Saturday, February 21, 2009

We Read Books

I've been slacking lately. Lots of work travel is at fault, but so is a recent extracurricular . . . er, curriculum.

Jeff Goldstein's inimitable blog, Protein Wisdom, deals frequently in language, semiotics and the politics of meaning. Jeff's key thematic contribution to contemporary political discourse is his robust defense of intentionalism -- the notion that in faithfully interpreting text (or art), the primary goal should be to determine the writer's (or artist's) intent. This is an important principle in a society that has unfortunately come to embrace the opposite approach; modern (or post-modern) academics have become infatuated with deconstructionism, the upshot of which is that contemporary audiences are encouraged to graft their own meanings (or simply emotional responses) onto the works of others and to judge those works according to the sensibilities of the percipient, subverting the intent of the creator, and defying any notion that expression can have "true" meaning.

Hence, the Constitution confers whatever rights modern readers choose to find in it, innocent works of art become "racist" when observed by those predisposed to manufactured grievance, and everything becomes, as they say, relative.

But setting modern political argumentation aside, Jeff also enlightens his readers with his formidable background in literature. And one of his regular co-bloggers, Dan Collins, has taken that effort to another level. Recently Dan invited PW readers to join him in a guided study of Shakespeare's writing, with an emphasis on how the Bard's use of language reveals truths -- or if not truths, then at least motivations -- somewhat removed from the literal action of his plays and even purposefully obscured from the surface of the text in the scripts.

The starting point in our little academic journey was a book I commend to all: James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Shapiro, a literary and cultural historian at Columbia University, takes a slice of Elizabethan England's history and fashions a vivid, page-turning exploration of the world in which Shakespeare lived and worked, and how facets of that world likely influenced what and how he wrote.

Drawing on such "current events" as England's struggles to put down an Irish rebellion, an anticipated attack by Spain on England's shores, and the cultural ramifications of transforming a Catholic society into a Protestant one, Shapiro illuminates how pressures and trends of the age manifested themselves in the plays Shakespeare penned that year, including Henry V, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It.

It's a remarkably accessible work, given its subject matter, and designed for casual readers as much as for scholars; indeed -- despite not having read any Shakespeare since college, nor having been particularly interested in his work even then -- I scarcely could put it down.

If this sort of thing interests you, Dan's online course may as well. You can find him at Protein Wisdom. Drop him a line (vermontaigne [at] gmail.com) and join us.

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