Setting the Table
Julia Reinhard Lupton
[introduction to collection of statements for Shakespeare Yearbook, special issue on Shakespeare After 9/11]
Over lunch at a Shakespeare Association of America meeting, Douglas Brooks and Matthew Biberman invited me to host a critical roundtable on the topic of “Shakespeare After 9/11.” Accepting their invitation meant not only entering into an assignment whose parameters I could not grasp in advance, but also delivering those uncertainties to a circle of prospective interlocutors. Any hostess experiences a certain flutter when she sends out her invitations, and her concerns can only increase when the party she’s organizing is one piece of a larger program. Within a few weeks, however, most of my invitations had been accepted, and a few rounds of email established a dress code: entries should be short, informal and topical, yet still focused on substantial scholarly concerns. Footnotes should be minimal, claims should be maximal, and pieces should be oriented towards the public edges of our work: pedagogy, media, reception, and the state of the profession. A temporary webpage allowed for further exchanges while participants pondered their contributions.
In June, 2007, responses began coming in. Some of the pieces take exception in one way or another to the terms of the invitation itself. Christopher Pye writes of the topic Shakespeare after 9/11, “It’s difficult to imagine a call to engagement for Shakespeareans more urgent – unrefusable even – and more perfectly gauged to induce paralysis.” Jonathan Gil Harris insists on the arbitrary character of the notation “9/11” and the temporal tyrannies its global distribution enforces. Scott Newstok and Harry Berger, Jr. warn readers inside and outside academia not to press correspondences between Shakespeare’s world and our own too strongly. And Richard Burt asks provocatively, “Is there a way of thinking about Shakespeare in relation to 9/11 that does not conclude that everything has changed or that nothing (much) has changed?”
Yet in relation to, indeed energized by, their own ambivalent response to the very phrase Shakespeare after 9/11, each participant has generated a distinctive statement. Although the political spectrum is limited to liberal and progressive responses (every hostess knows the difference between a dinner party and a food fight), the depth, learning, and clarity of the interlocutors’ commitments to Shakespeare should establish unequivocally the role that canonical texts can play in the development of ethical, philosophical, and civic frameworks. Taken individually and as a conversation, the contributors aim to unlock potentialities of the republican, liberal, and communitarian discourses embodied by the American tradition, but increasingly mortgaged by it. Visiting the “past” worlds of Shakespeare, who wrote at the rough edges of modern liberalism as well as the uncomfortable cusp of several religious dispensations, can help us imagine pursue a happiness higher than that framed by the official discourse of the war on terror. Thus Christoper Pye asks us to imagine democracy “not as something we suspend even as we export – not as what we possess – but as what irrevocably and from the outset suspends us in a state of reception” (Christopher Pye). And sometimes, as Scott Maisano suggests, such receptiveness entails tuning into the dangers of democracy, as Shakespeare does in Julius Caesar.
Many of the pieces take up temporality itself as a problem raised by the phrase Shakespeare After 9/11. Hugh Grady identifies his project with presentism, the idea that “readings of classic texts reflect the world of the readers who interpret them,” and he goes on to argue that the events of September 11 arise from “a new phase of the dialectic of enlightenment,” an historical process that Shakespeare himself, in Grady’s analysis, helped capture and analyze via such figures as Iago, Hamlet, and Richard III. Scott Newstok argues that Hal’s “reformation,” a phrase that evokes salvational as well as subjective histories, keeps getting remapped onto different moments of George W.’s ever-elusive “maturation.” (Just when will that man grow up and get a life?) Jonathan Gil Harris notes “the religious temporality of the advent” marked by 9/11 numerology, to which he opposes “the untimely” moments in Shakespeare, those uncanny interims of thought and affect that unexpectedly connect epochs through the explosive power of anachronism.
There are many ways to keep time. Topicality is one avenue. Maisano, Newstok, and Berger pursue the vicissitudes of presidential references to Shakespeare in historic and contemporary media. Pedagogy is another. Jane Bellamy and Bryan Reynolds are interested in how teaching Shakespeare might help students learn to listen across the fundamental divides drawn by terror, religion, and war. And biography is a third. Each critic speaks from his or her own situation, and Richard Burt adds further reflection on the role of allusion and anecdote in composing literary lives after 9/11.
In reviewing the wealth of perspectives gathered here, I was surprised that so few of the authors directly address the question, “Why Shakespeare?” I can well envision a volume entitled Teaching Tragedy after 9/11, or Reading the Bible after 9/11, but it’s hard to imagine another single-author study that could begin to carry this weight. Milton after 9/11? Perhaps, since he gave us the sublimely enigmatic figure of Samson Agonistes. See also..Chaucer after 9/11? Maybe. Jane Austen after 9/11? Probably not.
Readers may ultimately deem our efforts here to suffer from pretensions worthy of Polonius, whose “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral” comes to mind whenever critics clear their throats in public. I would suggest, however, that Shakespearean drama invites us to study its unfolding significance insofar as his plays manifest a variety of temporal and ethical structures that continue to mold our thinking, challenge our conceptions, and spur our creativity. The typological rhythms of The Merchant of Venice and Othello help us visualize and verbalize some of the redemptive and demonizing habits of thought that shape expectation and antagonism on both sides of the war on terror. Shakespeare’s plays also discover behind and within those sovereign rhythms other tempos of attention and listening. The quick time of creative anachronism disclosed by Harris is counterpointed by the extended forms of attention, address, and receptiveness that Bellamy, Pye, and Reynolds urge us to cultivate, and that Harry Berger, Jr. performs with such generous virtuosity before our eyes.
