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.