Friday, September 26, 2008

Greenblatt in Michigan

Little did I think when Marty H. passed along on Wednesday the heads-up about Stephen Greenblatt at Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids that on Thursday Linda, Richard and I would be motoring our way westward across our beautiful state to the land of Amway to hear one of the most renown literary teachers and critics of our time.

Well, we did, and there we found Mr. Greenblatt and a large lecture hall filled with Grand Valleyites who had come to hear his tale of the cultural mobility of Cardenio. The Cardenio project actually represents quite an undertaking, a grand experiment in cultural differences. It is a variation of the Cardenio text as updated by Greenblatt and a professional playwright Charles Mee (prompting many humorous references to the joint work of Mee and I) which was then sent out to be produced in various countries to compare the cultural differences emerging from the various productions.

Why Cardenio? Greenblatt said that it was important to the experiment to use recognizable literary Shakespeare devices for the purposes of seeing what happens to them in different cultures, but not to take them from well known plays where predispositions and prejudices might get in the way. One also suspects from Mr. Greenblatt's narrative that he thoroughly enjoyed the exercise of rewriting Shakespeare--that is, of BEING Shakespeare -- and of being involved in some of the productions as an actor, a scholarly resource, and a character named— Greenblatt!

Mr. Greenblatt made no mention of authorship issues, but authorship raised its ugly head as it usually does in presentations by the orthodox who try to explain the mysteries of Shakespeare by referring to the Stratford man’s fact-challenged life.

Mr. Greenblatt noted, for example, that Shakespeare certainly was not shy about using other people’s material, often throwing weird combinations into the pot, such as in King Lear in which appears, side by side, sources as disparate as Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir Philip Sidney and folk tales from England’s prehistory. But then came the typical Stratfordian spin that Shakespeare, being wildly successful, needed to find material fast to keep the plays coming to the stage to satisfy the Elizabethan hunger for drama.

None of the spin about Shakespeare is documented, of course, nor does it even come close to explaining the creative process which produced that exquisite body of work, but it was presented as fact to an audience willing to listen to authority, not to mention a good story. There was no thought, for example, that, as Nina Green has suggested, Shakespeare learned to write by employing the classics and other sources in his own creations.

How much more sense does it make to explore the possibility that Shakespeare lived under the same roof as Arthur Golding whose name appears as translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, well recognized as Shakespeare's primary source, and who in fact was Shakespeare's uncle and tutor? How much more sense that Shakespeare may well have participated in Golding's Ovid project as part of his learning and that his own craft resulted from the very process of weaving sources into finished plays because that is how he learned, not because he had to turn out plays for a demanding and impatient audience to earn fame and fortune and to compete with other playwrights?

Mr. Greenblatt also, both during his presentation and afterward in conversation, stressed his amazement with the mystery of why one of Shakespeare’s predominant themes throughout his work had to do with male friendship and betrayal. Well, duh! Or should I say, DUH! One of our favorite pastimes, of course, has been observing such expressions of mystery by the orthodox and musing at how obvious the answers would be to them if they would only open their eyes to what they refuse to acknowledge. But more about that later.

In the mean time, it was good enough to meet this literary titan and to leave with the sense that, yes, he is truly excited by Shakespeare and that, yes, perhaps that is the common ground upon which a dialogue might be built and finally that, yes, perhaps at some future time he might experience a certain cultural mobility in which we might not seem like such Holocaust deniers after all.

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