“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?

Myth vs. Reality: What do William Shakespeare and Tiger Woods Have in Common?

Frank Rich

An observation by Frank Rich in today’s New York Times (Sunday December 20, 2009) made me think of why most of the world has had such a tough time considering the possibility that Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon was not, after all, the author of the works attributed to the printed name “William Shakespeare.”

Even when we know somewhere deep in our bones that some magnificent myth simply cannot stand up to scrutiny, we go right on tolerating and even mightily defending it.  We go right on, seemingly oblivious to the great gap between a beloved popular belief and what must be the quite different reality behind it.  Such is the case, I believe with the gap between our traditional image of Shakespeare the man and the real person who became the world’s greatest writer.

In his essay in the Sunday Opinion page, Rich had occasion to bring up the Tiger Woods saga:

“What makes the golfing superstar’s tale compelling, after all, is not that he’s another celebrity in trouble or another fallen athletic “role model” in a decade lousy with them.  His scandal has nothing to tell us about race, and nothing new to say about hypocrisy.  The conflict between Tiger’s picture-perfect family life and his marathon womanizing is the oldest of morality tales.

“What’s striking instead is the exceptional, Enron-sized gap between this golfer’s public image as a paragon of businesslike discipline and focus and the maniacally reckless life we now know he led.  What’s equally striking, if not shocking, is that the American establishment and news media — all of it, not just golf writers or celebrity tabloids — fell for the Woods myth as hard as any fan and actively helped sustain and enhance it. People wanted to believe what they wanted to believe…”

And this certainly has been true of the virtually universal belief in the myth of the Stratford man as “Shakespeare,” with English and Drama scholars of the academic establishment (instead of the American establishment and news media) actively helping to sustain and enhance it.

I admit that if I’d had the occasion to bet on Tiger’s reality, I’d have taken the side of the “role model” image that we now know was a false one.  The image that “Shakespeare” attended only grammar school at best, that he never traveled to Italy, that he wrote strictly for the box office, that his detailed knowledge and seemingly firsthand experience (which fills entire walls of library shelves) had been acquired by some miracle — at one time in my life, I would have bet on the side of that image, too.  (Too bad Will of Stratford left no voice mail messages behind!)

Now, about that popular myth of the Virgin Queen…

Published in: Uncategorized on December 20, 2009 at 8:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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