Thursday, July 14, 2005

Shakespeare and the canon

Quasi-intellectualism, she says.

Well, I say it sparks off a damn fine debate! Using Gary Taylor's recent article in the Grauniad as a starting point, she puts forward the case for why Shakespeare IS the most important 16th century dramatist (in much the same way that she understands Nick Hornby's argument that the Beatles dominate the 1960s). She states that, whether we like it or not, Shakespeare dwarfs his contemporaries; that the body of work is just too strong overall to be dismissed even if we say that there were some better plays by other playwrights, that these might be better than some of Shakespeare's works.

This basically takes us into a debate about canons and their uses. Now as someone who often swings in comments on evaluating women as creators, challenging the whiteness of those most prized writers/artists etc. - reconsidering the domination of the DWEMs (Dead White European Males) of canons - a couple of things strike me.

(1) as I know from experience on both sides of the desk, knowing what the canons are, how they have come into being, how they have been evaluated and defended over the centuries is vital. You can't discuss why there might be problems with identifying Shakespeare as the greatest ever writer unless you understand the terms of reference for having identified him as such. (Let's recall he wasn't always or consistently so lauded). You can't discuss questions like "why have there been no great women artists?" [Linda Nochlin] unless you understand the criteria used to identify greatness and how problematic this has made it for women to be considered - except as tokens, exceptionalist (often couched as 'not like a woman').

That also means that you have to know who has been identified as part of the canon.

The chief difficulty comes in how you teach people what the canon is without effectively setting these figures/works as the benchmark by which everything else falls short. That is much less straightforward and 'answers' (such as they have been) have so far filled many, many books).

(2) quality and beauty are very much in the eye of the beholder. Now please don't think I'm saying that these things don't exist. And I'm all for - on a personal level - proclaiming something as being great. But the problem is how and why are we judging things as being great, as having quality or beauty. Our questions and expectations shape whether we can perceive the greatness in something. The circumstances of production, distribution, long-term dissemination and promotion, all play a role in people's perceptions of the quality or something. Sometimes being different, too different, from everything surrounding you, can make it difficult to be appreciated: the language needs reinventing to evaluate it because the old orders of language to describe how quality and beauty may be measured may simply be inadequate.

(I rather feel at this point a sadness that Uncut magazine dropped its "Sacred Cows" column which neatly dissected and provoked some of film and music's identified canon of greats).

Still, rather interestingly, in the end Anna has to admit that Taylor has a point:
Sometimes we concentrate on Shakespeare cos that's easier.
And that's part of the problem. Does familiarity breed or reinforce 'greatness'?

1 comment:

AnnaWaits said...

That's a really interesting reaction to my reaction! Thank you!