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Does Shakespeare's genius so compel us to identify with his dramatis personae that it...

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nataranjan | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted January 25, 2012 at 1:27 AM via web

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Does Shakespeare's genius so compel us to identify with his dramatis personae that it turns us into murderous Macbeths, suicidal Hamlets and brutal Othellos? 

Look around you...for 500 years people have been quoting Shakespeare as if they are actors in his plays...someone is doing a Caesar here, some others trying to be Iago or Shylock, and then there are the Brutuses, Cleopatras, Capulets and Montagues.... while those who haven't read Shakespeare just go about happily living their own lives ...In fact , the Shakespeare-educated can't even understand life unless it follows a Shakespearian character pattern...is this healthy for society? People hiding their evil in the cliche "tragic flaw"?

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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted January 25, 2012 at 1:48 AM (Answer #2)

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Witnessing how a character in a play copes with all-to-real life instances in no way compels the observer to act accordingly.  The brilliance of Shakespeare's characters is that they are accessible to a modern audience even after a few centuries have elapsed. Comprehending Hamlet's wordiness and lack of worldliness, Lear's parenting, MacBeth's ambition, and Othello's jealousy as you exemplify, serves to challenge the observer to ask of him or herself how they would resolve those issues.  Characters are case studies that provide guidance; "look what happens when this happens."

Watching a murder on stage or reading about it in a script is one thing; allowing oneself to be inspired and go commit a murder is quite something else.

"The fault lies not in our stars, but in our selves."

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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted January 25, 2012 at 11:14 AM (Answer #3)

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Yours is an excellent and thought-provoking question. I don't know how to answer. However, I think you are making a pretty wild assumption when you say that "those who haven't read Shakespeare just go about happily living their own lives." That sounds like a very easy prescription for happiness. Just avoid reading Shakespeare. I can't believe that most people who read Shakespeare, and especially people who really love Shakespeare, read him because they are looking for excuses for being wicked. I doubt if you could find many really wicked people who knew anything about Shakespeare. But I like your question.

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nataranjan | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:55 AM (Answer #4)

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i must thank billdelaney & enotechris for choosing to engage in this conversation that i have been wanting to have about my favourite author for a very long time . Without doubt there are really wicked people who go about their really wicked businesses knowing nothing about Shakespeare and yes, that Shakespearian characters, caught in a situation of their own making, with some help from others who are cast in their path by the force of society  if not fate, are case studies, is a wonderful addition to the debate, but i cannot see what guidance their tragic downward trajectories can provide to perfectly normal human beings who are never likely to throttle their wives in their beds on a mere suspicion of infidelity nor murder their bosses in their own guest room to rise up the career ladder, nor unable to "bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" - mark the word fortune as in fate and destiny - will or can fatally destroy their entire families, nor as young lovers will fall to their deaths enacting convoluted plans constructed to fake death to escape the intolerable rivalry of their elders ? Have not in the last 500 years such laws put in place and society so progressed as to eschew such bravado ? And has no teacher found it difficult to justify such behaviour except to pass it off as well, brave misadventures, that young students should try not to imitate in a fit of passion but to simply walk away from the household where the mother is sleeping with the uncle, and there is really no proof of a father having been murdered except for a ghost of an evidence,  or get a divorce, marry another, or just walk off with your girlfriend and set up home away from quarrelling adults? So, these Shakespearian characters are simply trapped in negative case studies, where they arouse such "fear and pity" that they set an example of what you should not be rather than what you should aspire to become? And has no teacher found it difficult to carry these "heroes'' off as heroes, except to fall in line with their own teachers who were taught to believe they are heroes, which they probably were in Elizabethan times, but now, in this age ? The mind boggles ...and modern movie adaptations of "Macbeth" simply take the simple route of placing the action in the underworld, within which context the murderous behaviour could be accepted as heroism! So, entire portions on the values and qualities of kingship, alas great leadership, are lost or edited out because it has nothing to do with anything with the modern mafia where these stories are now set! So, my follow up question is : ARE WE DOING JUSTICE TO SHAKESPEARE OR HAVE WE COMPLETELY LOST IT WHEN IT COMES TO THIS GENIUS OF A PLAYWRIGHT ? And if we are to have his characters set a good example in our society just how are we to treat and teach them , without having to cover up our embarrassment with nervous laughs, in courts, colleges, pit of the parliament and our collective stomachs , not to forget , the modern stage ?

