Sunday, October 1, 2017

Shakespeare and Behaviorism

I frequently teach Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, a play which remains amazingly popular despite its apparently outdated preachment that a woman is happiest when subservient to her husband. The play's continuing popularity is probably due to three main factors:

1. Shakespeare wrote it and it's really funny.
2. The Biblical injunction "Wives, submit to your husbands" is not an archaism for a significant minority. (This is news to most academics.)
3. The play presents an intriguing study of how behavior can be altered through a program of targeted rewards and consequences.

The third reason is most interesting to me because it's the most useful. That is, if we put to the side the issue of the ethics of "taming" a woman, the play can afford us some insight into ways to effect change in another person's behavior without drugging that person. Behavioral psychology, whether focused on spouses, children,

Friday, September 1, 2017

Losing the Soliloquy

I recently read a mediocre thriller by Dave Eggers called The Circle. It's not a good book, but the premise is timely and intriguing. A young woman gets a job at a Facebook-like California social media corporation whose ultimate aim is 100% "transparency," not of the company, but of its billions of customers. Users are urged to "go clear," which means to commit their every activity to film and on-line posting. The rationale is that mutual universal visibility will promote an honest society. "Privacy is secrecy," and secrecy means shame, and why do anything shameful? Allowing the world full viewing privileges to your life will prompt you to behave well. When we all behave well, we have utopia.

Sadly, Eggers fails to develop this premise into a plot with the slightest degree of nuance, complexity, or believability, partly by refusing to let any character raise the argument on behalf of privacy that will occur to most readers. No one in the book objects that a loss of privacy is also a loss of intimacy, since while privacy hides shame, it also allows specialness. (Even the young woman's ex-boyfriend, who is adamantly opposed to the intrusive "Circle," does not hit on this objection.) It also makes no sense that none of the Circle's thousands of young-genius employees questions the

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tweetable Shakespeare for Current Occasions


To counter the barrage of absurd Tweets coming from various players on the U.S. scene, here are some eloquent and appropriate ones for current occasions. As usual, they come from the man who said everything best.

"This is some fellow who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect a saucy roughness."
 "I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Rant about Wrongly Used Words, and What Shakespeare Says

About twenty years ago I wrote a book about Shakespeare and his biggest theatrical rival, a (mostly) comic playwright named Ben Jonson, seven years younger than William S., who was astoundingly popular in the London theater of the late 1590s and the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Jonson and Shakespeare knew each other well. Shakespeare's company staged some of Jonson's plays, and Shakespeare acted in at least one of them. They appear to have been friends, but had different temperaments. Jonson's humor was way more satirical and biting than Shakespeare's -- though Shakespeare has his moments -- and a comparison not only of the men's plays but of their lives suggests Jonson was a lot less tolerant of popular innovations in language. He mercilessly ridiculed fads, especially speech fads. Language affectation infuriated him, while Shakespeare poked more gentle fun at verbal follies, or deepened even his ridiculously word-mad characters by giving them a few lines of dialogue calculated to create pathos and generate audience sympathy. I wasn't even halfway through the writing of my book when I recognized that I was way more like Jonson than I was like Shakespeare. I really don't like it

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Too Dumb For Tragedy



A friend who works in Washington tells me the only way people can understand current political craziness is to read Shakespeare. I know what she means. I think Shakespeare is connected to everything and vice versa. So many other folks also think this that Shakespearish interpretations of Trump have been a feature of news and commentary since well before the election. The New York Public Theater is staging a "Trump" Julius Caesar, and just the other day a Washington Post article compared the U.S. president to the mad and erratic King Lear. It's easy to understand the association. Like Lear, Trump is childishly sensitive to insult and makes rash decisions based on his sense of personal injury. And the actions of a president, which have momentous implications for an entire people, naturally prompt thoughts of tragedy, which since its origins in Aeschylus has represented mistakes in high places.

But at the same time I'm offended by these comparisons, not on Trump's behalf, but on behalf of King Lear, Richard III, and Macbeth. I consider these characters friends. The fact is, Trump is way too dumb to be a credible real-world analogue for any of them. Despite their huge flaws, Shakespeare's heroes are highly intelligent,

Monday, May 1, 2017

Kalamazoo, Syrians, and Shakespeare

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I live, various churches and charities have been busy helping about 30 newly arrived Syrian families who have managed to acquire refugee status in the United States. Most of these families have a lot of children (one has nine), and so the total number of relocated people is over 200. The first of the families got here in November. Coming from a dry and temperate region, and from refugee camps which lacked room for lots of personal belongings, they arrived for the Michigan winter wearing thin pants and slippers and, for the most part, no overcoats. So the first order of business was clothes.

They got them. Within days, local citizens coordinating charitable efforts were wading through piles of donated ski jackets, snowsuits, hats, mittens, and gloves of all sizes, and looking for a large central warehouse in which to store the extras. Space was soon provided by a mosque near Western Michigan University's campus, where Kalamazooans also brought household items, and a regular Saturday morning

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Shakespeare Scholar Admits He Doesn't Know the Answer to a Question

A  ripple of alarmed confusion coursed through the Sheraton Grand Ballroom in Washington, D.C., yesterday when Professor Daniel Travotti, lecturer in early modern English literature at Britain's esteemed Touchstone University, professed inability to enlighten a questioner who was pretending to be interested in Shakespeare's influence on post-Reformation English theological debates. The public interchange, surely the most startling of this year's Global Shakespeare Conference, took place during the question and answer phase that followed Travotti's keynote talk, and went as follows:

Questioner:
 Is it not also the case that Macbeth's interrogation of the equivocal Witches both registers and promulgates England's growing rejection of interpretive license in the perusal of sacred texts?

Travotti:
I don't know. Whatever.

(Audible breath intake among listeners, followed by a buzz of whispers.)

Questioner (regrouping, after a pause):
What I mean is, given that in the early years of King James's reign, tropes suggestive of Jesuitical doublespeak in the popular theater were at once superficially orthodox yet indirectly subversive, did no central ambiguity result from the early-modern ethos that stressed any individual's power to interpret texts? I mean, an ambiguity which undercut all claims to stable meaning?

Travotti:
You're asking me?

Questioner:
Yes, what I mean is, wasn't Macbeth implicated in this cultural trend toward the destabilization of language-systems as generators of reliable truth claims?

Travotti (shrugging):
Couldn't tell you.

At this point the meeting broke up in confusion. The greater number of attendees, clearly shaken by the breakdown of acceptable conference discourse, solaced themselves with hotel-issue coffee outside the ballroom. Within minutes, rapid exchanges of polysyllabic shibboleths such as "hermeneutical circle," "cultural imaginary," "monolithic hegemony," and "inescapable binary" had restored color to cheeks, and good humor reigned once more.

Yet the effects of the event still reverberated among a large proportion of younger scholars, some of whom were applying for academic jobs at the conference. One Ph.D. student, in answer to an  interviewer's question regarding her dissertation's implications for the "presentist deconstruction of late-Victorian Bradleyism in Shakespeare studies," was heard to reply, "Sir, I have no idea. I was writing about something else."

Reports differ on whether she was abruptly dismissed or offered the job on the spot.