Saturday, April 16, 2011


My attendance at this year’s annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America served as a useful reminder that academics are people as given to looniness as the maddest member of the Tea Party. Disregarding fact or argument, and disrespecting those who disagree with them are as widespread among the highly educated—my father would have said, “over-educated”—as the educated and under-educated.

I have missed only one of the past seven annual conferences of this association. In the past decade or so, the numbers of members and attendees have grown dramatically. Unfortunately, the quality of seminar papers and discussion has not done the same. I have been threatening not to attend for several years, but I have yielded to the appeals of friends in academe to re-join them in following years and to participate, as I always do, by writing a paper for a seminar.

My seminar this year was “Macbeth: The State of the Play.” The play interests me; I have written a book chapter and two other conference papers on it, and have taught it as a guest teacher to two high school classes. Much there is to say, so the inclusive charter of the seminar gave me room to explore the play from a new angle: “This seminar invites papers on any aspect of Macbeth in its time, our time, any time: the text and its authorship; Jacobean contexts; witches, magic, the supernatural; the play’s history on stage and screen; adaptations and appropriations.” The topic was broad enough to admit the kitchen sink; indeed, one paper discussed food and feasting in the play.

Professors were less professional than personal in their papers or participation. Respect for Shakespeare and other scholars was in short supply. One editor attacked the editing of Macbeth by another editor, whose editions of Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s plays are standards in the field, without proposing solutions to the problems. A literary historian exonerated the Catholic equivocator of whom the Porter speaks—a little like trying to resurrect Richard III’s reputation—without showing that or how exposing or correcting contemporary mistakes or Shakespeare’s distortions about a centuries-dead priest has any bearing on the meaning of the play. Nevertheless, these two papers were among the better ones, worth the time to read and discuss. Two papers which invited reconsideration of the play’s genre as satire or romance other professors simply ignored or superciliously dismissed, respectively. Professors shouted down with Shakespearean proof texts the suggestion that Macbeth was a sociopath (more likely, a psychopath). A few other papers ineptly addressed worthwhile subjects. Out of about thirty papers, perhaps six or so had merit.

The discussions in the split sessions were an embarrassment in their inanity. Both soon descended into trivial but earnest exchanges about modern stagings and stage props. For example, was Macbeth’s severed head better carried by its hair or in a bag?—really! None of the professors thus ardently engaged attempted to make clear what these tidbits had to do with the “State of the Play.” Worse was their myopic, if not narcissistic, attempt to rationalize their subjective responses bearing little resemblance to the play on the page or on the stage, at least to any contemporary reader or on any contemporary stage. Thus, they censured most of the last two acts which they regarded as boring, confusing, or inept. They reserved special scorn for the long scene, usually cut by modern directors, between Malcolm and Macduff. They were about complaining, not explaining. In short, so they decided, the play is a failure.

The presumption of this view, which most professors shared and elaborated, is astonishing in its disregard of biographical or historical perspective. It implies that, at the height of his powers, Shakespeare failed to write a competent play. It implies that he failed despite his effort to write one with a special appeal to King James, his court, and his people. It implies that the play discredits one of James’s ancestors and discounts the promise of the ascension of that ancestor at the end. If such were the case, James—not foolish, not ignorant of his family’s or his birth-country’s history, not incompetent as a writer himself—would likely have pitched a royal fit; dressed down Shakespeare and his theater company, The King’s Men, who were his servants; and forbidden future public performances. Nothing of the sort happened.

Beyond these implications are the facts. The play was popular in its day, before James at court and before the public in the Globe Theater. Even removed from its cultural and historical context of Stuart England, it became and has remained popular for centuries in countries throughout the world. This is failure?

To these professors, mostly in their early 30s to mid 40s, self-centered and self-convinced, apparently so. Isolated from the historical realities of their subject, they chose not to interrogate their responses to, or views of, the play. Intolerant of dissent and disrespectful of dissenters, they deterred discussion with those not committed to their positions or approaches. They preferred to defy the facts, defy the inferences, and defy the judgment of millions, including Shakespeare scholars, over hundreds of years.

