play's context is the thing
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.
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.
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.
G. Sahlins, AB'43