Category Archives: Shakespeare & his world

two degrees of Christopher Marlowe

In The Reckoning (1994), Charles Nicholl carefully investigated the 1593 murder of Christopher Marlowe, arguing that it resulted from a struggle between the rival spy networks of Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux (the 2nd Earl of Essex). It’s a compelling read and a brilliant use of scattered historical records to reveal hidden connections. But The Reckoning predated the current enthusiasm for actually mapping networks and crowd-sourcing the data. Now we have Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, a network map of documented figures from English history, 1500-1700. Using that tool, one can quickly create a map that shows the networks of Christopher Marlowe and Essex, with Raleigh appearing as an intermediary.

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The diagram is by no means complete. For instance, Thomas Kyd is in the database but not linked to his former housemate, Marlowe; and the man who probably stabbed Marlowe, Ingram Frizer, isn’t on the map at all. But that isn’t a criticism, for the organizers ask visitors to add data. How many more stories will come to light as the map grows and historians use it?

(See also the murder of Marlowe and my version of “come with me.”)

“a different Shakespeare from the one I love”

“Kids today don’t appreciate Shakespeare.” That is a tired, perennial complaint. It is not the point that the eminent Shakespearean Stephen Greenblatt makes in “Teaching a Different Shakespeare From the One I Love.” In fact, he admires the way his students approach and use Shakespeare, but he notes two important differences from his own response when he was their age. First, his students are less likely than he was to identify with Shakespeare, to claim his works as part of their inheritance. And second, they are less likely to be moved by the language itself, “touched by the subtle magic of his words.”

Both observations resonate with my own experience. My father was, like Greenblatt, a Jewish-American academic who claimed the English 16th century as his birthright. Dad was perfectly well aware that his ancestors lived in Eastern Europe in Shakespeare’s time and that people like them were banned from–and hated in–England. But if someone had said that Shakespeare wasn’t really my father’s because he belonged to the English (or to gentiles), Dad would have taken those as fighting words. Like Greenblatt, he might have said that the renaissance heritage “was mine as if by birthright, for the simple reason that English was my native tongue. All that I needed to do was to immerse myself in it passionately.” And just as the literature of renaissance England was ours by virtue of our language, so the political heritage of the English revolution (especially its radical wing) was ours because of its influence on the American liberal tradition. In fact, I may have grown up with the shadow of an unspoken idea that Shakespeare and his age belonged most authentically to people like my father, because he had chosen to devote sophisticated critical attention to the texts. Someone with an English name and an English accent who operated an olde tea shoppe in Stratford-on-Avon was, by comparison, an interloper.

Although I recognize huge differences of context and circumstances, I would suggest a rough analogy to the special affection that many African-American Christians feel for the King James’ Version (KJV) of the Bible, which was the other great literary achievement of Shakespeare’s era. As Adelle Banks writes:

The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, an ordained minister and professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, said the KJV’s soaring language can uplift listeners, especially those who have been oppressed.

“It’s a loftiness to the language that I believe appealed to people who are constantly being told, ‘You don’t count. You’re nobody. You’re at the bottom rung of the ladder,'” said Sanders, who has written about black Christians’ use of the KJV. “If I can memorize a verse of Scripture, it gives me a certain sense of dignity.” …

“Although I think young black people are using other translations and finding them useful, we’ll always have a sentimental attachment to King James,” said [Rev. Joseph] Lowery, a retired United Methodist minister who marched with the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

I would add that the KJV echoes throughout the great canon of African American writing, including, of course, the works of Dr. King: “Let justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Cf. Amos 5:24.)

Rev. Lowery notes a generational shift when he observes that “young black people are using other translations.” Greenblatt suggests two causes for the similar shift that he observes: a growing tendency to treat authors as alien if they are not demographically similar to the reader, and a shrinking sense of direct, affective awe in response to written poetry.