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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted January 26, 2012 at 6:29 PM (Answer #5)

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What defines doing justice to Shakespeare?  Certainly as time rolls foward and the culture changes, some of his metaphors and subtle wordplay are lost if not studied.  But his works are still studied and performed; I've seen brilliant Hamlets and others....not so much.  As media evolves, yet another version of his works are produced. We recognize he comprehended deeply human motives and wrote what he comprehended, and thankfully we can still appreciate that today.

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nataranjan | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:58 AM (Answer #6)

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AGREE ENTIRELY WITH BOTH ! There is no saying what, "doing justice to Shakespeare" really means and surely criminals do not go searching for  a Shakespeare to justify their "motives", BUT WHAT IF WE TOOK SHAKESPEARE TO CRIMINALS? What if we stopped trying so hard to make him palatable to college and school going kids and ran him through audiences in jails and rehabs , even for those in death row for crimes of passion such as jealousy, ambition, covetousness, for being accomplices, WHAT WOULD BE THE OUTCOME ? Has this been tried ? Is it worth the try ? Would they find themselves ? Would they be repentant ? Would they justify their actions ? Would they....!?

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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted February 7, 2012 at 7:26 AM (Answer #7)

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AGREE ENTIRELY WITH BOTH ! There is no saying what, "doing justice to Shakespeare" really means and surely criminals do not go searching for  a Shakespeare to justify their "motives", BUT WHAT IF WE TOOK SHAKESPEARE TO CRIMINALS? What if we stopped trying so hard to make him palatable to college and school going kids and ran him through audiences in jails and rehabs , even for those in death row for crimes of passion such as jealousy, ambition, covetousness, for being accomplices, WHAT WOULD BE THE OUTCOME ? Has this been tried ? Is it worth the try ? Would they find themselves ? Would they be repentant ? Would they justify their actions ? Would they....!?

I am very impressed by your questions, assertions, and obviously strong feelings. But what you say about Shakespeare could be said about a lot of other authors, going all the way back to Sophocles and the other Greek tragedians. It occurs to me that it could also be said about classical music. Operas have been written about Romeo and Juliet and Othello as well as about other literary characters who have committed all sorts of crimes, including Mozart's Don Giovanni who spent all his time seducing women. Tchaikovsky wrote a beautiful tone poem about Romeo and Juliet, and Prokofiev wrote another. You ask, "What if we took Shakespeare to criminals?" There are a lot of things we ought to take to criminals instead of leaving them to rot away in their cells, but I don't believe that Shakespeare would be a top priority. Are you really serious about that question? At least it's a novel notion. Literature has changed a lot since Shakespeare. Modern authors don't care to write about the problems of kings, princes, dukes, etc., who were mostly a bunch of bandits and thieves. The great Tolstoy disowned his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina because he said he could not longer write about the trials and tribulations of a class of people he had come to see as parasites.

 

 

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nataranjan | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted February 10, 2012 at 10:53 PM (Answer #8)

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Sorry for not coming back sooner. i was busy with a serious bunch of "bandits & thieves" in real life, our very own modern real life, and these guys are no "kings, princes, dukes, etc.," but they act as such, stealing others' property and profiting from it, taking lives of people and feeling powerful about it, raping and plundering just about the very way a class of people did whom Tolstoy came "to see as parasites", but only in later life.. So, why is society so fascinated about its criminals, at first sight, to write paeans about them, however tragic? In fact, tragedy is itself interpreted as a celebration of these psychologically maimed & convoluted characters! Of course, "Literature has changed a lot since Shakespeare" and, going back and forth in time, since Sophocles, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev. So, why haven't we changed in its study, that we do in our schools and colleges? Both in our selection/content and delivery? And if we are to apply our modern consciousness it will be clear that we make the worst mischief by bundling a 'R&J' and a 'Macbeth' together, a 'Lear' and a 'Hamlet', an 'Othello' and a 'Caesar' under one big undifferentiated banner we call "Shakespearean Tragedies". What a seriously lazy thing to do! Then we bung this with an 'Oedipus', to justify the immortality of the 'Poetics' and cultural continuity! And persist with this definitional 'immorality' for lack of a better word and definition!

