William Shakespeare: Cannibalized and Cannibalizer

Shakespeare was malleable in every way aesthetically and ethically.

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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