Last night a few Oberons trekked across Michigan to attend Stephen Greenblatt’s lecture on “Cultural Mobility: The Strange Case of Shakespeare’s Cardenio” in the L.V. Eberhard Center at Grand Valley State University in downtown Grand Rapids.
Greenblatt, who is a professor of humanities at Harvard, is the GVSU’s Distinguished Academic Lecturer for their Fall Arts Celebration which includes the fifteenth anniversary season of the Grand Valley Shakespeare Festival. This year the festival offering is A Midsummer Night’s Dream ballywood-style at 7:30 p.m. Sept 26, 27, Oct. 2, 3, 4 and matinees at 2 p.m. Sept 27, 28, Oct 4, 5 at the Louis Armstrong Theatre Performing Arts Center on the GVSU Allendale campus.
Greenblatt is, famously, the author of numerous critical works on the Shakespeare oeuvre, most recently his 2004 $1-million baby -- Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. He is known for his development of a theory called “new historicism” which as near as I can figure says that writers are products of their culture. He is also notorious for his comment that those who doubt the legitimacy of the Stratford man’s authority over the works of William Shakespeare are akin to those who doubt the reality of the Holocaust that he later repudiated.
I went to see if he had horns and a tail, but he was neatly dressed in a gray suit with gray tie and white shirt – neat, lithe and dapper with closely clipped hair. He is a good looking man with a well modulated voice, who spoke with some hesitance especially during the brief question period.
The audience consisted of about 200 people, mostly students and a few older folk – supporters of the arts celebration – one of whom snoozed comfortably in the second row.
The whole issue of Cardenio is too convoluted to explain – really, it’s totally insane. Apparently there was a play by Fletcher and Shakespeare entered in the stationer’s register in 1612 that was based on a story in Don Quixote. What Greenblatt spoke about was his and Charles Mee’s version of the quasi-play and the Japanese, Croation, and Spanish iterations. Greenblatt and Mee’s Cardenio debuted in May at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.
Greenblatt said Cardenio was headed for Broadway and that a famous actress agreed to play the part of “bitch” Doris but only if she could marry one of the principals at the end. When he and Mee declined to change, the Broadway deal fell through.
In his commentary, Greenblatt repeatedly referred to Shakespeare as a thief of material, but neglected to mention which public library the writer preferred.
“Shakespeare’s imagination worked by theft. He clearly preferred picking up pieces ready-made. He seemed open to the idea of ceaseless change," Greenblatt said.
“The first thing that was said about Shakespeare is that he was a thief . . .,” Greenblatt said referring to Greene’s ‘upstart crow beautified with our feathers’ comment as if it referred to Shakespeare when, in fact, only an un-named “shake-scene” is mentioned.
The lecture was very hard to follow because much of the discussion was about the synopsis of the play and its iterations. Also I found Greenblatt’s style lacking in succinctness – finding the point of his commentary was difficult for me.
Greenblatt-isms I found particularly perplexing:
“ . . . peculiar irony of cultural mobility”
“The natives find themselves both stymied and colonized by what their past has bequeathed them.”
The university went all out for Greenblatt, hosting a gourmet dinner in a beautiful lounge overlooking the Grand River before the lecture. After Greenblatt spoke, a fruit and cheese buffet with chocolate-dipped strawberries, tiny fruit tarts, and mousse piped into individual spoons was served to all attendees.
Of course we stayed!