Be advised: like Hamlet, I shall “by indirections find directions out.”
The connection between life and literature is a variable, thus a debatable, one. Life is what it is: everything there is, in all its richness and seeming randomness, without self-evident or even evident meaning. Literature is much less: a cultural artifact of selected and structured materials more or less life-like and given point by the author’s purpose. The scope of literature is only a narrow representation of life, but, as a creation by the better and the best authors, a penetrating interpretation of an important part of life.
Arguably, the world’s greatest author is a dead, white man. I speak, of course, of my man William Shakespeare, but he was not always my man. After my junior and senior high-school teachers required me to read nearly half a dozen of his plays, I graduated in the strong belief that he was a fraud as well as a bore. Today, I love the apocryphal story of the college sophomore who goes to the professor and says as much—to which the professor replies, “young man, you do not judge Shakespeare; Shakespeare judges you.” I might have been, but was not, that student.
Instead, thanks to a college introductory course and to my fear that I could not master even the plots and characters in half of his plays, I immersed myself in them and emerged a convert. I have been a Shakespeare scholar ever since, though scholarship has never been my profession, only my passion. Yet I have published a book, articles, and reviews; delivered papers and lectures; and taught a few classes—almost all on Shakespeare. This week, I retired myself from the public side of my scholarship when I completed a series of four lectures presented under the auspices of NMSU’s Learning in Retirement program and to an audience of upwards of fifty seniors with inquisitive and lively minds.
I made every effort not only to argue for rethinking the genre of Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, plays usually labeled as tragedies, but also to urge that how we determine genre is not unlike how we classify, and respond to, other people. Thus, I put a kind of humanistic politics in play and preached accordingly.
To explain my point, I must explain my thesis, unusual for being an original one after the better part of 400 years of commentary. The negative side of my thesis is the mistake of labeling a play a tragedy and interpreting it as one because the protagonist dies at the end. After all, though, by convention, protagonists give their names to the plays labeled tragedies, they are only a part, albeit an important part, of the play. There are other parts, and they contribute to the play. Even as foils, they represent something quite different from, and usually better than, what the protagonists, flawed in character or faulty in choice, represent.
The positive side of my thesis is that these plays are better labeled and interpreted as tragic romances, with the tragic protagonists set within a larger frame of meaning. In Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, that frame is the exile and the return of the antagonist who succeeds to his rightful place in the kingdom from which he has been temporarily removed. In Othello, that frame is the protagonist’s obligations as a knight and, more importantly as a Christian, from which he departs in killing his wife.
The point is that the evidence for these views, as one would expect of a dissertation, then a book, on the subject, is in the plays. But literary critics, blinded by their cultural presuppositions and their critical biases, have ignored it. For example, Robert Miola’s Shakespeare’s Reading does not discuss Shakespeare’s reading, or the influence, of chivalric romance, the predominant literary genre of his lifetime, with its appeal to his aristocratic and popular audiences.
The play seemingly least likely to disclose indebtedness to the English chivalric romance tradition is King Lear, long regarded as an unrelieved depiction of universal injustice tantamount to nihilism. Notwithstanding, the play is a carefully crafted compendium of motifs and materials derived from that tradition. Yet English professors everywhere make nothing of his only direct literary quotation, one from a popular chivalric romance; nothing of the single combat in armor between hero and villain which decides the fate of the kingdom; nothing of Lear’s disclosure at the moment before he dies that he was a chivalric knight in his youth; and nothing of the relationship between Lear and Edgar indicated by the use of the word “godson,” unique in his works. This and much other evidence urge that Lear is a tragic protagonist in a world ultimately shaped according to a romance vision of achievable order and justice, though at terrible cost. With no other direct evidence of Christian import in this play, its story of suffering in advance of deliverance still resonates with the romance which is Christianity.
The further point is that labels invariably, but also variably, distort the reality of the thing to which they are applied. If we label King Lear only a tragedy because we focus on the protagonist, we miss the romance because we diminish or disregard his successor. This apparently merely academic point has an all too practical application. Labeling other domains of human experience or kinds of people invariably runs the risks of misrepresenting, especially insidiously distorting, the larger reality of human experience as it is or the richer texture of human beings as they are.
Fit it is here to make a plea for an English literary curriculum which encourages reading about those who differ from us in culture and ethnicity, race and gender, age and history, and much else so that, as we learn how to appreciate characters different from us, we can learn to relate to, and respect, people different from us.
Sad to say, the custom of the trade by English professors is the custom of the country of many Americans. The ignorant or willful denial of facts and logic by the one parallels the ignorant or willful denial of facts and logic by the other. If we are to understand the literature which we read or the lives which we lead, then we must make every effort to see them, not with eyes asquint, but wide; not with minds closed by ideology, but open; and not with hearts shut by bigotry, but welcoming.