Saturday, September 12, 2015

Loving Shakespeare's Language, Then and Now

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine carries an elegantly written lament by Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University, who has come to believe that his students don't love Shakespeare's poetry as poetry anymore:
Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif. What has happened? It is not that my students now lack verbal facility. In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid. It is as if the sense of linguistic birthright that I experienced with such wonder had faded and with it an interest in exploiting its infinite resources.
To this, I say: Okay. Maybe. But also maybe not. But if this is so, it isn't a naturally occurring phenomenon. It results from a changed set of educational emphases. Focusing on the poetry as poetry, and relentlessly working over the rhythms and images and word choices, was the central enterprise of college English Lit classes over roughly the middle half of the 20th century. And because that was what high school and middle school English teachers had learned how to do in college, that was what they passed on to students in middle school and high school. If Stephen Greenblatt came to college already loving Shakespeare for the beautiful language, it is because he had come to college through an educational system where studying Shakespeare meant studying the beautiful language.

There was a move away from this system (which went and still goes by the name "the New Criticism") starting roughly in the 1980s. Here's another passage by a scholar of Greenblatt's generation:
In graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s, I found myself deeply uncertain about the direction I wanted my work to take. I was only mildly interested in the formalist agenda that dominated graduate instruction and was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K. Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal -- poetry as "an object which in a mysterious way is both highly general and highly particular" -- seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery.
Wimsatt was one of the intellectual giants of the "New Criticism," the so-called "formalist" attention to poetic language above all else. But our former graduate student couldn't limit himself to that approach. So he struck out in a new direction and pioneered a new critical approach to Shakespeare which centered on using history to illuminate the texts in new and innovative ways.

He is, of course, Stephen Greenblatt. The second passage is from Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, page 1.

A few quick acknowledgements: Greenblatt is legitimately the most famous and influential Shakespeare scholar of his generation. He has basically been Shakespearean Number One for years now. I don't know him personally, but we are one degree of separation apart in dozens of directions. And I will admit, right now, that he has been a major influence on my own work. I'm a big, big fan. (I knew right where to find that second passage, didn't I?)

Now, I have never believed that Greenblatt's work meant turning away from the poetry itself. But many of his many, many critics have said exactly that. They view the question as either/or: are we talking about poetry, or are we talking about "early modern culture?" I have always viewed the question as both/and: the intellectual tools that Greenblatt provides supplement the older toolbox originally filled by Wimsatt and the boys. (I spent my first year in college being subtly but relentlessly drilled in the older skill set by one of Greenblatt's most distinguished colleagues. That experience has turned out to be much more formative than I once admitted to myself.)

Greenblatt's NYT Magazine piece reads from one viewpoint like an inadvertent mea culpa, bemoaning all the changes that Greenblatt's critics once warned that Greenblatt himself would bring to pass. Kids don't love Shakespeare's poetry any more! We told you this would happen! But I read it instead as evidence that Greenblatt himself has always been a both/and type. He didn't turn away from Wimsatt's methods because he thought they were wrong. He took them as proven, and moved on to a different area where things needed more clarification. Loving the language was always something he presumed as part of the basic approach. And certainly, at the beginning of his career, with decades of educational infrastructure teaching every English major to use and value those Wimsatt-y New Critical skills, Greenblatt could safely take them for granted.

But the real problem with the NYT piece isn't that Greenblatt pines for the older approach that he himself helped to dethrone. The problem for me is that Greenblatt, whose own ground-breaking work has been on examining social and cultural context, ignores the context of the educational system itself. Greenblatt 2015 writes about falling in love with Shakespeare's language as a spontaneous personal event, wholly distinct from the educational system around him. (He even leads off with a middle school teacher's failed attempt to win him over to Shakespeare, so that he can imply that his love comes from himself and not from school.) But Greenblatt circa 1985 teaches us to be suspicious of those claims, and to look for the ways that the society around the individual loads the deck.

People in Greenblatt's generation encountered the message about Shakespeare's beautiful language over and over again, maximizing the chances that it would eventually stick. Students today encounter the message that "Shakespeare can be cool in some exciting new medium!" over and over again; if students who got that message relentlessly until high school graduation reproduce that message themselves in college, that's not exactly supernatural. People don't fall in love with Shakespeare entirely and spontaneously on their own. Someone else always passes notes for him in study hall.

If Stephen Greenblatt wants students to love the Shakespeare that he loves himself, he needs to woo them for that Shakespeare. He needs to show students those poetic beauties and give the students opportunities to savor them. He needs to woo persistently without pestering, to allow the wooed party room to breathe without letting the courtship run cold. He needs to keep the object of desire before the students' eyes until they decide that, deep in their own hearts, they desire it for themselves. It's a tricky process. It's not easy, and it doesn't always work. But we've been doing it for a long time, and it has a name. It's called "teaching."

cross-posted (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog

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