In assessing these changes, I would avoid polemic. Everyone can decide for herself whether to identify with–and claim–long-dead authors and how to respond to written words. Greenblatt’s students are responding to Shakespeare in creative ways that enrich the culture. I am not saying they are wrong. But I would offer two suggestions:

First, you can claim Shakespeare as yours if you speak English, whether it is a mother tongue or a second language. That is an authentic choice, even if your religion, gender, race, and national origin are very different from his. When presented with the Bard as a model, one political response is to say, “Shakespeare was an old white Christian man from the colonial power, and I am not.” A different political response is: “Shakespeare’s words are mine as much as yours, and if you deny my right to them, I will challenge you.” The latter is no less radical or potentially subversive. Which response to choose is a complex and personal matter, and I don’t object to either. I just want to suggest that the second option is available to anyone. And it may be the path less taken today.

Second, I worry that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear the power and resonances of very fine written language. Culture is increasingly visual and oral, which expands our capacities in some respects but possibly weakens our ability to absorb the special power of the written word.

We are living at a time of incessant communication. By one estimate, more words were recorded in 2002 alone than in all of human history up through 1999. The increase since then has been exponential. Even the older formats are exploding in scale. About half a million new book titles are published every year in English, whereas about 147 books were licensed annually in England in Shakespeare’s day: a 3,400-fold increase. When communications arrive in a ceaseless deluge, it may require crude and explosive language to capture attention.

One source of literary depth and power is allusion. But in order for an allusion to work, the writer and the reader must know the same referents. An excellent reason to study Shakespeare and the KJV is that they have echoed so pervasively through such diverse texts. There are still millions who can hear those echoes, as others can hear Quranic references in classical Arabic or the Shijing reverberating in modern East Asian verse. But when new text is piped around the world by the terabyte, the chances fall that an audience will recognize any given referent. The most widely shared references are from contemporary mass culture, which tends itself to have thin resonances.

I was pretty absorbed and awestruck when I saw live Shakespeare as a child and as a teenager. The words themselves could bedimm the noontide sun and call forth the mutinous winds. I think that response is less likely today, not because the language has evolved so much further from Elizabethan English, nor because there is anything wrong with today’s kids, but because a child is exposed to a much larger quantity of professionally produced, highly emotional drama: constantly streaming videos of all kinds. A play has much more to compete with.

We also live at a time of manic linguistic invention and expansion, when new words and phrases seem to enter the language daily, often duplicating existing choices and overriding traditional grammatical constraints. (Witness the constant turning of nouns into verbs in business English.) Shakespeare’s time offers certain parallels. The volume of public speech and printed communication was expanding rapidly then as well, and English vocabulary was growing. It is often claimed that Shakespeare personally added 1,500 or 2,000 words to English. Those numbers may be exaggerated because older sources have been lost, and scholars search Shakespeare’s works for alleged coinages without always consulting other surviving texts that might use the same words. But there is no doubt that Shakespeare and his contemporaries shared our predilection for inventing words, mixing sources, bending genres, and breaking all putative grammatical rules.

But they had to expand their language. English wasn’t very old, and it needed a much larger store of words, phrases, and tropes to rival Latin. You can often sense a writer of Shakespeare’s day struggling to convey an idea that now seems very straightforward, just because we have more resources. Today we don’t lack words and phrases, but we struggle to hear the resonances of the ones we have. We turn the noun “impact” into a verb without exploring the possibilities of verbs that have histories, like “affect,” “change,” “influence,” “modify,” “transform” (and many more).

I am not committed to linguistic conservatism as a principle; languages change as a result of wonderful human inventiveness. I agree with Greenblatt that multimedia adaptations and mashups of Shakespeare can be fantastic contributions. Yet we can perhaps profit more than usual by slowing down and hearing the depths of our linguistic inheritance.

[See also “signal” (a poem on this theme) and the political advantages of organized religion, in which I note the political power of “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones” and its roots in the KJV.]

was Montaigne a relativist?

The most interestingly radical form of cultural relativism has three elements, I think:

  1. People’s norms, habits, values, and ways of thinking are pervasively diverse.
  2. The variation is not so much among individuals as among large groups; or (to put it another way) beliefs and values cluster into composites that we call “cultures.”
  3. Since our perceptions and assessments of any culture are shaped by our own, we cannot know or judge objectively.

