Sunday, October 22, 2006

Shakespeare the Character

[Letter to Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Shakespeare Wars.]

Dear Mr. Rosenbaum:

I'm the Artistic Director of Folding Chair Classical Theatre, a small company in NYC. I greatly enjoyed your book. It continually provoked me, sometimes to kiss the pages; other times to hurl the book across the room -- never because the book itself was bad; rather, because the various scholarly and artistic theories so affected me. At least one chapter in your book profoundly changed the way I will rehearse plays from now on (see this link). Your book also inspired this and this.

You chose the most important theme for your book (and stated it clearly, colloquially and concisely): what's all the fuss about? What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare? With the greatest respect, I'd like to suggest that you dodged one very important aspect of this question: the issue of intent.

I know that you mention "The Intentional Fallacy" a couple of times. Strikingly, in the preface you quote Edward Pechter's phrase "Shakespeare the Writer," which you define as "the voice, the mind we can find in the work." I like this, but feel more comfortable calling this voice "Shakespeare the character," though I'm not completely comfortable even with that. I do know that the plays and poems conjure a storyteller in my brain -- one that has certain views and an extraordinary facility with words. This storyteller -- this authorial voice -- is a sort of extra character. It's very easy to confuse him with Shakespeare the writer, and this can be a useful (in the sense of conversational "shorthand") and harmless confusion. But it a book like yours, which is all about "what is Shakespearean?", it's a dangerous confusion. Your book is more about questions than answers, and that's no fault. But, in your book, intent rarely coalesces into a question. Instead, it's a specter that haunts many of your pages.

You ask "Can we imagine Lear without 'Look her lips...' merely because we cannot be absolutely sure it is an addition by Shakespeare?" I find the word "absolutely" interesting. It's as if you're saying, "maybe if we're reasonably sure that Shakespeare wrote those words, that should be good enough." As if there are two camps: the camp that wants to delete text if there's any doubt as to authorship and the camp that is happy as long as the author is fairly likely to be Shakespeare.

You leave out another camp: the people who don't care whether or not Shakespeare wrote the words. The key question is this: what if Shakespeare came back to life and told us definitively that he didn't write "Look her lips..."? The first two camps would delete the lines. The third wouldn't. The third would say, "they're good lines, so who cares who wrote them?" And this third camp would be just as devoted to (just as in love with) the authorial voice as the other two camps. The question "what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?" is deeply important to this third camp, even though it ignores the risen-from-the-dead author. This group doesn't care about the author. They care about the storyteller character. (Maybe "they don't care about the author" is too strong. Rather, they separate the historical person from the effect of his words.)

I fear you'll read this and cry, "But I do raise the intent issue all the time. I began my book by separating myself from the biographical school of criticism!" I agree that you raise the issue, which is why I suggested that it hovers like a specter. But many sentences in your book imply that you do care about biography -- at least to some extent. How much to you care and why?

"I'm undecided about whether a playwright would wield his most powerful dramatic gifts over the course of a three- to four-hour production mainly to leave the audience ... undecided." Isn't that you worrying about Shakespeare's intent? Fine if that's your bent. But you don't explain to me why I should care what he intended (as opposed to what I experience when I read or watch his plays).

There's a very interesting section in your chapter on Paul Werstine. At first, you ask, "... was Hand D 'Shakespearean'?" Your quotation marks around "Shakespearean" lead me to believe that you were making a distinction between the historical person and the authorial character. But then you go on to say, "... the truth is [not] relative here: Shakespeare either wrote or didn't write it. Some passages are 'Shakespearean,' some are not." This sounds like a clear statement to the effect that, if Shakespeare didn't pen the lines, they aren't Shakespearean. Whereas I would say say that a line can be Shakespearean even if Shakespeare didn't write it -- just as a novel can be "truthful," even if though it isn't true. (This works because stories are sensual, provoking the emotions, and the emotions don't care whether something is true -- true in the sense of "it happened in history" -- or not.)

