The British Shakespeare Association held its biennial conference, ‘Shakespeare: Text, Power, Authority’, at the University of Stirling from 3 – 6 July, drawing delegates not only from Britain but ‘the great globe itself’; Korea, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Poland, Denmark, France, Canada, USA and the Republic of Ireland. This list is just from the people I personally had the pleasure to meet over the 4-day event.
The first plenary was graced by Margreta de Grazia expounding on ‘Shakespeare’s First Anachronism’. As someone who knows what it is to creep to a lecture like a snail on the way to dusty intellectual death, I seem to have undergone a miraculous transformation and actually found the whole thing quite stimulating. Troilus and Cressida, set during the Trojan Wars, is the Shakespeare play set furthest back in time. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hector compares Paris and Troilus to ‘young men, whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy’. This is the sort of quip that might be made by an Elizabethan master to his boys at the Stratford Grammar school – to take an entirely random example – but is anachronistic in the mouth of Hector speaking 800 years before Aristotle was born. There was a time, apparently, when triumphant scholars leapt on this and brandished it as an example of a glaring error by William Shakespeare, the sort of thing that would have been picked up had he a decent editor. The provincial over-achiever had been found out as not merely having little Latin and less Greek but as evidently unreliable when it came to History as well. In other words, apart from Drama and Poetry (which doesn’t really count) he was quite useless. Scholars have identified numerous other anachronisms in Troilus and throughout the canon to add to this ‘first’ concerning Aristotle. De Gratia, who mesmerised her audience by a certain turn of the head and flashing of teeth and eye as much as by the turn of her argument, is of the view that Shakespeare probably new exactly what he was doing. He was adding spice to the text or added relevance for the benefit of his contemporary audience. And so, De Gratia proposes that anachronisms are better thought of as modernisms. As evidence she cited Golding’s translation of Ovid and Chapman’s Homer, in which, apparently (I haven’t checked) ancient weapons are modernised to cannons etc, even though they recount events many yonks before the invention of gunpowder (even in China). Good point. Actually, Deo Gratia went further, she suggested that we STOP using the term anachronism with it’s connotation of error and use the word modernism instead.
This post is already long enough but I want to tell you about another plenary, this time by Colin Burrow. If Margreta was a brainy butterfly, Colin was a genial wasp and their contributions were almost identical. For Colin the offending word was source, as in narrative and dramatic sources, i.e. texts that Shakespeare data-mined, plagiarised, or was otherwise influenced by in writing his own material. He suggested that we use the term ‘authority’ in place of ‘source’. Whatever. Anachronism/modernism, source/authority, we are talking semantics. The interesting point for me about Colin Burrow’s presentation is that he thinks Shakespeare is very familiar with his Classical sources/authorities. In other words, in company with Margreta de Grazia, he thinks Shakespeare knows exactly what he is doing. The implication is that if we think Shakespeare has made a mistake, we should probably think again. It may be that he is just several steps ahead of us.
No time to tell about Bogdanov, Andrew Murphy, the ‘Tavern Scenes’, and lots of fascinating papers and people, but it was great. Thank-you BSA.