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Chicagophile

 


The play's the thing

A "Shakespeare course today…would tend to look at what kinds of plays he wrote at given political or social junctures and for which patrons or audiences. We're getting away from the notion of transcendent geniuses by inserting these works and their creators in as thick a context as we can reconstruct for their everyday life and relations."-Prof. Janel Mueller, dean of the humanities division, interviewed by the Magazine in its December/00 issue ("Chicago Journal").

What a shame! These tendencies desert the essential for the peripheral, the fashionable, and the mediocre. They are cause not for pride, but for weeping and gnashing of teeth. English professors who must mine historical or sociological studies in order to find Shakespeare interesting and intelligible should not be teaching him. The University needs teachers who enjoy the plays, read them well, and help students do likewise. Outside the text, the prime information required is in the students' and teachers' understanding and experience of life, and in the dictionary.

So much to learn about the human condition-and so little time! Take Othello, for instance:

1. Ignorance of self. Othello is totally unaware of his potential for jealousy, how powerful the passion will be if aroused. When Iago introduces the possibility that Desdemona is unfaithful, Othello is sure that if it proves true, he will feel no jealousy.

2. Ignorance of the character of close associates. Desdemona's father thinks her passive and retiring, yet she invites Othello's proposal and elopes with him. Othello thinks Iago honest and Desdemona a whore, in both cases the opposite of what they are.

3. The causes of demonic evil in Iago. Hatred of Othello for not promoting him and for sleeping (?) with his wife. Hatred of Othello's nobility in contrast to his own baseness. Delight in overthrowing and torturing the object of his hatred. Delight in conceiving and executing a difficult and dangerous plan.

"It's fortunate that men
are prepared to give up
their careers and profes-
sional ambitions to stay
at home and raise the
children they father.
Oh, they're not?"

4. The contribution of minor faults to the catastrophe. Cassio, knowing that he deserves his punishment, nevertheless presses Desdemona to sue for his reinstatement. She agrees, pestering Othello on a question of military discipline that is none of her business. Emilia steals Desdemona's handkerchief and gives it to Iago, thus setting up the "proof" of infidelity.

The kinds of human ignorance, motivation, and fault listed here are as important today as 400 years ago. The plays express these things, and thousands more, with unmatched power and beauty, as new insights for some students and vivid reminders to others. Those who chew on all this in their dialogue with the text will find it far more nourishing than lesser authors' investigations of political and social junctures, or of patrons and audiences.

Curtis Crawford, PhB'46, DB'51
Charlottesville, Virginia


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  FEBRUARY 2001

  > > Volume 93, Number 3


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