In that same passage, after a seeming admission that if Shakespeare didn't write it, it ain't Shakespearean, you go on to say, "But the fragmentary historical record does not afford ... certainty ... Ultimately ... what we call Shakespearean will at times depend on the idea of 'the Shakespearean' we project upon it." To me, this implies that you're closer to the 'biographers' than first meets the eye. You and they both wish for historical proof. Only they are foolish enough to pretend that proof exists when in fact it doesn't. You are clear headed enough to see that, alas, the proof doesn't exist, and to admit that -- in the absence of such proof -- we are forced to rely on less satisfying techniques (like subjective response based on close reading). Naturally, it's fine (and good) for your to have your views, but I wish you'd explored them more fully. Why do you long for historical proof? Why (as far as I could tell) would the "what is Shakespearean?" question be answered for you once and for all, if only Shakespeare's diary would turn up? Why is my view -- that Shakespeare's diary would settle nothing (other than interesting biographical riddles) -- not represented in your book? It's not a crackpot view. It's reasoned and passionately felt.

Yes, like most anti-intentists, I am wary of intent-based discussions because we can never know the author's intent. In the case of Shakespeare (or Homer) we really can't know, because they're long dead and have left such a paltry trail behind themselves (other than their works, of course). But even with living authors who give interviews and state their intents, we can't know for sure that they're not lying. Or, if that sounds too oddly paranoid, we can't know for sure that they have the ability to talk objectively about their intentions. Few of us can! I'm no Shakespeare, but in my own humble way, I am a creator. I write, draw pictures and direct plays. Many times, people have pointed out aspects of my work that I hadn't seen myself. Many times, people have made comments about my intent that might be true -- even though I wasn't aware of having this intent. I grant that I might not always be the best judge of my own intent. And I don't think there's any reasonable evidences that the really great writers and artists are especially reliable self-psychoanalysts.

But all of that is secondary to my main reason for rejecting intent. Even if Shakespeare came back from the dead, explained his intent, and somehow proved that what he said really was his intent, it still wouldn't matter to me.

I feel I must pause here and state that I'm not a proponent of "the author function." I do believe that works are created by authors -- authors who make artistic choices. I do believe that these authors have intents. It's just that I don't think their intents matter (though I think the results of their intents -- their work -- matter deeply.)

My view is this: I read (or watch) a play. I have a feeling. That feeling is what it is. It "is what it is" because I have very little control over my feelings. If someone close to me dies, I'm going to feel sad, even if I try not to. In the same vein, I'm going to feel what I feel when I read King Lear. Those feelings are going to be hard to budge, no matter what anyone says. As I said above, I think fiction attacks the senses and feelings much more profoundly than it attacks the intellect. So naturally, given this view, I'm going to be chiefly concerned with the feelings I get from Lear.

So what if Shakespeare comes back from the dead and tells me that though some particular line makes me cry, he intended it to be funny. My tears may be horribly distressing to poor old Shakespeare -- I can't blame him for caring about his own intentions -- but they are just my honest response. He can spend hours convincing me of his intention, and I can agree with him, but that's not going to stop me from feeling sad. So why -- other than for biographical interest -- should I care about his intent? (I'm actually passionately interested in biography; I just feel it's a separate domain. Discussions get muddled when biographical details get entwined with aesthetics.) And since "Shakespearean" is that feeling I get of a storyteller, what if the risen Shakespeare tells me that he didn't actually write one of the lines that most gives me that storyteller feeling? Once again, I must respectfully tell him that I don't care. It's still Shakespearean.

There is a point where one's personality comes into play. There are some people -- people who deeply respect authority or writers or Shakespeare -- who might be so moved by the risen man's explanations, that a change-of-feeling is triggered within them. I didn't say that feelings are immutable, just that they are very hard to budge and that there's no sure-fire way of budging them. But anything might change one's feelings: something a teacher says, getting older, experiencing more, a dream... So I can imagine someone saying, "I used to love that line, but then the author told me he didn't write it, and now I don't like it any more." Fair enough if that person is being honest about his feelings, but what touches that particular person (huge regard for authors as opposed to their works?) needn't necessarily touch all readers.

