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I think? Maybe “interdisciplinariness”? Whatever. It’s beside the point.

Duane made an excellent post at ShakespeareGeek about how Shakespeare is taught to young students, and whether or not they should be expected to provide analyses based on history, literary theory and the like. Now, let’s not beat around the bush: No grade-school kid enjoys learning about British succession law, or the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and how those things influenced Shakespeare’s writing. And as Duane correctly points out, it’s this style of teaching that makes kids think Shakespeare is dry, dull and outdated. Nobody wants them to think that.

But should we eliminate the literary element entirely? I don’t think so. I’ve sometimes encountered an attitude that Shakespeare was just an entertainer, not a commentator on his times, a literary master, etc. And he was all those things.

Those who read my blog regularly know that I’m fascinated by literary analysis of Shakespeare, but that’s not my sole interest. I often compare my love of Shakespeare to my love of a person. When you fall in love, you love the other person in many ways: intellectually, emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc. But are they all distinct feelings? Can you say, “Here is where my intellectual love begins and my emotional love ends?” Of course not. It’s one complex, inter-related feeling. My love of Shakespeare is the same. I don’t love Shakespeare analytically sometimes and aesthetically other times. They feed off of each other.

I thus don’t think any understanding or appreciation of a play is complete without some analysis. Say you are teaching Othello. But say also that you fail to teach your kids about the tense relationship between European Christendom and the Ottoman Turks, and how that drives the play. No, you don’t need to dedicate hours upon hours to studying the political climate. But you do need to bring it up and give the children some background (and, perhaps, draw modern parallels, like the current tension between the West and the Middle East). This ought to help the students appreciate the play more, not less, because it makes more sense in light of that knowledge. It speaks on more levels. At the same time, if you teach Othello only as an exhibit in a history museum and not a passionate love story, you’ll make it dry and lame. The combination of both is what gives Othello its energy and spirit.

Even from a theatrical standpoint, the same is true. I cannot speak from experience, having only a slight background in theatre, but every actor or director I’ve spoken to (and I’ve spoken to many) has told me that one cannot be a good actor without studying the history of the play one is acting in.

Which brings me back to my original point: Interdisciplinaritivitism. The very first discussion Susan and I had on our podcast was about the fact that literary experts and theatrical experts tend to look down on the other. But both groups would benefit if they cooperated. Shakespeare is one of history’s great geniuses, because he wrote on thousands of levels simultaneously. Why do him the injustice of ignoring those levels?


Shakespeare Has the Fourth-Most Friends

According to The Independent, Shakespeare outranks many popular authors in terms of total Facebook friends. The top rank goes to Stephen King, aruably the most popular author in American history, with more than twice as many as his closest competitor. It’s not even a contest.

Now, given that Shakespeare’s dead, and his Facebook page is clearly not run by him or his estate, aren’t there several? So how did they measure how many friends he has? Did they just find the most popular Shakespeare profile, or did they add up the number of friends on all his profiles? If the former, I question their results. But I’m biased.

Shylock, anti-Semitism and Jewish Identity

I discovered this piece about Jewish identity and The Merchant of Venice in the Huffington Post several days ago, but refrained from writing about it until I had digested it fully. It’s a piece about someone who saw The Merchant of Venice on Broadway, only to be disgusted, as he always is, at the portrayal of its Jew. But this article touches me particularly, because its author talks about trying to find his Jewish identity while being a non-believer. And I’m an atheist Jew.

The question is, what does it then mean to be “Jewish”? There have been circles where I avoided calling myself “Jewish” — rather asking that I be called an atheist who was raised Jewish — because there is so much popular confusion between Judaism as an ethnicity and Judaism as a religion. For example, people often like to list religious scientists, and cite Albert Einstein as a Jew. Yet there’s no real indication that Einstein was a Jew in any religious sense.

But, back to Shakespeare. My difficulties with Jewish identity have never driven me to a particular revulsion to Shylock, or to the play in which he appears. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, unlike Mr. Sims, I’ve never had to deal with any severe anti-Semitism. Some comments here and there, but the article’s author apparently bunked in the Air Force with a Mississippian who had thought Jews had horns. (Yes, this is a real belief in some places.) And while Mr. Sims claims to have made some progress with this man, the bunkmate continued to make anti-Semitic remarks.

If I had had to deal with anti-Semitism of this magnitude, I can imagine I’d be more sensitive to The Merchant of Venice. But I’m not. I find that Shylock is too complex a character to be relgated to simple Jewish stereotype. Of course, let’s not be so naive as to pretend that Shylock isn’t a stereotype at all. The stereotyipical view of Jews in Elizabethan England was not just that they were money-hungry, but that they were so because they were incapable of understanding connections like love, compassion, family, etc. They only understood material things, not human emotions. And we can see this when Salarino and Solanio report about his rant when Jessica leaves him:

I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats’ (II.viii.12-22).