I do not necessarily share these premises but believe they are essential to the history of thought. Modernism and postmodernism (in all their varieties) are basically responses to these three ideas. I am open to the possibility that cultural relativism was discovered/invented several times in human history–e.g., in India in the 15th century–yet I have long believed that the rise of cultural relativism in Europe around 1800 was epochal; it prompted entirely new ways of thinking that spread with European power around the world.

But what about Montaigne (1533-92)? A case can be made that he was already a thoroughgoing cultural relativist during the Renaissance. Unlike the later figure of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who has also been called a relativist, Montaigne was hardly obscure in his own time. He had a profound and direct influence on thinkers as important as Shakespeare, Bacon, Pascal, and Descartes. Thus I can see three possible theses:

  1. Montaigne was a cultural relativist, and these other figures understood that. They were exposed to cultural relativism far before the modern era and either endorsed it privately or deliberately rejected it–but in either case, it was in their worldview.
  2. The major thinkers whom Montaigne influenced did not understand the idea of cultural relativism. They read the relevant passages in his Essais without seeing their radical implications, as we do.
  3. Montaigne did not conceive of cultural relativism. Neither he nor his early readers understood his writing as relativistic, in the modern sense. Nor should we.

Key passages to consider come from the essays “On Habit” and “On the Cannibals” (translated here by M. A. Screech). In “On Habit,” Montaigne first catalogs many of the bizarre ways in which behaviors and norms vary across history and geography. He lists nations where sons are supposed to beat their fathers, where people grow hair only on the left sides of their bodies, where women are the only warriors, where it is honorable to have as many lovers as possible, and where, over 700 years, no woman ever had sex outside of wedlock because it was unthinkable.

Apparently, Montaigne believes the first premise of cultural relativism that I summarized above–that manners are “infinite in matter and infinite in diversity”:

To sum up, then, the impression I have is that there is nothing that custom may not do and cannot do. … The laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom; since many inwardly venerates the opinions of the manners approved and received about him, he cannot without remorse free himself from them nor apply himself to them without self-approbation.

Further, Montaigne seems to endorse the second principle of cultural relativism, that beliefs and values come together in whole structures that we might (today) call “cultures”:

It is greatly to be doubted whether any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it; for a polity is like a building made of diverse pieces interlocked together, joined in such a way that it is impossible to move one without the whole structure feeling it [emphasis added].

But I am not so sure that Montaigne believes the third premise of true relativism: that our understanding and assessment of cultures are determined by our own cultures. I think he rather argues that proper understanding and evaluation are more difficult than we assume because we are biased in favor of the familiar.

…. But the principal activity of custom is so to seize us and grip us in her claws that it is hardly in our power to struggle free and come back into ourselves, and reason and argue about her ordinances [emphasis added.]

“Hardly in our power” does not mean impossible or undesirable; on the contrary, our main duty is to “struggle free” from custom so that we can “reason and argue” better.

For instance, when Montaigne was disgusted by a French nobleman who blew his nose with his bare hands, he forgot to ask whether that might not actually be a good idea. “I considered that what he said [in his own defense] was not totally unreasonable, but habit had prevented me from noticing just that strangeness [about our own habits, such a blowing our noses into cloths] which we find hideous in similar customs in another country.”

In “On the cannibals” the main point is that we recoil at eating human flesh because it is not our custom, but we ignore the closer-to-hand horrors of torturing people on account of their religious faith. If we paid more attention to the strangeness and indefensibility of our own nation’s norms, we would discover the greatest (and most objective or universal) virtues, which include gentleness and tolerance. As Montaigne writes in “On Habit”:

The Barbarians are in no wise more of a wonder to us than we are to them, nor with better reason–as anyone would admit if, after running through examples from the New World, he concentrated on his own and then with good sense compared them. Human reason is a dye spread more or less equally through all the opinions and all the manners of us humans, which are infinite in matter and infinite in diversity [emphasis added].