By the way, I'm not a total relativist. I do believe that there are distinct stylistic and thematic elements that -- for most people -- trigger the "Shakespearean" feeling, and I think it's a worthy endeavor to try to figure out what those elements are. But I fear we'll get further from the truth -- not closer -- as-long-as we worry about intent, and as-long-as we don't frame the issue of intent clearly.

As you might guess, you've stepped on "one of my favorite corns" (as Chekhov puts it). I've spent decades discussing and arguing intent (I found it confused most discussions throughout my academic career), and the result has rarely been pretty. For some reason (I have a guess why: see below) the subject -- or my take on it -- really upsets people. I'm not so arrogant as to suppose I'm infallible, but a number of people who started out by disagreeing with me, wound up (after long debate) agreeing with me but mad at me. A few have (thankfully) been articulate enough to explain why. They have said, "I think you're right, but I don't like the fact that you're right. I don't want the world to be like that. I'm going to cling to the idea that intent matters, even if I'm clinging to a fiction." (Naturally, if it matters to them, it does matter -- to them.)

Here's my armchair-psychoanalytical view about this response: in day-to-day life we must constantly deduce intent. My wife talks to me (fights with me, whatever) and I'm not just concerned with her on-the-surface meanings. I'm not even mostly concerned with her on-the-surface meanings. I'm concerned with her intent. But if you take my view to its logical conclusion, it means that I can never know her intent (the thing that's most important to me!)

There was a time when I would have protested that this isn't true (even I didn't want it to be true!), and that I was taking purely about aesthetic judgment, not interpersonal communication with loved ones. But of course it is true. One never knows what's in the mind of another. Perhaps that's the worst aspect of being human: the fact that my mind can never directly touch yours. I think this fact is so terrifying that we do anything we can to flee from it. So naturally my "message" isn't welcome.

Assuming that other minds do exist and that they work in a similar way to mine, my theories about my wife's intent are probably right. But there comes a point in all relationships, if they are to endure, that one must accept (generally good) intent on faith. My wife says she loves me; she acts like she loves me; I must assume that she does. (It's ironic that this same impulse, which is the glue that binds people together, often tears them apart. So many bitter fights are fought over what I assume you meant and what you can't convince me that you didn't mean! The need to divine intent -- to feel an intimate, psychic connection with other minds -- is extremely powerful.)

So we're (genetically?) programmed to make certain assumptions when we encounter something that seems like another mind. And that storyteller voice seems like another mind. Just as I love my wife, many of us fall in love with Shakespeare -- with the Shakespeare voice. It seems like a mind, so we naturally endow it with intent. So for me to say "intent doesn't matter" is like telling a man that he can't believe anything his wife says.

True. Still. When I read Shakespeare, I feel what I feel.

The crazy thing is that my theatre company is based around close reading. We rehearse for two months (I wish it could be five), spending most of the time around the table. We rarely cut. We perform on a bare stage with no scenery or lighting cues, hoping to make the text shine. Due to this aesthetic, my productions are most loved by those people who want to see Shakespeare "the way it was intended!" It's very hard for me to explain to people how I could care so deeply about the text on a word-for-word level, without caring about Shakespeare's intent. So I rarely try. I don't care about Shakespeare the man (maybe I would if I knew him). But I'm in love with Shakespeare the character. And he only exists as a voice in the plays and poems. So the best way to know him -- the only way -- is through close reading.

It was a great pleasure reading your book. I look forward to the next one.


Marcus Geduld, Artistic Director
Folding Chair Classical Theatre, Inc.
New York, NY


annulla said...

Just happened across your blog and am now curious about Folding Chair. Anything currently in production?

Marcus said...

Hi. Thanks for your interest! We're slowly getting our next production together. When there's more into, we'll post it on!