What distinguishes some Shakespeare professors from most Tea Partiers? The answer appears to be: little or nothing. What some Shakespeare professors do with Shakespeare and to scholarship is what most Tea Partiers do with the Constitution and to democracy. Both share in the barbarism of disrespect to, or destruction, of texts, literary or political, and of the institutions which depend on them.

This conclusion should come as no surprise to those who realize that the shift in education from communication to expression has, over the past 40 years, undermined accountability to facts and logic, and underlined feelings and freedom divorced from any standards except self-serving ones. So whether the decline of cogency and civility occurs in cultural or political contexts, it manifests societal decay probably irreversible.


  1. COMMENT Part I

    It is interesting that a passage criticized/scorned by modern Shakespeareans, the conversation by Malcolm and MacDuff in Act IV, is on the nature of kingship. The play is indeed a "royal play", as Henry Paul put it, including discussion of what makes good king -- the sort of thing that the very intelligent bifurcated-yet-unifying King, James VI and I, would appreciate. Some critics (such as Andrew Hadfield), putting these two together, see the conversation as absolutely central to the play, albeit fatally undermining any sustaining ideological purpose in the play that promotes absolutist (even royalist) rhetoric, however: from this POV, we cannot trust Malcolm at all after we hear about his predatory scenarios in the conversation with MacDuff. Hadfield, however, does not credit Malcolm's resounding reassertion of rule at the conclusion as a positive development, as some critics would: is he only another tyrant, same as the old boss? In any case, the conversation, like the witches' vision of the line of kings stretching to the crack of doom, helps turn the play into a larger set-piece of political science in favor of Stuart rule, because about Stuart rule (even if not blindly so).

    This affords further insight on the academy today among those politically hypersensitive to their own factional interests, and yet blind to the significance of that conversation in the play: I wonder if what we see among such Shakespeareans today who choose to complain about the play Macbeth's skill or integrity is a strong discomfort with the idea of royal supremacy: because it's the king's play, the play fails to enthuse us, especially in the last two acts. If this is indeed true, then the critics' own biases demonstrate that the play is about political science in Shakespeare's own time, something they choose to ignore; and if about political science, then it is ultimately about what makes a good (and bad) king. But today we only scorn kings; few have any power; their replacement, the dictator, appears to be a 20th-century relic; so why is the play Macbeth important?

    Well, even outside the politics, including the excitement of military invasion (also a backdrop for Hamlet), the nightmarish visions alone and high-flying rhetoric should sustain us. Who can possibly be unexcited by the rhetoric and imagery of the last two acts? "Out, damn spot"; "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"; "till Birnham Wood come to Dunsinane"; "lay on MacDuff" etc. The play crackles with energy: enjoy the bloody impending chaos, it says to us.

  2. Comment pt 2

    This modern critical myopia, in turn, may be centered on an unconscious anxiety that the center --like the literary canon-- cannot indeed hold given the babel-like plurality of critical approaches: how many heads can a bag hold? If Hays is right here that "social decay [is] probably irreversible", and we are living in a cynical Spenglerian moment among the ruins of... what, exactly? caused by over-diversity of viewpoints and the random babble of an overly pluralistic academy that has led to factions, boredom in variety, disinterest in historical contexts, a self-infatuated trivialization of discourse (including interpretation), and lack of appreciation of aesthetic skill and vigor, such as that amply on display at the SAA, then the incoming solution (worse-case scenario) could be dissolution of the Union (or academy of the humanities) and a new order in its place.

    That could bode well for readings of the play Macbeth in the long-run: once a small authority is established again (in government or the academy), the literary critics who ignore the value of art and politics in Shakespeare's time (not their own) will themselves be ignored as irrelevant, and the play will be better appreciated as a reflection of state (royalist?) ideology. This will happen when the readers of Macbeth feel that they are themselves truly politically useful and can learn something useful from the play, instead of seeing it as cultural left-overs of the old British empire, etc.

    What does this mean as an analogy for the Tea Party? That without a clear political agenda their rebellious fervor will go nowhere, but if they help the center to unwind further, there could be hell to pay in the form of the political order to come when the newly schooled Malcolm takes the stage in Macbeth's footsteps, and creates a line of kings who are interested in royal plays.