Thus Montaigne is not skeptical about our duty–or our ultimate ability–to understand and judge the diverse ideals of human beings. He just thinks that this is harder than we assume. He is trying to shake our naivety in order to improve our reasoning, much like the Hellenistic philosophers when they taught paradoxes of logic and perception in order to strengthen our intellectual discipline and dissuade us from arrogance.

If this is not only what Montaigne meant, but also how his first readers understood him, then they did not derive cultural relativism from his texts. Instead, they drew conclusions reminiscent of Epicurean philosophy: it is hard to know what is right, foolish to set oneself above other people, and wise to focus on the inner life.

One more problem arises. If we detach ourselves as much as possible from our own local customs in order to attain objectivity, won’t we become critical of “traditional law” and then damage society by striving to undermine its norms? The solution to that problem is to live a contemplative and not an active life, to withdraw to one’s chateau and write introspective essais instead of trying to influence the world. For …

it is his soul that the wise man should withdraw from the crowd, maintaining its power and freedom to freely to make judgements, whilst externally accepting all received forms and fashions.

I conclude that Montaigne was not quite a relativist, nor was anyone for another century after him. Because he shunned politics, he was not the most helpful guide to the design of societies; but he was an excellent theorist of moderation, modesty, and introspection.

is science republican (with a little r)?

First, a puzzle about Sir Francis Bacon, one of the founders of science as we know it. He begins his Advancement of Learning (1605):

To the King. … Wherefore, representing your Majesty many times unto my mind, and beholding you … with the observant eye of duty and admiration, leaving aside the other parts of your virtue and fortune, I have been touched – yea, and possessed – with an extreme wonder at those your virtues and faculties, which the philosophers call intellectual; the largeness of your capacity, the faithfulness of your memory, the swiftness of your apprehension, the penetration of your judgment, and the facility and order of your elocution. …

Yet, just a few pages later, Bacon writes:

Neither is the modern dedication of books and writings, as to patrons, to be commended, for that books (such as are worthy the name of books) ought to have no patrons but truth and reason.  And the ancient custom was to dedicate them only to private and equal friends, or to entitle the books with their names; or if to kings and great persons, it was to some such as the argument of the book was fit and proper for; but these and the like courses may deserve rather reprehension than defence.

Dedicating to the King a book in which you denounce dedications would appear to be a contradiction. Perhaps Bacon thought that the argument of his book was “fit and proper” for James I because it was the monarch’s job to support science; perhaps Bacon thought James uniquely deserving of praise (he certainly said so at great length); perhaps the future Lord Chancellor was just being an oily politician; or–most interestingly–perhaps he was deliberately subverting his monarch’s authority.

In any case, the second quotation raises an important issue. Bacon sees that the institution of science must not acknowledge or incorporate arbitrary power. A scientist must not be told: “Believe this because I tell you to.” A scientist must be asked to believe in a purported truth for reasons that she or he can freely accept.

Freedom from arbitrary power is not democracy. Although I see the appeal of writers like John Dewey who would expand “democracy” far beyond voting and majority rule, I prefer to reserve the word for institutions in which people make binding decisions on the basis of equality. Political equality is different from freedom, and it is not applicable in science. Bacon famously opposes democracy (“The Idols of the Marketplace”) as a guide to truth. In The New Organon, XCI, he writes that scientific progress “has not even the advantage of popular applause.  For it is a greater matter than the generality of men can take in, and is apt to be overwhelmed and extinguished by the gales of popular opinions.”

Yet freedom from arbitrary power is essential to republicanism, as Phillip Pettit and others understand that tradition. A republic is a political order in which no one can simply say, “This is how it will be,” without giving reasons. Even a democratic and liberal society like Canada or Australia is not perfectly republican because the Queen, although almost completely stripped of power, holds her office and takes ceremonial actions without giving reasons–because of who she is. In a republic, no one may do that.

