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    Loving Shakespeare's Language, Then and Now

    This Sunday's New York Times Magazine carries an elegantly written lament by Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University, who has come to believe that his students don't love Shakespeare's poetry as poetry anymore:

    Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif. What has happened? It is not that my students now lack verbal facility. In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid. It is as if the sense of linguistic birthright that I experienced with such wonder had faded and with it an interest in exploiting its infinite resources.

     To this, I say: Okay. Maybe. But also maybe not. But if this is so, it isn't a naturally occurring phenomenon. It results from a changed set of educational emphases. Focusing on the poetry as poetry, and relentlessly working over the rhythms and images and word choices, was the central enterprise of college English Lit classes over roughly the middle half of the 20th century. And because that was what high school and middle school English teachers had learned how to do in college, that was what they passed on to students in middle school and high school. If Stephen Greenblatt came to college already loving Shakespeare for the beautiful language, it is because he had come to college through an educational system where studying Shakespeare meant studying the beautiful language.

    There was a move away from this system (which went and still goes by the name "the New Criticism") starting roughly in the 1980s. Here's another passage by a scholar of Greenblatt's generation:

    In graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s, I found myself deeply uncertain about the direction I wanted my work to take. I was only mildly interested in the formalist agenda that dominated graduate instruction and was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K. Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal -- poetry as "an object which in a mysterious way is both highly general and highly particular" -- seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery.

    Wimsatt was one of the intellectual giants of the "New Criticism," the so-called "formalist" attention to poetic language above all else. But our former graduate student couldn't limit himself to that approach. So he struck out in a new direction and pioneered a new critical approach to Shakespeare which centered on using history to illuminate the texts in new and innovative ways.

    He is, of course, Stephen Greenblatt. The second passage is from Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, page 1.

    A few quick acknowledgements: Greenblatt is legitimately the most famous and influential Shakespeare scholar of his generation. He has basically been Shakespearean Number One for years now. I don't know him personally, but we are one degree of separation apart in dozens of directions. And I will admit, right now, that he has been a major influence on my own work. I'm a big, big fan. (I knew right where to find that second passage, didn't I?)

    Now, I have never believed that Greenblatt's work meant turning away from the poetry itself. But many of his many, many critics have said exactly that. They view the question as either/or: are we talking about poetry, or are we talking about "early modern culture?" I have always viewed the question as both/and: the intellectual tools that Greenblatt provides supplement the older toolbox originally filled by Wimsatt and the boys. (I spent my first year in college being subtly but relentlessly drilled in the older skill set by one of Greenblatt's most distinguished colleagues. That experience has turned out to be much more formative than I once admitted to myself.)

    Greenblatt's NYT Magazine piece reads from one viewpoint like an inadvertent mea culpa, bemoaning all the changes that Greenblatt's critics once warned that Greenblatt himself would bring to pass. Kids don't love Shakespeare's poetry any more! We told you this would happen! But I read it instead as evidence that Greenblatt himself has always been a both/and type. He didn't turn away from Wimsatt's methods because he thought they were wrong. He took them as proven, and moved on to a different area where things needed more clarification. Loving the language was always something he presumed as part of the basic approach. And certainly, at the beginning of his career, with decades of educational infrastructure teaching every English major to use and value those Wimsatt-y New Critical skills, Greenblatt could safely take them for granted.

    But the real problem with the NYT piece isn't that Greenblatt pines for the older approach that he himself helped to dethrone. The problem for me is that Greenblatt, whose own ground-breaking work has been on examining social and cultural context, ignores the context of the educational system itself. Greenblatt 2015 writes about falling in love with Shakespeare's language as a spontaneous personal event, wholly distinct from the educational system around him. (He even leads off with a middle school teacher's failed attempt to win him over to Shakespeare, so that he can imply that his love comes from himself and not from school.) But Greenblatt circa 1985 teaches us to be suspicious of those claims, and to look for the ways that the society around the individual loads the deck.

    People in Greenblatt's generation encountered the message about Shakespeare's beautiful language over and over again, maximizing the chances that it would eventually stick. Students today encounter the message that "Shakespeare can be cool in some exciting new medium!" over and over again; if students who got that message relentlessly until high school graduation reproduce that message themselves in college, that's not exactly supernatural. People don't fall in love with Shakespeare entirely and spontaneously on their own. Someone else always passes notes for him in study hall.

