Shakespeare and Post-Modernism

Shakespeare need not be abandoned by the postmodern world.Indeed; the postmodern world does and continues to embrace his works wholeheartedly. Hugh Grady rightly observes “we are now witnessing the emergence of a postmodernist Shakespeare through the development of critical paradigms which incorporate aspects of contemporary postmodernist aesthetics”. (p.207) Though, his plays in chaste form do not always agree with post-modern ideologies, they prove conducive to a myriad of discussions relevant to the postmodern era. Under postmodernism, Shakespeare undergoes theorizing, deconstruction, textual criticism, political and cultural criticism and clarifies hitherto undiscovered features which are unraveled by the postmodernist interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays.

When approached in a historical manner, aesthetics provide mediation between Renaissance and the age of post modernity that is not a dismissal of history but a representation or re-interpretation of history.Many social issues of Shakespeare’s plays are still the burning issues in today’s dysfunctional global society. Shakespeare’s plays teach us much about the current postmodern culture and reveal the struggle of the British people both in the early 1600’s and in the late 1900’s with sexism, capitalism and racism.

The postmodernists explore the inter relationship between Shakespeare and 20th contemporary culture by discovering postmodernist themes, tendencies and attitudes within his literary works. The issues of Race constitute one of the most important themes of in postmodern literature which figure prominently in Shakespeare’s plays like Othello, The Tempest, Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus. In both Othello and Merchant of Venice there are several instances in which the nonwhites and non-Christian characters are marginalized and rendered victims of outright racism. The racism laden description of Othello as “the Moor”(1,i,57), “the thick lips” (1,i,66), “an old black ram”(1,i,88) and “a Barbary horse”(1,i,113) associate him with something less than human. In Merchant of Venice Shylock is termed as a ‘misbeliever, cut throat hound” and Antonio has even dared to “spit upon [his] Jewish gabardine”(1,iii,107).

Though Shakespeare inherited an environment of racial tensions and uses racial stereotypes in his plays he often challenges racial attitudes. Though ‘Moors ’were regarded as savage and barbarous, he has presented Othello as mild-mannered and exceptionally ‘civilized’ as a general and aristocrat.Similarly in Merchant of Venice through Shylock’s moving speech: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions ,senses affections, passions…? If you prick us do we not bleed?… If you poison us do we not die?” (III,i,49-55) he seems to be emphasizing his humanity and sameness and pleading for sympathy and understanding. Shakespeare doesn’t attempt to form the idea that the white characters are any better than those who are subject to discrimination.

Shakespeare has often been called ‘sexist’. Though feminism, as we refer to it today was not a concept present in Shakespeare’s times, resemblances of feminist concerns can be found in his plays.Issues like patriarchy, gender and sex role appear again and again in his play.Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is regarded as a sexist play. Much controversy is centered around Petruchio’s actions and intentions of breaking Kate’s spirit like ‘one would break a horse’ and she is ‘tamed’. But many of Shakespeare’s women characters like Cleopatra, Portia, Desdemona and Lady Macbeth are portrayed as very strong and independent women. Even Kate,as Toril Moi observes: “refuses to be selfless ,acts on her own initiative and rejects the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her” (p.57 ). In many ways, she is a very ‘modern woman’-perhaps, one of the first ‘women’s libbers’.

Shakespeare’s lifetime coincided with the consolidation of modern Capitalism and his plays reveal his interest in economics and the economics of time. His Roman-history plays suggest that economic and political systems are not everlasting but only stages in the development of society.The question posed by Shakespeare’s depiction of the decline of feudalism and the fall of Roman civilization is if, late capitalism be succeeded by socialism or barbarism ,by a new Renaissance or a new Dark Age. His plays also offer a critique of the new capitalism by showing the extent to which it can be applied to time. In Henry IV Hal acts as a kind of temporal financier investing time according to sound economic principles in order to redeem it at a high rate of return. In All’s Well That Ends Well Helena teaches the king that the value of time is qualitative rather than quantitative\, thereby transcending capitalism’s assumption that a small amount of time, even if joyful ,cannot be more valuable than a longer time, even if of despair.

