New Matter and Infinite Variety

There have been a spate of articles lately questioning the continual worth of Shakespeare. It’s a media trend that comes around every once in a while, and I suspect the most recent fad for it is related in some way to the UK’s ongoing debate about how much Shakespeare to include in the curriculum. We understand the argument on this side of the pond, too, where Shakespeare, and the humanities in general, are frequent targets for those who believe that STEM subjects are the only ones with intrinsic value. Today’s entry into the conversation is “Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?” from Michael Reisz at Times Higher Education, an article examining Shakespeare’s role in critical theory throughout the ages, wondering if scholarship has simply exhausted itself on this topic — if we’ve tapped out Shakespeare’s reserves. The article considers several different viewpoints, academic and practical, both from the ivory tower and from the trenches, and it got me thinking: my instinctive reaction to that question, “Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?” is “Yes, absolutely, and furthermore there will never stop being new things to say about Shakespeare.” But how do I back that up?

Because it’s true: there is a lot of scholarship out there, and it’s been accumulating for a long time. As Reisz’s article points out, a lot of it is outdated, or repetitive, or erroneous, or simply out-of-fashion, yet still, there it all sits, a looming Golgotha of the supposed wisdom of our forefathers and our peers. And, despite being a scholar of Shakespeare, in possession of an advanced degree on the topic, and someone who does devote most of my waking hours to his plays, I am all too aware that the scholarship can, itself, intimidate and put people off the subject. The sheer weight of all that analysis can feel oppressive, impossible to negotiate around — which is why, at the ASC, we put so much emphasis on exploration of the plays themselves. Dramaturgy and critical theory are great tools, but they should be a means, not an end. The scholarship should be there to help, not to terrify.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an educator more than a scholar, really. My focus is primarily on getting students to find things to love in Shakespeare, only secondarily on making my own contributions to the miasma of scholarship (and even when I make the attempt, as I’ll be doing at the upcoming Blackfriars Conference, it’s still with an eye towards improving accessibility). I’m more interested in a student’s personal background than I am in the history of a certain type of critical theory. I can find new ways of hearing Shakespeare’s words by listening to what high school students, without knowing new-historicism from a hole in the ground, deliver and discuss monologues that have personal meaning for them. And I can watch Dr. Ralph, who’s been teaching Shakespeare for forty years, become overwhelmed with glee at finding something new in a passage he’s visited a hundred times.

When will you have learned everything there is to learn from Shakespeare? When you have scanned every line, analyzed every rhetorical device, played every part. And then done it again. When you’ve done it at a different age, in a different location, in front of different audiences who are feeding different emotions back to you. When you’ve done it as a different gender. When you’ve done it as a member of a different race. When you’ve done it as a member of a different economic class. When you’ve done it in a different political climate. When you’ve done it in a prison, in a school cafeteria, in an open field. When you’ve experienced the words of his lovers immediately after having your own heart broken, and immediately before getting married. When you’ve experienced the cares and concerns of his parental figures as a rebellious teenager, as a new parent yourself, while celebrating, while grieving.

My point here is that Shakespeare will never stop having new things to teach us, because we bring ourselves to Shakespeare. As there will always be new people, there will always be new Shakespeare — and no one person is ever going to experience absolutely everything his plays have to offer, though we can (and should) listen to and learn from each others’ experiences. So too do our societal, cultural, and political conditions cast a different reflection on the plays: Julius Caesar plays far differently now than in 1813 or 1613; who knows what it will have to say for us in another twenty, fifty, hundred years? There is no amount of scholarship that can account for all the variables which humanity has to offer.

A way of examining Shakespeare might grow stale, a particular production might be uninspired, but — well, Shakespeare has something to say about that, too. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. Someone who hasn’t found something new in Shakespeare — if not new to the world, then at least new to an individual experience — just isn’t trying hard enough, or perhaps just isn’t open enough to the possibility of discovery, in art or in himself. Remove the prescription of Shakespeare as medicinal tonic, which I think so much scholarship can engender in the casual participant or new student, and you get back to joy of what his words help us find in ourselves. All the mountains of literature written about Shakespeare’s plays do nothing to diminish the brilliant flame of a teenage girl discovering for the first time that Beatrice is speaking her language and her heart. I rather think the latter is more beautiful and more valuable than anything you’ll find on JSTOR.

So yes, Virginia, there is something new in Shakespeare — but I can’t tell you what it is, what it might be for you, whoever you are, wherever you come from. I sure hope you’ll find it and tell me about it, though.

Wandering through Wordles, Part the Third

Those of you who have been following the Education blog for some time are by now familiar with our work on Wordles. We use these word clouds primarily to introduce to students the idea that Shakespeare’s vocabulary is not what can make reading Shakespeare difficult. It helps to eliminate some of the fear, to look at all the words set out in this way, and to notice that there are very few, if any, unfamiliar words. Most of those which are strange will either be names or places, or else are fairly easy to figure out the meaning of once restored to their context. We include this as part of our Basics section in ASC Study Guides, and we can use it as a bridge into discussing rhetoric (ie, the order the words come in — usually what can make a passage difficult, and usually something that conveys character information). But, as I’ve discussed before on this blog, I’ve also discovered that distilling scenes into Wordles can reveal other information as well, about how Shakespeare is directing the audience’s focus, what information he chooses to share or to conceal, how he sets a mood, what topics are important for that scene.

I’m in the process of creating a blended Study Guide for both the Henry IVs and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and while building the Wordles for those plays, I noticed something that I haven’t been able to get over. Take a look at the Wordle for the first 100- lines of Henry IV, Part 1:


The two largest words, repeated most frequently, are “news” and “now”. Closer examination of the text shows that those most prominent words gets repeated four times — not, actually, a whole lot, which tells me that there isn’t a lot of repetition in the first 100 lines of the play. (And what does that, in turn, tell us about the verbal choices made by King Henry and Westmoreland?). A lot of the other oft-used words are names of people involved in the battles — but, considering the low degree of repetition overall, just getting said twice can increase a word’s prominence, as is the case with “Douglas” and “Mordake”. What information is Shakespeare giving us about the energy of this first scene? To me, it bespeaks a sense of urgency — but somewhat unfocused urgency. Henry isn’t just dealing with one problem here; he’s dealing with several all at once. As I can see by this Wordle, he’s having issues with Earls. He’s having issues with his son. He’s having issues with Scotland. These are all news, and they are all immediate issues he needs to solve.

So, that was interesting enough on its own, but then I did the Wordle for Henry IV, Part 2:


There, again, the largest word is “news”, and here, there is a higher frequency of repetition: “news” occurs seven times in the first 100 lines. The speaker for the first 40 lines is an anthropomorphic representation, not a historical character — and it makes sense that Rumour would have its mind on news, news, news. That fixation carries through the first scene as well, and many of the other repeated words reflect the characters’ concerns: Northumberland is waiting for word of what happened at Shrewsbury, of which Harry prevailed, of who will come home, of how the rebellion fared.

I asked Sarah what she thought would be the largest words for the first 100 lines of Henry IV, Part 1, and her guess was something like mine would have been: king, Henry/Harry, England. That would seem reasonable. Those are, after all, the major concerns of Shakespeare’s English histories. Take a look at the Wordles for the first 100 lines of Henry V and Richard III:



So what is it about the Henry IVs that makes them different? How is the energy different at the top of the play, how does that trickle through the following scenes, and, most importantly, what good can any of that do an actor? These are the questions we’re asking teachers and students to consider when they begin examining the language of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and we hope it will lead to fruitful exploration.