Thursday, April 19, 2018

Who would be Shakespeare If there were no Shakespeare?

So, as we were going in to see the play last weekend, Janice asked me an interesting question I cdn't answer: who would be Shakespeare if we didn't have Shakespeare?

That is, given that Shakespeare is generally considered the greatest writer in English,* who would play that role if we didn't have Shakespeare's work?

Thinking it over, I think that in that case subsequent history wd have been  so different that we can't know the answer. It's not a matter of Milton or Keats stepping into that role: without the key figure everything around and after him wd change. To use a more modern analogy, without The Beatles we don't get a British Invasion headed by the Rolling Stones and The Animals: we don't get any British Invasion at all, nor all the things contingent upon it.

On thinking it over some more, I suspect that in such a world English literature wd be far more like French literature -- that is, in the absence of a superlative native tradition English writers wd have looked even more to continental models than they did in the century or so following W.S.'s time. But that of course is just guessing: the real course of altered history wd be so different that we can't do more than just guess at it.

With my interest in the Canon of literature, and the way works migrate in and out of it, I do find myself musing sometimes over who's up and who's down compared to the canon as it was when I was in grad school, especially given the pressure the academy is under to open up and diversify. Who's in and who's dropping out? Tolkien has benefitted by the shifting tides, and is nearer acceptance now than ever before, while I find myself half-expecting to hear that Milton is being edged  towards the exit.

Time will tell.

--John R.

*indeed, Tolkien thought Shakespeare's achievement had been so great it bent English literature towards drama rather than narrative prose (which he much preferred).


Wurmbrand said...

Too many conceited academicals pride themselves on "problematizing" the canon (and displaying a tin ear for language in their own prose). It is interesting, though, to consider the fuzzy edges of the canon for those who continue to appreciate it.

My biggest regret, as regards a writer who seems to have just about lost "standard author" status, is Sir Walter Scott. Aside from his enormous historical importance, his best books possess much intrinsic value. I don't think Ivanhoe, the one people with which most people are most likely to have acquaintance, is up there with works such as The Heart of Midlothian. I was disgusted, some years back, to see (as I recall) that a major element of the representation that -was- given to Scott, in the then-new edition of the Norton Anthology, was -- the first chapter of one of his novels. Now I've found it safe to assume that one may begin a Scott novel at the second chapter.

I'm wondering if Thackeray is losing his former place as a standard author. If we have to lose Thackeray in order to gain, or regain, Elizabeth Gaskell, I won't complain, although I have read a lot of Gaskell but hardly any Thackeray and am not really entitled to an opinion.

This posting about the canon reminds me of one of two incidents that have left a lasting, unhappy impression. The first occurred in 1981. An attempt had been made on the pope's life. One of the professors present said: Why couldn't it have been Reagan?

And nobody rebuked that remark.

The other incident occurred two or three years ago. I distribute to my students a list of standard literary works for British and American literature as a lifetime reading list. (It's actually just a list of the books that students at Cornell or Rutgers should be able to be tested on at the end of their baccalaureate work -- my, how expectations have changed.) And a young colleague referred disdainfully to the list: "white male patriarchy."


If that's what is conjured up in her mind by a list of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontes, etc., then I will just I am thankful that I don't see things that way.

Dale Nelson

N.E. Brigand said...

Charles Dickens?

David Bratman said...

A literature doesn't have to have a single outstanding author. Who's the single outstanding American author? Among ones from the formative period of American literature, Melville and Twain are of obvious importance, yet neither has that singular stature.

Milton has been counted out before. CS Lewis counted Charles Williams's greatest critical achievement as pulling Milton back out of it.