 

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litteacher8 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted February 11, 2012 at 4:00 AM (Answer #9)

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Yes. The truth is that Shakespeare's characters, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello, are complex, round, dynamic characters. They appeal to our humanity. We see them suffering, and better understand, if not dismiss, their actions.
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nataranjan | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted February 11, 2012 at 4:57 AM (Answer #10)

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Absolutely! Shakespeare's characters are "complex, round, dynamic", but aren't Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet thus because of their criminality, brutality, their suicidal tendencies?Though i must make a distinction here between Hamlet who is dragged into a hell, Macbeth who creates his own hell and Othello who has a hell contained within himself ~ ot-hell-o ! ~, is it not true that we are drawn to them because of these very hellish reasons.."They appeal to our humanity" you say, and i agree...which is why i ask agan: "why is society so fascinated with its criminals....?" and does this fascination, this appeal, lead to greater criminalisation? Which is my original question !


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nataranjan | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted February 11, 2012 at 5:16 AM (Answer #11)

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Absolutely! Shakespeare's characters are "complex, round, dynamic", but aren't Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet thus because of their criminality, brutality, their suicidal tendencies?Though i must make a distinction here between Hamlet who is dragged into a hell, Macbeth who creates his own hell and Othello who has a hell contained within himself ~ ot-hell-o ! ~, is it not true that we are drawn to them because of these very hellish reasons.."They appeal to our humanity" you say, and i agree...which is why i ask agan: "why is society so fascinated with its criminals....?" and does this fascination, this appeal, lead to greater criminalisation? Which is my original question !


Allow me to rephrase that...Hamlet is violently dragged into a hell created for him by others; Macbeth violently drags others into a hell created by none other than himself;Othello has a hell contained within himself ~ ot - hell - o ~ that others simply help to trigger a violent release ! And we are fascinated by all this hellish violence! Someone must ask why ?

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muddy-mettled | Valedictorian

Posted February 14, 2012 at 10:56 AM (Answer #12)

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May I quote G. B. Shaw as found in the book GREAT TREASURY Of WESTERN THOUGHT, edited by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren?  "With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.  The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity...............But I am bound to add that I pity the man who cannot enjoy Shakespeare.  He has outlasted thousands of abler thinkers, and will outlast a thousand more.  His gift of telling a story(provided someone else told it to him first); his enormous power over language, as conspicuous in his senseless and silly abuse of it as in his miracles of expression; his humor; his sense of idiosyncratic character; and his prodigious fund of that vital energy which is, it seems, the true differentiating property behind the faculties, good, bad, or indifferent, of the man of genius, enable him to entertain us so effectively that the imaginary scenes and people he has created become more real to us than our actual life."  (From Shaw, Dramatic opinions and essays ll).

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nataranjan | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted February 16, 2012 at 3:46 AM (Answer #13)

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By George , i think you got it ... Skaespeare's "...imaginary scenes and people...become more real to us than our actual life." i knew Bernard Shaw would soon appear to rave and rant against his own inability to surpass the genius that is William Shakespeare...and by that process place himself next to Shakespeare, ready to accept that the difference was a large one between one and two in the history of English literature, as long as one was Shakespeare and two, well, Shaw! Truth is while Shaw may be  a great student of Shakespeare , his plays are mentored more by Henrik ibsen..and no one in English Literature can keep up a drawing room conversation as long and delightful on stage as G.B. So, thank you for the diversion...that appears to answer the original q in the affirmative :  Shakespeare's genius does so compel us to identify with his dramatis personae that it turns us into murderous Macbeths, suicidal Hamlets and brutal Othellos! Can we, then, dismiss these guys as "idiosyncratic" ?

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bhawanipur | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted February 17, 2012 at 10:00 AM (Answer #15)

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I find the discussion amazing and useful for the students. As in India, plays of shakespeare are yet prescribed in the universities and colleges, we are bound to study them and find out innovetive explanation. But what surprises me the other day is that I went inside a mobile theatre which exists in Assam and found that play they were staging was an Assamese version of Shakeapeare's King Lear. They have named it "Bali gharar alahi" means "guests of houses of made of sands. I was surprised to see that thousands of audiences enjoyed it and praised the actors. They also found themselves in the characters. I think that the important thing. His plots and characters are still contemporary to us. I don't have much knowledge about him and his writings like you all but I could not help but to write a few lines out of my ignorence.

