In an era of talk shows and citizen journalism and ‘round-the-clock updates of the “truth”, the matter of belief becomes a problem. Engaged in a mutual program of open, constant therapy, we talk ourselves into the illusion that we have no secrets. How could we when we talk about everything? With Oprah and with strangers and on the internet?! But, our most terrible secret is the one that has arisen in the unacknowledged dark of this false psychotherapy and that is: in believing that we know everything, we can now believe in nothing. Except, of course, our chattering selves.
This emerging loss of belief — and we don’t really believe our selves and the falsely therapeutic shit that comes out of our mouths at speed — makes us crazy and we look for it everywhere. Western culture has never been so full of cults and conspiracy theories and “philosophical” diets like Paleo which claim to solve our modern distress with recovered ancient wisdom. Some of us look for a return to the idea of universal truth in art and this, in part, is why Shakespeare has survived for centuries.
Shakespeare was, of course, very good and we can still take authentic pleasure in his filth, his wit and his durable rhythms. But, his works can claim to give us no universal truth; other than those aesthetic ones he himself created. This doesn’t stop everyone, from directors to feminist scholars to earnest teachers of English, making the claim that Shakespeare is universal.
Like everyone, Shakespeare came to us within a sociohistoric context. Talent is not sufficient to deliver anyone from their time and it will not deliver access to those “fundamental” truths we have deluded ourselves we no longer need but chase with unprecedented passion. Still. People go on about how Macbeth is eternal and no fewer than 50 film directors have sought to prove this on screen; perhaps least notably, Australian Geoffrey Wright whose 2005 casting of the witches as sexy schoolgirls show us how a desperation to believe in a noble truth from outside ourselves — in this case, Shakespeare — accidentally reveals an obscene truth from inside ourselves. I.e. I think sexy schoolgirls have mystical powers.
Thomas Bowdler, now rightly reviled as a silly censor, was really just doing the same accidental strip-tease with his famous Family Shakespeare where he turned Ophelia from a vessel for suicidal feminine shame into someone who accidentally fell into a river. Shakespeare was not around to complain but, when his famous work Death of A Salesman was revived for a 50th anniversary production, Arthur Miller was and he did not hesitate to express his revulsion for the director, Robert Falls, who had made Willy Loman into a diagnosed depressive. ”Willy Loman is not a depressive,” Miller said. ”He is weighed down by life. There are social reasons for why he is where he is.”
Falls had, in one sense, performed a reverse Bowldlerisation. Whereas Bowlder had made Ophelia emotionally functional, Falls had given Loman dysfunction. But, they were both “freeing” characters from their sociohistoric moorings in order to say something “universal”.
As Miller said before he died, Salesman was a document of a time. Loman is worn down by social expectation and labour just as Ophelia was extinguished by the impossible idea of the feminine. To suppose that either of these texts can offer us a universal truth about the human condition outside the circumstances of their creation is hooey.
In offering “trigger warnings”, as some English departments in American colleges now do, or in “modernising” Shakespeare as many directors are compelled to — if I had my way, every production of Shakespeare would be performed entirely by men dressed in doublet-and-hose — the contemporary interpreter is at odds with himself. The urge here is to make great works available and palatable to a more diverse audience and to agree, at a very basic and flawed level, that the human experience is social and historic and is not universal. But, to achieve this by taking the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn or, as is often the case, the anti-Semitism out of Merchant of Venice, seems a bit upside-down. Of course, in the case of these two texts, there is an argument to be made that the authors were decrying and were not endorsing racism but even, and especially, if they were not, why spare Twain or Shakespeare the trouble of being seen as racists?
It is easy to understand the urge of professors to seduce their students from detachment with literature. But, it is not so easy to understand how a discussion of Merchant or Finn would be possible without addressing the racism that informs not only these texts by the eras in which they were produced. Universalising the human condition could itself be seen as the foundation of racism. By the Bowdlerisation of these texts, and former Globe theatre director Mark Rylance has admitted to taking the anti-Semitic references out of Merchant, we permit the idea of the “universal” Shakespeare.
Our era of self-examination leads us to hide our history. We feel we have addressed racism, sexism and other grave ills by redacting them from Shakespeare and other texts. And this approach to “universal” art that exceeds time and social conditions is as good as giving Willy Loman the keys to the car.