Shakespeare’s plays are replete with themes of male –bonding, female friends and homoeroticism which constitute an important aspect of postmodern culture. Bonding between males is conspicuous by its absence in the writings of Renaissance because the structures of patriarchal society had an “obligatory homosexuality” built in the male dominated kinship systems (Sedwick,p.3). But, it is apparent, that that there exists a bond between Adam and Orlando in As You Like It. Orlando’s eagerness to take Adam with him and Adam’s stubbornness to join him hint the possibility of something between them that was hidden in the patriarchal structures of relationship.

The convention of a cross-dressed heroine represented same sex attraction in Shakespeare’s times and his plays abound in such type of characters. In As You Like It Celia and Rosalind’s friendship can be an example of the phenomenon of female friendship.Shannon observes, “The female friendship seems to appear in a specifically social form of female chastity which revises the characteristic masculinity of friendship rhetoric in the period” (p.658). Celia and Rosalind’s relationship appears exceptional to many characters of the play who describe their love as “dearer than the natural bond of sisters” (I,ii,244). Celia’s candid avowal that she “cannot live out of her[Rosalind’s] company” (I,iii,49) goes on to prove that the relationship they shared was much beyond that of friends.

The idea of homoeroticism was quite prevalent in Shakespeare’s writings.There is an evidence of homoeroticism not only in As You Like It and Twelfth Night but in a number of sonnets also.Celia’s speech: “we still have slept together/Rose at an instant ,learned ,eat together/ And went wherever we, like Juno’s swans still we went coupled and inseparable” is so “emotionally and erotically compelling as anything spoken in the hetroerotic moments(Traub,p.257).However, it is difficult to state whether a relationship in Shakespeare is truly erotic or if, it is only the views that our modern society is placing on it.

Postmodernism replaces traditional values with an eclecticism of styles and genres. Shakespeare’s plays, in their eclecticism and in their often violent abuse of generic stabilities of Renaissance literature can be regarded as postmodern even before postmodernism.Shakespeare’s style borrowed from the conventions of the day but adapted the to tailor his own needs.Many of the comedies of Shakespeare like All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure For Measure have a complicated combination of tragedy and humor defying the generic conventions of contemporary times. Clemens rightly says, “Shakespeare combined the two throughout his career, with Romeo and Juliet perhaps, the best example of the mixing of style”(p.63).

Pastiche is an important feature of postmodernism which puts together a plethora of references, allusions copies and altered versions of other texts to create a unique narrative or to comment on situations in post modernity. Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo+ Juliet is a good example of the postmodern pastiche.It documents the illusive and allusive strategies that infuse authorship with life in two historical periods. By employing pastiche as a cinematic device Luhrmann has tried to pay homage to Shakespeare by making him accessible to the street sweeper as well as the Queen of England. Similarly, Tarry Pratchet is noteworthy for his famous pastiche ‘Wyred Sisters’ which was inspired by the plays of Shakespeare particularly Macbeth and Hamlet.

Intertextuality has come to be regarded as “the very trademark of postmodernism…postmodernism and intertextuality are treated as synonymous these days” (Pfister, p.209). But, rightly speaking, intertextuality is much older than postmodernism and most of it’s forms i.e. imitation, parody , travesty ,quotations and allusions existing ever since antiquity.It was the hallmark of Renaissance and Shakespeare is no exception to it. Over the centuries, Shakespeare has been accused of plagiarism on grounds that he pirated phrases, lines and even entire poems. He is charged with plundering the plots of Boccacio, Plutarch, Marlowe and Green also.  The following line from Merchant Of Venice “Love is blind”(II,v,35) has been bodily lifted from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales “Love is blynd” and the title of his play All’s Well That Ends Well (1603-04) has been taken from John Heywood’s proverb “All’s Well That Ends Well”(1546).Likewise ,Shakespeare’s famous description in Antony and Cleopatra of Cleopatra on her royal barge is taken almost verbatim from a translation of Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony.

