31 October: Damnable Practices?

Damnable Practices, 1619, Pepys collection, via English Broadside Ballad Archive, EBBA 20058.

Google has changed its interface to feature an owl with a witch hat perched on something (dishwasher?), so it’s Halloween, apparently. My wonderful weekly psychology digest included a brilliant gem on why we like being scared – in a safe way. As expected, we learn to manage danger and our responses to it (emotional, cognitive, motor), by seeking out situations of imitation. It’s all a question of preparing for the worst case scenario while not being in the worst case scenario.

The article pointed towards some fascinating knee-jerk responses by our bodies to danger, such as something looking like a spider over-riding inattentional blindness, that is, us not noticing something obvious if we are focussing on something else (that gorilla-basketball experiment). We’ve had to be careful of spiders back in the days, a.k.a. hundreds of thousands of years ago, so it makes sense that the body reacts before consciousness does. Only that spiders and tigers don’t pose real threats to us anymore (at least most of the time, at least in urbanized parts of the world) doesn’t mean our biological warning system changes, particularly considering cities of current sizes are such a recent phenomenon in human history.

The article describes how situations of alternating stress and unstress (trochee, anyone?) develop swift physical responses such as running away when being startled as in peek-a-boo play. We are being made to like those simulations and seek them out in order to prep us. There’s nothing new as such here, but it is worth to keep thinking about the why behind our pleasure for horror.

I’ve been thinking about that in the past couple of days, since I’m teaching Volpone next week, and the tutors of the Renaissance seminar decided to give out a trigger warning for the play, relating to the attempted rape of Celia by Volpone in 3.7. Dubious consent and men trying to persuade reluctant women to sleep with them seemed to be a thread through the set texts as much as humanism and rhetoric were – all thrillingly connected, of course, pedagogy, persuasion, and sex. But reverting to force when words fail really comes home in Volpone. And it’s not easy.

It’s not easy to decide about censuring that scene because it may upset some people, people who have made horrible experiences, or who are particularly sensitive to descriptions of violence.

But then again, how graphic is the description?

Then again, who am I to decide what is graphic and what not?

It’s not easy to explain the choice against censuring. Or maybe it is, but it comes with an acknowledgement that, yes, we as readers and spectators do, somehow or other, like watching a woman in distress. Amend that: watching the representation of a woman in distress. Simulation, imitation, mimesis, again. Katharsis. Tragedy.

I ended up writing to my students about how art, good art, is supposed to include things which we may encounter in life, and which are traumatic, and which we condemn. It does that so that we engage, and condemn, and not ignore. It does that so that we step out of ourselves, and give attention to the plight of someone else, however fictional. Attention, again. Tragedy.

And like a ghost behind all of that the unsettling suggestion that…sweet violence.

For no reason whatsoever.

23 July: ‘This wooden O‘ – The Berlin Globe

Home. I’m home, Berlin, but still going to the Globe. The Berlin Globe. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had our very own Elizabethan theatre, staging open-air shows in a quiet neighbourhood in the north of the city, and in English, too. Well, it’s not really Elizabethan yet. The investor has bought the construction material right off Roland Emmerich after the film Shakespeare author or not film Anonymous (yep, that film), and the space, but is still in the planning-phase, building-wise. I’m excited to see how things are going to look like in the future. As long as I get Shakespeare in English, I’m happy with any kind of theatre.

My mom and I went, and saw Romeo and Juliet, a lively and touching production, largely owing to the portrayal of the young couple. Juliet was a beautifully forward giddy teenager, taking the matter into her own hands. I was intrigued how the role of the Prince morphed into a kind of chorus that was performed by the entire cast, speaking the lines in unison, and holding up strange ragged pieces of metal that fused into a huge Greek-like mask with eyes and mouth. A gem were the teenagers sitting behind me, aged 17 or so. English course, classic. Naturally, the play was too long for them, but they loved the semi-nudity of Romeo and Jules post-wedding night, and they connected wonderfully when Juliet’s parents wanted to kick her out upon refusing to marry Paris. Priceless.

What I didn’t like was changes in the treatment of the text. Romeo and Juliet, as well as Macbeth, Hamlet, and As You Like It, is one of Shakespeare’s plays that I largely know by heart – not that I could spontaneously recite big chunks of it, yet I know it well enough in order to know what’s not in there. And this production has cut passages, perhaps for reasons of time. But why take away Juliet’s gorgeous ‘Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds’? Or Romeo’s first reaction upon seeing Juliet at the party of the Capulets?

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5)

Berlin Romeo collapsed the speech, and simply omitted the Ethiopean reference. I checked the available RJ texts, the Folio and the Quartos of 1597 and 99, and the speech is intact in all of them. So what’s the purpose here? I suspect it’s political correctness. It’s both hard and not hard to argue with this one. The reference is there. Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. Racist and anti-semitic. One might also say, however, that it’s going too far to censor poetry from 400 years ago, and that policing poetical language is essentially misunderstanding literature, equating it with historical documents, and having a strange absolutist world view that knows no cultural and historical relativity. But to offer these objections runs the risk of countenancing racism, and being accused by the especially woke among us who like to point fingers but not to think.

I obviously incline to the latter, believing in humanity’s power to dissociate literature from reality, and to be able to negotiate that which is, with that which is not, but pretends to be. There’s also, perhaps, a difference between an entire play on a group of people, and a local oblique metaphor that encourages interpretation. I feel like retrospective “cleaning” up of stuff that, today, and only today, makes us squirm because we have different sets of beliefs from the past, is a disservice to the cause of being more vigilant and calling out racism. Maybe at the expense of more obvious more life-threatening racism. Such as American prisons, for one.

To erase and make more palatable means also to erase suffering, and change the past with hindsight until it becomes unrecognizable, and we don’t know what was anymore, and what was not. And that’s a task for Big Brother, not the Berlin Globe.