    If Stephen Greenblatt wants students to love the Shakespeare that he loves himself, he needs to woo them for that Shakespeare. He needs to show students those poetic beauties and give the students opportunities to savor them. He needs to woo persistently without pestering, to allow the wooed party room to breathe without letting the courtship run cold. He needs to keep the object of desire before the students' eyes until they decide that, deep in their own hearts, they desire it for themselves. It's a tricky process. It's not easy, and it doesn't always work. But we've been doing it for a long time, and it has a name. It's called "teaching."


    A wonderful piece, as always, Doc.  

    I graduated high school in 1968.  I remember, as a Senior, sitting in English and begging my English teacher to let us read Shakespeare aloud.  I wasn't a particularly brilliant student, or had developed an early love for Shakespeare on my own, I was just discovering him and loved the way the words flowed and sounded when I read it.  My teacher, told me in front of the rest of the class that she didn't think we could do it. That we weren't ready to read Shakespeare.  I took the issue on, even though I had never done it myself.  So, to prove me wrong, she said okay and let us read one of Shakespeare's plays aloud.  I was given a prominent role, I think to really rub my face in my predicted failure.  Well, the class, not advanced students, but not the 'slow' group either, were, to tell the truth, pretty awful.  I was shocked to discover that some of the students, my friends, seemed almost unable to read aloud at all.  I, on the other hand, was having a wonderful time.  I struggled a tiny bit at first, but then found my groove and was having a great time and I could tell the rest of the class was actually listening to me intently.  That was one of the moments when I first knew my hitherto secret decision to become an actor was the right one.  After a rather painful scene where my character was off-stage and the class had to listen to two students who could barely read, drone on for about 5 minutes, (which seemed like 20), the teacher stopped the demonstration, satisfied she had proven her point; we were not ready to read Shakespeare out loud.  I, on the other hand, was convinced of something else; that Shakespeare was terrific and someone I wanted to read out loud a lot more.  During college, I got to play some great roles in Shakespeare plays, including Master Ford in Merry Wives (Which, I think, has more lines than any other Shakespeare character except Iago) and Benedict in Much Ado.  But it was my high school English class that first awakened my interest in Shakespeare even though it's intent was to stifle it.   We need to let teachers teach Shakespeare, not shy away because it may seem too difficult.  Sometimes it takes guidance to learn and understand, which then opens the floodgates of appreciation.

    I've been told that Shakespeare must be read aloud to be truly appreciated - that silence diminishes the beauty within it.

    Well, I wouldn't say must. I'm a both/and guy. Some people do fall in love with him while reading silently (I did), although often they're making the sounds of speech in their heads. I can clearly remember the minor breakthrough of reading some of Polonius's lines and realizing how I thought they *should* be said to put the joke across.

    Thanks, MrS. I'm a big fan of live Shakespeare, on stage or just anywhere.

    Great piece, Doc.  That last paragraph is stunning.  Wow.  Ever thought about taking your show on the road?  There are thousands of teachers out there who need to hear what you have to say.  Students, too. Administrations, also.  And don't forget politicians.

    Thank you kindly, Ramona. I'm only looking for local gigs at the moment.

    Great piece, Doc.  Of course, all appreciation involves teaching.  I do think that more poetic forms are less natural for people these days, though.  I admit, I like Shakespeare more for the epic grandeur of the stories (even the comedies) than the actual poetry.  So far as theater goes, I feel way more connected to the dialogue of Mamet than Shakespeare.  But those big stories, they very much appeal to me.  I think some of this comes from studying Shakespeare more ad theater than text.  The poetry creates an interesting conundrum for actors who need to be able to play the underlying characters or run the risk of walking the stage while delivering a poetry reading.

    Thanks, Michael. With all due respect, I would suggest that your preferences, while really yours, came to you from our cultural surroundings. Many people teach Shakespeare on the level of plot and character, especially earlier in the educational system. And love for Shakespeare's poetry suffers because there's less other poetry around in our culture. If you get rid of almost all of the poetry, and all of the other Renaissance writers, but keep Shakespeare, you make it hard to approach Shakespeare.

