Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Does The Man Outweigh The Work?

The recent conversation on iambic pentameter got me thinking about how we approach “Shakespeare”. I say it like that for a reason, because it really means two things – the man, and the work. We don’t say “the stuff Shakespeare wrote”, we just call the whole body of work “Shakespeare.”  Or, “to study Shakespeare.”

But sometimes, such as the iambic discussion, the line blurs – when are you talking about the work, and when about the man, and can you draw a line between the two?

Let me put it like this.  When I look at the plays, I almost always envision the characters are real people, and speak of them that way – what did Hamlet mean by this, what happened to Ophelia’s mother, did Gertrude know what Claudius did?  Likewise with the sonnets (here and here) I try to see them for their narrative (oh, Carl will love me for this…).  Maybe that’s a bad term, though, because I’m not talking about the story told by the entire sequence.  I’m talking about the picture that is painted, much like how you could see a work of art hanging on a wall and somehow feel that you could climb right inside it and stand next to the characters, have a conversation with them.

Very rarely do I stop and think “Shakespeare chose this word and this punctuation for this purpose.”

Sure, I do that when I’m trying to explain something to someone, as those linked posts show.  But for my own enjoyment I don’t, you know what I mean?  The sum is greater than its parts, maybe that’s how I want to say it.  I agree completely that because he chose the words and punctuation he did, that the whole work manages to explode into a whole new universe for us to explore.    But rather than studying the parts I study the whole, does that make sense?

Maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know.  It’s what’s in my head right now.  I see everybody getting excited about the tricks and techniques Shakespeare used to emphasize certain syllables for certain reasons, and why there’s a full stop here but not there, and it’s like the excitement is more about the brilliance of the man, than the final product.

So which is it with you?  When you speak of love for “Shakespeare” are you talking about the man or the work?  I won’t say which came first because that makes no sense, but which *comes* first, for you?  Which is greater?

Somebody jump in here, I’m rambling.


Willshill said...

When you speak of love for “Shakespeare” are you talking about the man or the work?

For as much as I talk about the technical aspects this might be difficult to believe, but--Both. For me, Shakespeare IS his Work; likewise, The Work IS Shakespeare.
It wasn't always that way.Like very many people, I really didn't like Shakespeare.
--Until I realized that the reason for the distaste had everything to do with
not really being able to understand him. And, what we don't "get" can be frightening when it seems as though there's no way to get it. Plus, how can someone feel anything about Shakespeare the man--his philosophy, his outlook, his vision, when the language he speaks is, for all intents and purposes to those who will not look, a foreign one?
Learning about what Shakespeare was doing Dramatically (which has everything to do with his verse-composing technique) gave me the opportunity to finally hear what Shakespeare The Man was saying--the genius he was, how he was thinking, and how Universal his thoughts and feelings, how important to understanding the world around us, how applicable. Who was (IS) this person? Finding out something about that made me love Him. He made me love his Work.

And so I'll defend the specifics of his work--what made it what it was (IS), what can make it work NOW--tooth and nail. In doing so, I also defend him.
What he IS I believe to be of vital importance to our understanding and communication.
It's circular--and it continues. It always will--the levels of understanding are myriad and infinite. What he did, why and how, is what he is. The more I learn about both, the more I'm caught up in the circle.

Duane said...

No fair easy answers! Let me phrase it a different way, and ake you take a position. You're at a conference for Shakespeare "people" (I hesitate to say 'scholars'). After the day's events come the evening "breakout sessions" where you can go and hang out more casually with the folks who will be discussing topics of interest to you.

In one room will be, for lack of a better term, the "narrative" crowd. They'll be discussing various interpretations of key storyline events from your favorite play, whatever that happens to be.

In another room, in another hotel (so no fair running back and forth between rooms!) they are discussing...well, let's say they're discussing punctuation and word frequency in the sonnets. If you don't like that, pick something technical. You get the idea. This is the last night of the conference, so this will be your only opportunity for such a session, you can't visit the other session tomorrow. You get one pick.

ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, in which room do you spend your time? Don't add conditions to the premise so you can escape with a "both" answer. Pick one.

My pick is known. Though I might be interested in learning more about the technical side, in this instance, I take the story side.

Willshill said...

...but you didn't say whether this was a literary symposium or a theatrical one-oh-- that's right ...no conditions added to the premise...

OK, I'll nail it down...maybe...

Definitely, without a doubt, I'd rather talk overall interpretation--character, play analysis, philosophy, etc.

However...just kidding...(:

Gedaly said...

In my true heart
I find Willshill names my very deed of love.