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muddy-mettled | Valedictorian

Posted February 18, 2012 at 5:26 AM (Answer #16)

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The original question also reminds one of Samuel Johnson's work and G. K. Chesterton.  As I am a dull and muddy-mettled rascal, after reading a piece of criticism I ALWAYS must return to a Shakespeare text or texts to try to discern what the critic may be trying to convey.  Therefore, "Mad let us grant him[Hamlet], then, and now remains / That we find out the cause of this effect, / Or rather say, the cause of this defect, / For this effect defective comes by cause. / Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. / Perpend"(HAM2.2).  Hamlet's speech to the players, where he tells us that the purpose of playing is "to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature" apparently comes from that ancient Greek fellow Aristotle and the term memesis.  We may then have a problem reconciling Johnson's purpose "to instruct" and Hamlet's.  It seems that some instructors today introduce Shakespeare to students with THE TEMPEST, perhaps because it is the first play in the FIRST FOLIO.  Another reason may be the epilogue where the author asks us to help him.  Shakespeare needs your help.  Another issue is, as Professor Garber noted, that the author wrote during a time of religious controversy in England and Europe.  There are many Biblical allusions in the plays.  Perhaps we need to try Benvolio's advice, "Take thou some new infection to thy eye, / and the rank poison of the old will die"(ROM1.2), that is, read other authors or AS YOU LIKE IT.

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muddy-mettled | Valedictorian

Posted February 18, 2012 at 8:41 PM (Answer #17)

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Memesis should be spelled mimesis in #16.  Also, perhaps the play Twelth or Twealth or TWELFTH NIGHT  is a good play to compare with HAMLET.

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muddy-mettled | Valedictorian

Posted February 20, 2012 at 4:15 AM (Answer #19)

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My reasoning in recommending the comedies follows.  "Soft you; a word or two before you go," says Othello(5.2), which might recall Mercutio's "And but one word with one of us?  Couple it with something"(ROM3.1).  Therefore, when studying a tragedy, also study a comedy and then try to follow the happier example.  Another thought that might occur is that I think that I am not the only one who has found that trying to construct answers to posted questions here can be difficult.  I do confess that on occasion I have become grumpy.  In a multi-volume collection titled SHAKESPEAREAN CRITICISM, I came across a theatre review by one Joseph Wood Krutch.  He began by noting the question of whether the author wrote only for performance or also for readers.  His answer was that Shakespeare wrote for both.  Therefore, have you heard people speak Shakespeare's work lately?  I mean not electronically reproduced speech but people near you speaking words.

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muddy-mettled | Valedictorian

Posted February 23, 2012 at 7:41 AM (Answer #22)

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Sometimes I also need to remind myself that Shakespeare also wrote the dialogue of the minor characters.  Whether or not in doing so he intended to please the groundlings or the Queen or the Duke of Earl, we do sometimes find "instructions" as Samuel Johnson put it.  One example is the first conversation in ROMEO AND JULIET.  Gregory's "Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar," may be regarded, I think, as an interesting recommendation of good posture.  The first and last lines of the conversation, "Gregory, on my word we'll not carry coals" and "'Tis well thou art not fish; if thou hadst, thou hadst been Poor John," are together an allusion to the first line of the GOSPEL OF JOHN:  "In the beginning was the Word."  In the midst of their conversation is Samson's  " 'Tis all one," which is at once an allusion to DEUTERONOMY 6:4 and GENESIS 1:27.  I distinctly remember my 12th grade instructor suggesting that we should be on the lookout for this sort of thing.

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wanderista | Student, Grade 11 | Valedictorian

Posted March 10, 2012 at 9:53 AM (Answer #23)

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I like the question, but not the context. I doubt his characters have effect on the criminal population. His language is very sophisticated, and the majority of petty thefts and such are commited by the lesser intelligent people, those who haven't had the education to think for themselves, that can't interpret his works.

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is00 | College Teacher | Honors

Posted March 13, 2012 at 8:22 PM (Answer #24)

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See the matter from the reverse point.Shakespeare's genius taught the world about the elemental passions of human life and their consequences. Hamlet, Othello,King Lear taught us not to commit mistakes like them.This has been proved correct time and again . So,how can we go without Shakespeare?

Real life is certainly different from the Dramatic world of Shakespeare,but the passions and emotions portrayed by this uneducated(!!!) man are so real that keeping them aside under any kind of biasness is simply foolishness.

 

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