The postmodernists challenge the distinction between high and low culture and highlight texts which work as hybrid blends of the two. Shakespeare’s plays are an instance of popular culture which is, and always been a blend of both cultures. This blend is perceptible in the speech of Hamlet wherein he juxtaposes the two levels of mankind in “the paragon of animals…yet what is this quintessence of dust” (II, ii, 321-31). Shakespeare introduced ghost on the stage and alluded to popular cultural references in his plays only to meet the demands of popular culture.However, he elevated low culture to high culture and provided some sort of transcendence of ordinary reality to the audience through excellence of expressions and speech patterns. In Marcellus’s famous Christian speech, one can see the low raised high and the folk religion raised in poetic form, yet retaining its earthbound magic:

“Some say that ever’gainst that season comes / wherein our savior’s birth is celebrated /the birds of dawning singeth all night along/ …So hallowed and so gracious is that time” (I,ii,166-70)

Postmodernism is characterized with a liking for aleatory forms which incorporate an element of randomness or chance. In Shakespeare’s plays, what runs through all randomness is the power and design of Providence. Macbeth vouches that randomness simply doesn’t exist.All that exists is the operation of Divine Justice which may be sometimes abrupt and direct and sometimes devious and slow. Therefore, “if chance will have me king / Why chance may crown me” (I, iii, 48).Over and over in Hamlet, chance turns into a larger design and randomness becomes retribution. Polonius hides behind the arras so as to enable himself to explain everything and is silenced forever “Thou findst to be too busy in some danger” (IV, iv, 33). Similarly, in the end , it is not from Hamlet’s rapier that Claudius dies: “O yet defend me friends I am but hurt”(V, ii ,316 ) but from the poisoned cup he has himself prepared and that he has just tried to have passed to Hamlet : “He is justly served/ It is the poison tempered by himself” (V, ii, 299).

Stephen Greenblatt argues that the literature of Renaissance prefigures the postmodernist concern with the indeterminacy and relativism of truth. Post moderns have come to believe that mankind cannot find absolute truth and have given up the search for it, resulting in indefiniteness or inconclusiveness. Shakespeare’s plays dramatize the indeterminacy of mankind with rare felicity. For instance, Hamlet is regarded as insane by his friends and family. The play’s audience is asked to consider whether he is crazy or just pretending and Shakespeare, finally leads to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter much. Hamlet seems to be insane and in the moral universe, appearance and reality have become indistinguishable. In fact, his insanity is defined by his inability to distinguish between reality and appearance as in his rebuke to his mother: “Seems, Madam! Nay seems it is \ I know not” (I, ii, 77)

The postmodernist paradigm which provides for the collapse of binary opposites into new fusions is exemplified at its best in Forizel’s paean of love in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and in ‘Macbeth’, the witches prophesy the collapse of binary oppositions by telling of a world where “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (I , ii ,10).Instead of the modernist quest for me in a chaotic world , the postmodern authors eschew the possibility of meaning.Many famous lines in the Shakespeare canon like ‘To be or not to be’ ( Hamlet,III,i,55)or ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’(Macbeth,V,v,26-28) seem to refer to the fragility and emptiness imbued in life.

Shakespeare has not become obsolete in the postmodern age; rather he continues to thrive still by way of a growing number of Shakespearean troupes and festivals, the reconstruction of the Globe theatre, websites, stage productions and films. Shakespeare’s physical image, a familiar and iconic image on consumer objects from credit cards to souvenir mugs doesn’t have a single authentic original. Indeed, Shakespeare has already become postmodern: a simulacrum, a replicant, a montage, a collection of found objects repurposed as art.

1 Clemen, Wolfgang, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Art: Collected Essays, New York, Routledge, 2005
2 Grady, Hugh, Modernity, Modernism and Postmodernism in the Twentieth Century’s Shakespeare, New York: Routledge, 2001
3 Moi, Toril, Sexual, Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory: New York, Routledge, 1984
4 Pfister, Manfred, How Postmodern Is Intertextuality? ed.Henrich F Plett, Berlin/ New York: de Gruyter, 1991
5 Sedgwick, Eve, Between Men: English Literature andMale Homo Social Desire, NewYork, Columbia University Press, 1985
6 Shannon, Laurie, Emilia’s Argument: Friendship and Human Title in the Two Noble Kinsmen ELH64.3, 1997
7 Shakespeare, William, AsYou Like It, ed.Juliet Dusinberre, London, 2006
8 Shakespeare, William, York Notes on Hamlet, Longman, 2005
9 Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, ed.Sylvan Barnet, New York: Signet NAL, 1963
10 Shakespeare, William, Merchant of Venice, ed.W.G.Clarke, Cambridge, 1987
11 Shakespeare, William, Othello, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 2009
12 Traub, Valerie, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England, A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 7.2, 2001

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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