When speaking of the plays and poems I usually will say Shakespeare's works, canon, plays, etc. But the distinction is tricky. If I say I'm a Shakespearean Scholar, do I study the man or his plays? Shakespeare is his work, the work is the man. So both really... BUT I'd say I spend 100x more time working on the plays than I do reading about the man.

At this Conference, I'd rather go to the first. The technical aspects of Shakespeare that you seem to be getting at often lack significance that is obvious. I do find value in studying such things, but as a first step in finding greater meaning. Not counting commas for the sake of itself.

Willshill said...

Gedaly hits the nail on its proverbial once more: "I do find value in studying such things, but as a first step in finding greater meaning. Not counting commas for the sake of itself."

The structure is so much a part of being able to fully comprehend the dynamics: the tenor, the import of what's being said. And since Shakespeare is a man of Words and a man of the theatre, something can easily be overlooked, or misinterpreted, if the significance of the nuts and bolts, and how they fit together to produce anything to "analyze" further, is ignored. For me, there isn't only beauty in the end result; there's beauty in the process itself--what it took to get there.
Very Lao Tzu, I realize-but anyone who can find the World in a nutshell, and then expound on it dramatically within the bounds of a dictated structure, certainly developed a formula as to how to make that possible. Sir Peter Hall calls it Shakespeare's "Form".
And no one I've ever met who understands the significance of that Form (eg. Gedaly), has ever been anyone who "...counts[] commas for the sake of itself." The counting has to do with proving the worth of exploring the Work with as little after-editing as possible. Sometimes raw proof of numbers, or complete changes in structure, is the only way to point up to those who would love (or even hate) Shakespeare, how much of "Shakespeare" they're actually experiencing--or Not.

Sorry Duane--I sidetracked another one...it's all Gedaly's fault.

Duane said...

I think the emphasis on "to study" was not what I intended. What I meant was, why do you love it? I can see a movie and love that movie without being a student of movies. The same with a book. Do I go to a Spielberg movie because of a love for the man and his genius, or because it looks like a good movie? If the former, then do I always see trees instead of forest, nudging the person next to me and whispering things like "There's the long fadeout shot, he always does that!!"

We are not necessarily students of this stuff. At least, I don't consider myself one, I don't know what you folks do with yourselves all day. Any "study" I do is more akin to "getting closer to the thing that I love." And sometimes there come moments where I can sit back and spot the difference between "I love the man because he was brilliant enough to choose these words in these sequence and look at the result" and "I love the end result, and owe infinite gratitude to the genius who created it."

You know what? I just had an idea, but it merits another post. See you in a minute.

catkins said...

Duane, I think you asked more than one question here, but I feel the need to chime in on this one in favor of the "comma counters." It all depends on the quality of the discussions. Too often, discussions of interpretations can get out of hand and sometimes downright ludicrous. On the other hand, analysis of mechanics, such as punctuation, can sometimes lead to important new readings that affect interpretation. No sensible scholar would "count commas for the sake of itself." And look at the discussion we had on iambic pentameter. Paying attention to the purely mechanical aspect of meter can add another level of enjoyment to Shakespeare's work.
I'll get to your second question with your next post.

Willshill said...

Catkins is absolutely right the way I see it.

And there's an indisputable tie-in, in my opinion, with the lack of appreciation/understanding for what exactly the "Work" might be.

First and foremost, Shakespeare's Work is work in the Theatre. We already have a very large and powerful faction in this country that would, while claiming Shakespeare AS theatre, eschew the tools Shakespeare was so good at employing in that theatre--namely, the Words.

The prevailing overall philosophy of what is "Acting" suffers from the collective delusion that "technicalities" don't matter--that the Craft of acting is of negligible importance relative to the "Feel" of same.
Segue to what catkins says about "another level of enjoyment [in] Shakespeare's work". When it comes to evaluating the result of his expertise translated into the practice of acting, Shakespeare was All Craft. This was stuff for The Stage. And he left the evidence of his mechanics on the page for the actor to employ. This DOES NOT MEAN they didn't "feel"--but add the feel to knowing the wealth of what's already there as a guide?-- This is why they were the best around.

So, we can add yet another level of negative result to ignorance of the truth catkins so astutely points out. To approach the work from the beginning, steeped only in some psycho-babble that has mainly Mystery as its informant is way off track--it isn't even the right train. It's Shakespeare de-railed.

So too, Shakespeare is similarly pigeon-holed, but in another way, by viewing his work through the single lens of Literature. Yes, astounding literature it is ...But that's another topic for another discussion.

The point is, he was ALL of these things--and more.

Once again, the symbiotic importance of every aspect of what Shakespeare was doing is self-evident. To see the completeness of that interweaving, we only have to be willing to look.

This time Duane...it's all Catkins' fault.