William Shakespeare: Cannibalized and Cannibalizer
Shakespeare was malleable in every way aesthetically and ethically.
Stephen Jay Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve; The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning.
Greenblatt is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, has edited seven collections of criticism, and is a founding editor of the journal Representations. His honors include the 2016 Holberg Prize from the Norwegian Parliament, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award for The Swerve, MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize (twice), Harvard University’s Cabot Fellowship, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley.
Among his named lecture series are the Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt, the University Lectures at Princeton, and the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, and he has held visiting professorships at universities in Beijing, Kyoto, London, Paris, Florence, Torino, Trieste, and Bologna, as well as the Renaissance residency at the American Academy in Rome. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and a long-term fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. He has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Philosophical Society.
There are two reasons that I can think of immediately for why Shakespeare is extremely malleable, not just malleable as an ideological tool, but malleable in every way aesthetically and ethically. The first is that he wanted it that way. He seems to have understood very, very early on in his career that it was in his interest commercially for one thing, maybe for more than commercial reasons, to make his texts open and assessable to change.
Not everyone thought so. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, tried to make sure that everyone performed things exactly as he wrote them and he resented the idea of performance. But Shakespeare seems to have grasped early on that his own survival in every sense depended on opening himself up to being cannibalized, just as he cannibalized other people.
The plays were transformed, re-imagined and remetabolized. Many of them are too long for performance in an ordinary afternoon in London so they were met to be cut, almost certainly. But the plays are also open in lots of other ways. And they have titles like “As You Like It,” or the sub-title, “Twelfth Night, What you Will” or “Much Ado About Nothing” or simply open names like “Hamlet” that you can push in different directions.
So the first thing to say is that I think that he meant the plays to be quite open and the second thing to say is that he wrote in a fairly ruthlessly censoring culture and he was alert to the fact that if you wanted to address some of the most important issues, not simply local topical issues, but broader issues of human significance in his time, he had to do so in a way that would allow multiple messages.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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