Shylock is no more upset about losing his daughter than losing his money. (Though let’s keep in mind that we don’t hear this from Shylock’s mouth; Solanio, himself an anti-Semite, relates the story.) But in one of the more overlooked moments of the play, Shylock violates the stereotype. Tubal tells him that Jessica gave away a ring of his for a monkey. His reaction:

Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys (III.i.111-14).

Who now can say that Shylock can’t see past the material into the human? He wouldn’t exchange an item for more than its face value, because it reminds him of a person he loved. And while this scene, in which he meets Tubal, is full of stereotypical Jewish money-love, we see the complexity of the character.

People often ask the question, “Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite?” when they read or see The Merchant of Venice. My answer to this is, “Shakespeare was a white middle-class man, living in Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I don’t need a play to know how he felt about Jews.” But even on Shakespeare’s worst day, he didn’t create two-dimensional characters. Othello is a Moor, and Shakespeare more than likely had some negative views of the Moors, given the general view of the society in which he lived. But is Othello a simple stereotype? Or is he a partial stereotype? Surely he’s anything but simple.

So how do I, a Jew, absorb The Merchant of Venice? I look at it for what it is. It’s a play that, at least in some ways, promotes anti-Semitism, and in other ways discourages it. It’s a work from an era when anti-Semitism was the norm. But it’s also brilliant, complex and deep. I see the anti-Semitism in it, and while I hardly approve of that attitude, I can set it aside, knowing it’s a product of its time, and enjoy the play and all its marvelous poetry. Maybe that means I can compartmentalize better than some other Jews. Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe it’s not. But I can’t imagine a world where I’m incapable of enjoying The Merchant of Venice.

John Lennon: The Shakespeare of Our Age?

Or so says Yoko Ono.

“I didn’t know that John was so good and unique – not just unique, but the classical diction,” she said. “His diction was so perfect in a way that just that alone impresses you. It’s almost like listening to a very professional actor doing Shakespeare. And of course you know the language is not Shakespeare, but I felt John was the Shakespeare of our age.”

Yes, Lennon had good diction. And he was quite the poet. But not to take anything away from him as an artist … it takes more than diction to be comparable to Shakespeare. That’s why we all cringed when Sarah Palin compared herself to Shakespeare. I mean, come on.

“The Shakespeare Code”

I recently took to watching the TV series “Dr. Who.” — as in, the one that began in 2005, not the original — largely due to the exceptional performance of David Tennant in Hamlet. I was curious to see what it was that made him such a star.

I was excited to find out that the second episode of the third season is titled “The Shakespeare Code.” In it, the Doctor and his companion travel to London in 1599 to meet Shakespeare. It’s a wonderful episode, and my only complaint is the overuse of one of the oldest time travel sci-fi cliches: the Doctor routinely repeats lines of Shakespeare that he’s read, and Shakespeare decides to steal them.

But in spite of that, Dean Lennox Kelly’s performance as the Bard is quite compelling. Rather than stuffy and self-important the way so many have played Shakespeare, Kelly makes the character quite charming and accessible, if a terrible egoist.

Best of all, though, I finally know what happened to Love’s Labour’s Won. But I won’t ruin the surprise!

Getting Even With Shakespeare

I was fortunate enough to see this wonderfully clever comedy last night. It was originally part of NYC’s Fringe Festival, but the run extended. (But not for long! The last shows are this weekend, so if you’re in New York and want to see the show, check out the link for shows this weekend.)

The premise: Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet are forced, by the laws of metaphysics, to “attend” every performance of the plays that bear their name. And since they die in unpleasant ways, that’s no fun for them. They spend their days in a bar complaining about their creator, until a former-playwright-turned-lawyer comes into the bar and proposes a way to get revenge.

If you’re expecting lots of Shakespeare-related jokes, you might be a little disappointed. Which isn’t to say a familiarity with the plays isn’t helpful. But beyond a few Hamlet-wants-Gertrude jokes (which are pretty old hat and overdone), the magic of the characters is in how distinct they are from their Shakespearian counterparts and how they seem to have grown from their experience of being them, night after night after night.

And it’s meta on many levels. The writer of the play is, in fact, a theater lover who went to law school and is an attorney, and he speaks through the character in the play that bears his name. He doesn’t regret his choices, but says he has always wanted to be a part of the theater, and this was his opportunity.

Anyway, if you have the opportunity, go see it. You’ll thank yourself.

Shakespeare in a Post-9/11 World

I posted recently about the possibility of portraying Othello as an Arab and the significance it would have in our modern world. What other plays have new significance since 9/11, and how? Or what does Shakespeare’s canon as a whole mean to us now?

A couple of plays come to mind:

Macbeth has a lot to say about violence, fear and dictatorship.

Coriolanus talk about a culture of fear perpetuated by a government.

What else can we have a new conversation about over this past decade and in the coming years?