Does any other body of work in the English canon (or in any canon) harbor such potentialities? Maybe. But Shakespeare’s plays carry the added momentum of having infiltrated Western and non-Western cultures beyond the efforts of academics and formal schooling. His habitation in the world of performance, his imprint on the languages we speak, his conveyance into the founding tropes of modern philosophy and psychoanalysis, his happy residence in pop culture, Second Life, and the blogosphere: all of these afterlives make Shakespeare’s plays something more than an arbitrary or convenient starting point. His plays are already, to cite Jane Bellamy, “a response that will last”: a conceptualization, as Grady argues, of the powers and risks of instrumental reason; an accidental ingress into the possibility of “a polis open to its own limits” (Pye); a steadfast study of the lies that power tells about itself (Berger); an imaginative sampling of subjective territories (Reynolds); and a mapping of the forms of temporal, sovereign, and human exception exploited with such fervent cynicism by the current administration (Burt).
I know that my own relationship to the scenes of religious plurality composed by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice and Othello has changed as a result of 9/11. The Holocaust remains the governing reference point, the singular catastrophe that draws an epochal “before” and “after” in critical responses to Merchant in particular. New states of emergency on the world stage, however, have also tugged and torn our identifications and sympathies anew. When I first began writing about The Merchant of Venice and the futures of humanism, I aimed to affirm Judaism in its historical particularity, but without giving up on its universal elements, a task to which I have found Jewish philosophy (Levinas, Rosenzweig, and Arendt) more suited than cultural studies. Such an enterprise has, I believe, only become more urgent. My more recent work revisit Shylock’s conversion at the end of the play in terms of the many paradoxes and promises that accompanied the so-called “emancipation” or civic naturalization of the Jews in the European nineteenth century. Perplexed to the extreme by the competing dangers of assimilation and exceptionalism, emancipation initiatives ended with the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which revoked Jewish citizenship in preparation for holocaust.
Yet the failures and inherent limitations of emancipation as a liberal project do not mean that we should, in relation to present circumstances or to past plays, simply dismiss projects of civic integration outright. Their breakdown in France, Holland, Germany and England vis á vis Muslim communities, in Israel in relation to the Palestinians, and in the United States in relation to our own foreign bodies of enemy combatants and undocumented workers, has led to worldwide violence and instability, and to a crisis in liberal democracy as such. The drive to impose democractic forms on other nations keeps leading not only to armed resistance on the part of its supposed beneficiaries, but also to fundamental distortions of liberal democracy at home, as several contributors argue in these pages. We could certainly sketch the conversion of Shylock as an uncanny anticipation of these violations, the coerced character of the citizenship bargain destroying any meaning it might hold for Shylock while deeply compromising the polity that proffers it. Yet rejecting the enterprise of civic integration as such in the name of cultural particularism hardly seems a viable solution. Serious analyses of citizenship paradigms in crisis, as conducted for example by Hannah Arendt’s student Seyla Benhabib for a policy-minded political philosophy, point to the need for more flexible, thorough-going, multilateral citizenship protocols that would encourage integrated schooling, living, labor, and genuine collective self-governance for the world’s new global nation-states. Increased intermarriage, secularization, and assimilation would, as in Merchant, be likely consequences of such civic projects. Benhabib would certainly not take Shylock’s conversion as a model for the New Europe, but she would also not move to romanticize the ghetto, the shtetl, or the jihadist cell. At this moment in history, The Merchant of Venice calls us to read both Judaism and Islam for their contributions to universal conversations, including the conversation called citizenship, rather than to reassert their exits from them.
Each contributor has found ways to address the dazzling particularity of Shakespeare’s texts while tracking the deployment of the plays in contemporary politics and media, in order to disclose deeper patterns of Shakespearean time, thought and feeling. The strange aperture formed by the phrase “after 9/11” brings such patterns into focus, yet also reveals their extension beyond the myopia of its fixed rim.
I would like to extend a special thanks to Scott Newstok, who contributed image research, and much more, in order to help launch an enterprise of some pith and moment.
Please visit our sister roundtable, Voices from the Creative Community.
hosted by Julia Lupton
Contributors to include:
Harry Berger Jr and Scott Newstok
Jonathan Gil Harris
click here to upload and download drafts (contributors only: password-protected)
RELATED MATERIALS: Bryan Reynolds, “Transversal Performance: Shakespace, the September 11 Attacks, and the Critical Future.” From Bryan Reynolds, Performing Transversally: Reimagining Shakespeare and the Critical Future (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Posted permission of Bryan Reynolds. PDF Document
Robert Fisk on Shakespeare and War in The Independent
SAA Roundtable on Military Shakespeare
Stanley Fish on 9-11 and Post-Modernism (pdf) (Copyright Harpers)
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