On Being a Tourist In Shakespeare

Posted By on September 3, 2012

Self portrait of the author as tourist not dressed well for 12th Night.

Readers of this blog will already know that I have few kind words in defense of an approach to Shakespearean studies that has formally outlawed any realistic inquiry into his character and personality, as they are blended in the work and the biography in such studies as Mark K. Anderson’s Shakespeare By Another Name (To mention only one of several recent and excellent books that do this in all kinds of ways, including of course Richard Roe’s Shakespeare Guide to Italy).

But during my summer vacation I happened upon a new analogy for understanding what is wrong with Shakespearean studies these days. It is easy to be a tourist somewhere.

And its easy to be a tourist in Shakespeare. Believe me, when I come to a play like Troilus and Cressida, I think maybe I actually prefer to remain a tourist. While in Ashland in August I happened to take in the fabulous Ashland-Shakespeare Co.’s production of that play, set in a critical gesture in Iraq but yet not to my sensibilities sacrificing a jot while faithfully “playing the play” as written.  Such a performance is always a pleasure. And yet,  from a literary point of view, to really understand what that play is supposed to be doing, according to some model of an original conception that must have guided the writer’s imagination, is daunting to say the least.

To a greater or lesser extent much of Shakespeare is daunting. He is probably the most feared as well as most celebrated writer in English literary studies.  His obscurities are only partially enlightened by the work of orthodox Shakespearean scholars. They, too, are like tourists in a strange land. True, they are credentialed, they have read the plays, presumably discussed them in seminar, and now teach and edit them.  But the truth is that, to a greater or lesser extent (and I include myself even as in the comment above about Troilus), they’re still tourists.

Being a tourist in a city like Venice or London (and many others) is fun because you can take in the spectacle of where you are, let some of the human differences you encounter get “under your skin,” but then hop on a plane and return home to all your old problems.

Only tourists  (to overgeneralize just a bit) can do that.

Look, when Ben Jonson got together with the Montgomeries and the Pembrokes this was a hush deal. For the uniniated, these were respectively the daughter and son in law of Edward de Vere, and the older brother of that son-in-law, who had himself almost married a second Vere daughter. The patronized the 1623 Shakespeare folio, which is prominently dedicated to that patronage — are we starting to get the picture here? They knew what they wanted, and they got it — a Shakespeare that had been shot into outer space under the label “universal.”

Gosh, why would they have done that?

If I had to take a wild guess it would be  conceivable they’d do it because the “localization” of Shakespeare implicitly evoked a whole series of scandals involving a number of very high ranking Elizabethan figures, among them Principle Secretary Cecil (the most influential man in Elizabethan England for forty years), his unpopular son Robert,  Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton (who gets quite a roasting as Malvolio in 12th Night), the powerful conniver Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester,  and the national hero Sir Philip Sidney (who is fondly known in Illyria as Sir Andrew Aguecheek).

This is what the lay of land begins to reveal if we go beyond being tourists in Shakespeare. Sure, we get the universal part. Please don’t lecture at us about that. But we also get the particular part, we get to really experience Venice or Illyria as cultural hybrids sometimes populated by their Elizabethan counterparts.  The allegory is a sweet one, and more deeply etches in the mind the characterizations, symbolism and plots of the plays.  I would even think that innovative film-makers can, after Anonymous, sense the possibilities.  The Shakespearean plays are still a gold mine of wisdom and dramatic art, all given at the same time.

All of which brings to mind that I wanted to mention the performance currently running on the San Francisco waterfront, of We Players, in association with the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at Hyde Street Pier, production of 12th Night (Or What You Will). Attendees should be sure to bring warm clothing. It gets cold along the Waterfront this time of year.

Also, don’t go if you aren’t prepared to walk around with the actors as the story unfolds, and my hunch is, based on sleight experience, do go if you are.

Signing off from West Baltimore. Cheers.


About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


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