Bacon is republican about science in that way. It should have “no patrons but truth and reason”; relationships among scientists should be like those of “equal friends.” He is also republican in a second sense. A republic is a res publica, a “public thing,” better translated as the common good or the commonwealth. Republican virtue means devotion to the res publica. Knowledge is a public good if we give it away. This, of course, is a deeply Baconian theme, for scientists must “give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men.”

the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)

Shrinking enrollments and subsidies lend the humanities an air of crisis. Several states are considering cutting public support for majors that do not lead directly to jobs. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory discussed that idea on the radio with former NEH director Bill Bennett, who himself holds a philosophy PhD. During the conversation, Bennett “made a joke about gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. ‘If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it … But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.’” Although gender studies includes a lot of social science, the other departments that would suffer the most from cuts would likely be in the humanities.

This moment is particularly difficult, but the debate about the public value of the humanities is a perennial one. The word “humanist” derives from the informal name for a new kind of tutor who emerged during the Renaissance. Medieval universities had offered a curriculum that strongly emphasized abstract, theoretical, and technical subjects—above all, philosophy and theology. The main purpose was to prepare senior churchmen. Young men interested in secular, public roles—as courtiers (in monarchies) or office-holders (in republics)—sought a different kind of education that was more practical, concrete, and likely to make them persuasive in public. They attended universities and paid private “humanists” to tutor them on the side, or else they simply studied with humanists, whose curricula began to influence the grammar schools and then the universities of Europe.

The original purpose of the humanities, in short, was to prepare young men to be effective public speakers and to have secular public virtues. The mainstay of humanistic education was the study of narrative, both historical and fictional. Humanists also taught philosophy, but they shifted the focus from abstract arguments to characters like Socrates and the literary form of works by authors like Plato, Seneca, Erasmus, and Montaigne.

Shakespeare received a humanistic education in his grammar school, and he nicely summarizes its goals at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew. Young Lucentio hopes to “deck his fortune with his virtuous deeds”—and to accomplish that, he needs an education. He sets off for the great medieval university of Padua–the first university in all of Europe–where he plans to “plunge … in the deep” by studying philosophy. The form of philosophy that he would encounter at Padua would be scholasticism, the impressively developed and refined offshoot of Aristotle’s thought. He is rather like a young person today who wants to study economics: a difficult, highly technical discipline that promises professional career opportunities and that pretends to explain important general questions. Lucentio’s servant (and perhaps his tutor) Tranio politely suggests that he should mix that diet with some literature and rhetoric:

Mi perdonato, gentle master mine,
I am in all affected as yourself;
Glad that you thus continue your resolve
To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.
Only, good master, while we do admire
This virtue and this moral discipline,
Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray;
Or so devote to Aristotle’s cheques
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured:
Balk logic with acquaintance that you have
And practise rhetoric in your common talk … (I.i)

Although the humanities originated as preparation for public life and “common talk,” in the century after Shakespeare, humanistic scholars became increasingly sophisticated about the texts they taught and the historical contexts in which those texts originated. The original idea was to inspire young men with the examples of heroes from the classical past. But the more that humanistic scholars understood classical civilization, the more remote, complex, and varied it appeared. They pursued the truth with the most sophisticated available research tools, treating their impact on students as secondary. The Battle of the Books that broke out in England around 1700 appeared to be a humorous debate between the “wits” and the “pedants,” but in part it was a conflict between amateur enthusiasts of classical texts and professional classicists. Insofar as the amateur enthusiasts—the “wits”—made a serious case for their side, they argued that the humanities should support public life. The pedants retorted that the amateurs did not really understand the texts they appreciated. (I draw this example and much of my argument from the work of my father, Joseph M. Levine.)

The debate about the public role of the humanities has never been resolved, and perhaps never will be, because there is enduring merit in both sides. But as long as we expect the public to fund the humanities with their taxes, it will be essential to make a persuasive case to voters. That case must somehow honor both rigor and relevance, both scholarly excellence and some kind of “common talk.”

[References: Kevin Kiley, Another Liberal Arts Critic, Inside Hiigher Ed, Jan 30, 2013; Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). See also “Joseph M. Levine,” “the future of classics,” “humanistic versus technical philosophy,” and “the place of social impact in a university.”]