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The play's context is the thing

Curtis Crawford ("Letters," February/01) decries [English] Professor [and Dean of the Humanities Janel] Mueller's method of teaching Shakespeare by immersion in the context of his life and times. Mr. Crawford prefers gleaning contemporary meaning from his reading unencumbered by that context.

I would counter that reading or presenting any play from the past is best done when we consider two periods of time: that in which it was written and that in which it is read or presented. We cannot fully appreciate Hamlet's ambivalence unless we are aware of the Elizabethan horror of regicide as a threat to temporal as well as divine order. We more fully understand Ben Jonson if we are aware of the role of alchemy in his society. We are more appreciative of Philoctetes if we comprehend the Greek notion of fate and of the interactions of the gods with mortals.

Thus it becomes the responsibility of the teacher and the director (or the reader) to ascertain the playwright's intent and then to transfer that intent to present-day equivalents. Otherwise we are subjecting Shakespeare, the Greeks, or any play from the past to a strictly modern formulation (inevitably a reduction). It comes down to the necessity of serving the play, rather than mining its temporal utility, thereby broadening our understanding of the work, of its time, and most of all, of ourselves.

Bernard G. Sahlins, AB'43
Chicago

 


 


  APRIL 2001

  > > Volume 93, Number 4


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