Civilized savages

After a survey of the exotica on display in fairs in the 18th-19th centuries, Stallybrass and White conclude that the fairs do not, as Bakhtin argued, enact a grotesque inversion of civilized hierarchies, but instead reinforce those very hierarchies. Two passages are particularly important: . . . . Continue Reading »

Smokin’ like a Christian

English fairs in earlier centuries displayed wares and displays from all over the world. At one there was an animal described as “a noble creature, which much resembled a Wild Hairy man” whose main skill was to doff his hat and show “his respects to the Company, and smoaks a Pipe . . . . Continue Reading »

The Moral of Henry V

Much of the moral and political import of Shakespeare’s Henry V is left to the audience’s or reader’s judgment. Is Henry a “pig” or is he the mirror of Christian kings? Is his invasion of France fair or foul? Shakespeare doesn’t show his hand, or not much; and . . . . Continue Reading »

The climax of Coriolanus

George Barnam notes the careful structure of Act 5 of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “Shakespeare had used this scene structurally to build the tension toward the climactic moment when Volumnia should appeal to her son and prevail. Three appeals are made to Marcius, and Shakespeare’s . . . . Continue Reading »

Sports and the sacred

A reader wrote to respond to my suggestion that high culture is “sacred” and pop culture “profane,” citing the example of sports. Here’s my response: A football game often is a quasi-religious experience, but I’m not sure we use the same language to describe it. . . . . Continue Reading »

Desacralized drama

In their “cultural history” of English drama, Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack summarize the argument of Glynne Wickham concerning the divorce of stage and sacred: “The English stage - so the argument runs - was predominantly a religious one until Elizabethan Protestantism forced a . . . . Continue Reading »

Civil war and criticism

As Marsden describes it, the growth of neoclassical literary sensibilities developed in part in reaction to the chaos and disorder of the English civil war - following in this regard the development of late 17th century political theory. Orderliness, definiteness, clarity became virtues, while . . . . Continue Reading »

From performance to text

Marsden again: “The rise and fall of the adaptations . . . represents a pivotal moment in literary and cultural history, testifying to the new focus on language which would soon infiltrate all aspects of eighteenth-century thought. When concern for Shakespeare as text replaces emphasis on . . . . Continue Reading »

Individualization of the author

Foucault argued in his essay on the development of the “author-function” that the modern conception of authorship evolved as authors came to be figured as sacred figures, holders of legal ownership of texts and words, which in turn conveyed “privilege or sanctity” to the . . . . Continue Reading »

Sacred culture

In a study of adaptations of Shakespeare in the 17th and 18th century, Jean Marsden argues that there was an inversion in the approach to Shakespeare sometime in the 18th century. Prior to that time, Shakespeare’s words were changed and modified, while the contexts of his plays remained the . . . . Continue Reading »