musical, poetic wife of a court musician, was the original Dark Lady of the Sonnets, we can buy or not, as we please. But the very existence of a woman like Emilia demonstrates that the cliched images of Elizabethan women, as subservient wives or unruly whores, are too grossly tuned to capture the reality of Shakespeare's world. Whether she is the Dark Lady or not, Emilia is a dark lady. Good biographical criticism dissolves determinisms, and replaces them not with gossipy puzzle-solution certainties but with glimpses of life as it is lived and art as it is made. Criticism is always a map of possibilities, roads taken, neglected and cut fresh, and the map of art is never more vivid than when the possibilities of a period are incarnated as the people in a life."

(And earlier: "Whatever our official pieties, we all believe in lives. The sternest formalists are the loudest gossips, and if you ask a cultural-studies maven who believes in nothing but collective forces and class determinisms how she came to believe this doctrine, she will begin to tell you, eagerly, the story of her life.")

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, September 13 at 5:18 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



I loved that article too, but for different reasons, and especially for the following thoughts, which should be posted on the office doors of dramaturgs everywhere:

"In the original stories, the motives of each of the key characters were perfectly clear: Iago, in the source, is in love with Desdemona; Cordelia refuses to speak because she has been quarrelling with her father about the man she is going to marry. Their behavior is as transparently motivated as that of people in melodramas. Shakespeare, in each case, eliminates the motive in ways that make a mess of the story, and allows it to become something more than a story. His characters have drives that are rooted in who they are, not motives generated by a plot ... By cancelling out the ordinary neatness of narrative explanation, Shakespeare does not merely mystify his people, as the Mona Lisa is made mysterious by the occluding fog of her sfumato; he humanizes them. We know them the way we know real people—not as illustrations of some principle, or as exemplary remote figures who have “desires” and “arcs” of success and failure, but as compulsion machines capable of charm."

He goes on to qualify the statement, saying that the removal of motive does not necessarily create great art. But then he returns again to idea that so much that makes us lean forward and listen to the human on stage (and in the movies too!) is this kind of ambiguity and this kind of mystery.

So many of Shakespeare's lessons are still ignored by those in theatre who adhere to 19th Century models of playwrighting. I have a friend who once made the claim that when a character broke the fourth wall to address the audience, then that play had lost all credibility and could no longer be taken seriously. All hell had broken loose, in his opinion (wd it were so easy to crack open hell onstage, I say).

I was disturbed by this opinion since I felt so much respect for the man and took his remark to be a deeply considered one. So I asked how did he account for the Shakespearean soliloquay. I braced myself for some sensibility-shattering ideas about how such soliloquays suited the temper of the 16th Century but were too facile for a serious 21st Cenury theatre because we had to accept the illusion of the fourth wall as representing a more radical vision of theatre and blah blah blah. I thought he was about to wipe the floor with my plays which tend to unfold resolutely on a stage that cannot be mistaken for any other setting.

Instead he deftly changed the subject.

It went a long way towards my becoming finally comfortable with a question that I had so long been ashamed of, fearing that it arose out of nostalgia and not a true evaluation of the art of theatre: How is it that Shakespeare can be so great and so many 20th Century plays, even great ones, can be just so small and so bad?

Uh oh. my bootlegged vancouver wi-fi connection here is getting wobbly. i might not be able to post this. what a drag!


Posted by sean dixon on September 18, 2004 8:01 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson