When you read a history play you are confronted with a problem. Should you think of the play as a representation of the Classical World and seek authenticity there? Or should you think of the play as a representation of Shakespeare’s World and seek authenticity there?
Shakespeare could not avoid writing in the time and culture that surrounded him. There is no divine revelation, no dove coming down from on high with inspired words. Threads of understandings have their own genealogies and histories. What he understood about the Classical World comes from deep reading of a few selected texts. As Jonathan Bate says in the video below, Shakespeare did not read widely but he did read deeply.
I am an anti-authoritarian reader. Reading does not make any sense to me unless it is an interaction of your intelligence with the text, even if that text is the Bible or Shakespeare. The question is how to listen to the text sympathetically. Sometimes that means reading around it. Sometimes it means allowing meanings from outside to form a constellation of other meanings around the situation represented in it. One part of the richness of Shakespeare is that the situations and personalities he creates allow for this to happen. That’s why “wisdom from Shakespeare” in soundbites is an absurdity. That’s why you are important as a reader.
If we take this argument forward, we must accept that our own readings are defined by our context. We do not have a better understanding of the Classical World than Shakespeare even though we have more information, texts and images to help form our understandings. We are just as liable to have our perceptions skewed by fantasies and fanciful hero narratives like “Ben Hur” or “Gladiator”. We are just as susceptible to gut responses to aesthetic decisions that change our feel for authenticity. Why was the Classical World more colourful in the age of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor?
There are three levels to our reading: what happened (the history), what was written (the text) and what is around us (our cultural environment). If you are a reader, the process of unpicking these threads and enjoying the reverberations as you pluck them out is the fascination and passion of the exercise. Getting it right is not the issue. If you are a reader you know that you cannot get it right.
Leadership is an excellent vehicle for reading. Shakespeare shows us in the Roman plays that the violence of pre-Republican Rome under Coriolanus obeys different emotional rules to the violence of Republican Rome under Julius Caesar. We can think about where our own sympathies lie. We can roll the complex hub of personalities, occasions and contexts around in our mind’s eye and compare it with situations in our own time and in Shakespeare’s.
Is there a value in this reading? I am not so innocent as to believe that the study of history prevents us repeating the errors of the past, and still less would the study of history plays achieve that. Reading about leadership will not make you a better leader. It may protect you from disappointment and deception. Would that be enough?
Here is Jonathan Bate talking about the Roman plays:
Here he says that Shakespeare did not read widely but he did read deeply.
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