“Un-Reading” Shakespeare in Order to Read Him — More Brilliance from David Gontar


Unreading ShakespeareI’d like to call attention to the favorable word-of-mouth reactions for Unreading Shakespeare by David P. Gontar, author of Hamlet Made Simple and Other EssaysThe idea of the title is that we have received [and keep carrying around] so many automatic assumptions about the Shakespearean works that we seldom, if ever, listen to our own basic instincts and reactions to what the author has written.  “A barricade of preconceived ideas is thus thrown up around the text while the author at its core is erased,” Gontar writes; and the way into the experience of his works is by coming upon them as if for the first time, un-shackled by those preconceptions.

For many decades all who have been engaged in the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ) have been saddled with the movement known as “The Death of the Author” or whatever name it has gone by — a wave of insane, knee-jerk teaching that any work of literature, including any play, must be severed from its authorial source, that is, from the mind and heart and personal experience of its human creator.  Very possibly that movement was borne out of the SAQ itself, out of a silent recognition that the Stratfordian biography of tradition contains no authentic information.  Within the halls of academic Authority there has always been a deeply running undercurrent of unease, based on the suspicion that our grand statements about Prince Hamlet or King Lear or the “I” of the Sonnets might be way off base, wrong; and of course one of the first instincts of Authority is to defend itself, in this case by behaving as if the greatest writer of the English language had never existed.

And then comes the unspoken thought: “See, we don’t need him!  And if we don’t need him, then we might as kill all the others, too!  No more writers!  Kill them all!”  As Hamlet responds before he himself is slain (speaking, I believe, for the author as well): “The rest is silence.”

Hamlet200Instead of allowing ourselves to tap into the author’s words as if for the first time, we have been left to scribble down and memorize the myriad ideas of the critics and professors, who have given themselves the total freedom to invent their own meanings.  It’s a free-for-all game without boundaries, in which no one ever loses, no one can be wrong.  Of course, only the author can serve as ultimate consultant, as most reliable source and guide to his own works, but in this case there has been no such author — and no author’s life — for us to consult for guidance!  Meanwhile David Gontar has been helping us reclaim our gut intuitions about the Shakespeare works, which we must “unread” before starting afresh.

One of the essays in Gontar’s new book is about the commentary of G. Wilson Knight, whose work on the Sonnets has been among the most insightful among traditional essays.  Gontar likes him, too, but then he proceeds to unravel some of Knight’s key perceptions — or misperceptions — about the true character and emotions of Hamlet.  I’ll not try to summarize his argument; instead, here are the final two sentences of that essay: “Knight betrays the very insight that could have conveyed him to the heart of the wheel of fire, where he would have encountered Hamlet’s burning soul.  Instead, he stumbled, and his raid on Elsinore went down in flames.”

There, now — Don’t you want to read how he leads up to that explosive finale?

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