Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tainted Muse


I’d not heard of Robert Brustein’s book “The Tainted Muse”, but it does look interesting – particularly for historians of Shakespeares’s era.  How much of the poet is reflected in his plays, and how much of that can be attributed to the time period?

The most notable example, of course, is whether our boy Will was an anti-semite, given what he did with Merchant of Venice.  The argument is ancient – he was, he wasn’t, it’s not biggie because everybody else was back then too.  The article doesn’t say which side of the argument the author comes down on, which is probably a smart move.

He also wades into less charted territory with discussions of Shakespeare’s machismo, misogyny, and “effemiphobia’’ - his distaste for courtiers such as Osric in “Hamlet’’ and his abiding respect for warriors such as Hotspur in “Henry IV, Part 1.’’ Here, for example, is how he differentiates between contemporary and turn of the 17th century sensibilities - “ ‘Make love, not war’ was the primary motto of protesters against the Vietnam conflict. Elizabethans would have reversed this axiom, for moral reasons . . . but also for physical ones - making war, not love, was believed to improve one’s health’’ and he goes on to compare how copulation was considered deleterious.

The article goes on to say that the author himself acknowledges that much of the problem comes from separating the playwright from the written word.  Shakespeare never said “I feel this way about this subject”, only his characters did, so how often when we make that leap are we getting it 100% wrong?  Merchant’s still the shining example, of course.

1 comment:

JM said...

A close study of MOV will reveal that it could very well be the non-Jews Shakespeare is lampooning. Shylock's need and desire for revenge, although it's overly harsh and bloodthirsty, is laid out quite well in Shylock's speeches. All of them list the heinous behavior of the "Christians" toward him for no apparent reason other than he's not one of them. Shylock's speeches are also the most logical, in terms of the structure of the arguments contained within them.

I also think Shakespeare makes the point quite clearly that Shylock has been warped by, and is mostly a product of, his circumstances and surroundings. The only parties he makes no 'excuses' for are the somewhat frivolous and petty in character--those that feel justified and self-righteous in enacting cruelties upon Jews simply because they're Jews.

In addition, the value systems of those self-righteous characters are always being questioned by Shakespeare, subtly, but definitely. It can sometimes be quite difficult to find sympathy for them or care about their "desires". I don't think this is an accident.

Once again, "interpretation" is the culprit. The play can be approached very easily from the standpoint I've sketchily outlined above. But it has, more times than not, been advantageously "politicized" to reflect "personal feelings" Shakespeare was "supposed" to have had, "should" have had, or "couldn't help but have had", all without any way of determining the veracity of those claims.