    I would also say that there are plenty of wonderful actors who can play the underlying character AND use the poetry to their advantage ... not simply do the poetry "right" but actively put the sounds and rhythms of the words to work for them.  Ian McKellen never sounds to me like he's giving a poetry reading. He sounds like he's a person who speaks in an especially powerful and colorful way.

    And love for Shakespeare's poetry suffers because there's less other poetry around in our culture.

    I think PeraclesPlease gives a good rebuttal to this.  Love of poetry is built into us, like love of music.  If the educational system fails to teach it formally, it will break out in new ways, like rap.  It's not the case that "there is less poetry around in our culture";  you just haven't noticed the new clothes it wears.

    Well, I think Doc is well-versed in the modern-setting remakes of Shakespeare, shootouts in gas stations, Mad Men attire, etc. Partly this is as a friend described how the Beat Poets killed poetry, despite good intentions, so what's left is a regenerated revival of sorts. 

    Similarly, what's happened to the complexity as music and speech and art has honed itself down to the basics over the last decades?

    PS - updated my tribute poem of sorts

    I don't think I'm unaware of popular poetry. And I don't remember denying that rap is poetry?

    But wasn't early pop music poetry? Weren't the lyrics of jazz standards poetry? It isn't that poetry has moved from "high" culture to pop culture. People used to consume poetry as BOTH "high" culture and pop culture, but now it's just a pop culture thing. There used to be Cole Porter lyrics on the radio and poems in the newspaper. Now there are lyrics on the radio.

    My grandmother, who didn't finish high school and who certainly wasn't a high-culture fan, used to recite long sections of John Greenleaf Whittier by heart.

    And I'm not talking about the schools. It used to be the case that people read poetry - here defined as poetry standing alone, without any music or other art but just poetry - for pleasure on their own. And almost nobody does that now.


    Almost nobody? I disagree. Even here, at Dagblog, we see evidence that beauty through written word is appreciated. Not just via haiku ... and not only by "regulars". Poetry is everywhere and within everyone, and blogs like those created in-house by Mr. Smith are but one example.


    Shakespeare, thou art

    LOLZ, lots of sorrow

    First is bard, sec is tragic

    Shame the kids don't see your magic

    Shall I kompare u2 a summer's day

    Bust a rhyme then slam a play?

    The world's a stage, u its orator?

    Or speak anon, TTYL?

    2 tweet or not 2 tweet,

    A blog by any other name

    Is still a blog

    A mashup, it's a crashup

    Cobbled be't ​from the food we sup

    Laugh out loud, suffer'd in silence

    Clash of arms, caress of dalliance

    & a draught to chase it down -

    Thus spins the poet up on Avon.

    If u need it qwicker or by rote

    I can proffer you my Cliff Note:

    Shake's in the house,rapping his wordy rhymin double 2 timin people be shinin' hang out or climb in thas the way he b signin' (deep shit signifyin')

    And when the freak show peaks he got a slow release he call denouement, daf new moment - 

    so dismount, Viscount, final body count.

    Peace, outta here, cu, curtain.


    BOOM. Headshot.

    Woolly M Shakespeare, eh? they shot "Much Ado About Nothing" in Tuskany.

    Yes, Professor -- and thanks. But I think there might be something else going on as well. Is it not possible that poetry is less likely to be someone's passion or interest in a non-academic setting now than it was 50 yrs ago? The cultural marginalization of poetry, as well as of a variety of other kinds of literature -- in other words, the complete academization of one's encounters with almost all literature except (broadly speaking realist) narrative fiction and journalism -- may also have a role to play in what happens in the classroom. (One could think about changes in other popular forms of entertainment, as symptoms or causes: how much role does dialog play in movies now, compared to the visual aspects? The relative emphasis on the delivery of quotable lines in the cinema of Greenblatt's childhood might be a thing to look at.)

    And even if I am wrong: it is a kind of professorial optimism to assume that academic trends can fully account for cultural change... I am not saying what happens in graduate programs in literature does not matter -- it does, and you make your case well. But, to take the most obvious example, how much it matters: how much cultural weight do academic practices carry, does not entirely depend on what professors argue. I am a professor and I wish it did.

    I should probably also admit I have not read Greenblatt's op-ed and probably won't, not, at least, tonight. Cheers. 

    Nailed it on the contemporary entertainment dialogue point Andras. Visual more so now and lacking in character development from dialogue.

    Sure, Andras. And earlier up this thread (although not in the original post), I admit that the move away from poetry in the culture is part of the problem.

    I am not saying that Greenblatt's decisions are the whole story. But they are the part that he has control over, and I'm interested in what he won't take responsibility for.

    Remember, Greenblatt has a colleague at Harvard who is - famously - an exceptional advocate for the love of poetry and for careful analysis of poetic language. If Greenblatt wants to convert undergraduates to love of Shakespeare's poetry, he has a pedagogical model to follow.

    (And if Greenblatt is complaining about students who have already been converted by that colleague ....)

    I've always loved Shakespeare since I discovered it at a young age. I'll read or watch a play with some regularity but not often because it takes a considerable amount of time to figure out what's actually being said. Over the years I've talked to people who never or rarely read his plays and the standard response is that it's hard to understand because people talked differently back then. Of course that's not true. There was never a time that people spouted off iambic pentameter in their daily conversations. But it is difficult to understand, from my uneducated view, due to the convolutions necessary to maintain that rhythm and the constant use of metaphors. There's something I've always wondered about Shakespeare. How popular were his plays when he was alive? It's only liked today among a segment of the educated elite because the average person doesn't understand it and doesn't want to take the time to understand it. If they were popular in 1600 why was something so complicated and difficult to understand popular?

    I imagine people were quite comfortable with an oral tradition over a reading literary one, better at listening. Imagine how used to books and movies 40 years ago vs now - we tune to a different pacing, a different acceptance of slow or fast tempo. My kids can't take stuff 25 years old, just like the days not jammed with activities aren't as easy for them to swallow. It's hard for me to listen to the music I once loved - I dont have the patience for it, the transitions and core sounds don't work anymore - maybe not full enough, maybe silly sounding, or too slow to get to the point and of course it's competing against all the stuff that's come since. And then my wife thinks 2001 is such a silly intolerable piece of unbelievable crap - it used to be the film closest to God and perfection. Shakespeare's lucky - his contemporaries got rolled.

    Well, ocean-kat, they were clearly popular in his lifetime. There are comments from his own day about how he could please both elite and popular audiences.

    Some of what's harder to understand, now, is the slangy and popular stuff. Today I was teaching one of the plays that's heavy on prose comedy in barrooms, and those sections are actually much trickier to decode for most readers than the lofty poetry. It's easier to get the Roman mythological references now than the really topical references the clowns make (and almost all of Shakespeare's mythological references come out of a handful of basic schoolbooks).

    The other thing is that Shakespeare's main poetic form, the blank verse line, was used so widely in English poetry (and especially on stage) that everybody had internalized that rhythm, the way that people who can't read music respond to the basic beats of pop music.

    You don't really understand poetry intellectually. You get the feel, and the rhythm, and the sound, and it's like riding a bike. It isn't natural, but once you've been doing it a while it comes naturally.

    Great piece, Doc.

    I studied with the 'Man' - Stephen - in the 80s and I have to say he was a great teacher. I took one of those seminars where we did the new historicism thing, one presentation/week, but Stephen's comments usually came from another place.  What stayed with me most was something he acted out, responding to Gloucester's weird non-acknowledgement of Edmund in Act 1, scene 1 of King Lear. Stephen made a gesture with his hands that carved out an unspoken space that only he could palpate - it was like Kesey's x-ray sensibility in Electric Kook-Aid Acid Test.  I think the stunning convolutions and escape-the-censors-antics of Shakespeare's language propelled Stephen to unfold their historical/political context, at the same time their visceral impact was something he declined (at least in the 80s) to do more than gesture toward.  In these complex political times, I wish he would expound more on what lies at the heart of the poetry, not just an old-world love of language, but an ongoing rhetorical sway on our emotions.

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