While many may celebrate the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth this month, one Shakespearean scholar had critiques of the poet and his rise from an earthly English bard to a universal icon.
As part of National Poetry Month, Coppelia Kahn, an English professor from Brown University, explained the “making” of Shakespeare and his legacy to about 50 students and faculty Tuesday evening in the C.W. Bill Young Hall.
“Very little is known about Shakespeare, the man with his own personality,” she said. “Who could be that great? How could he be that great? Why should you give so much admiration to this one writer?”
The Shakespeare that is familiar to most is an idol shaped through the centuries in a collective memory ungrounded in historic fact, Kahn said, but he has become “myth.”
“Rather than interpreting a Shakespearean text, I’ll interpret a cultural text,” she said. “The myth sustains his cultural presence as a timeless figure, even as it perpetuated and changed over time.”
Though tradition and academia has kept the myth alive, Shakespeare was unremarked for over a century after his death.
“Shakespeare did not in his day inspire the mysterious veneration that afterwards came to surround him,” she said.
After Shakespeare’s death, his plays were rarely performed until David Garrick, a prominent actor and publicist, fell in love with Shakespeare and promoted his work.
“Without the preeminence of David Garrick, we would not be celebrating the 450th anniversary this year,” she said. “His association with Shakespeare was more than professional, it was highly personal.”
This intense devotion to Shakespeare inspired Garrick to commission portraits, statues and even a temple to worship Shakespeare’s likeness. Kahn said dedication culminated into a jubilee that transcended Shakespeare into an exalted symbol of English culture.
English immigrants took the myth with them to America, she said, and considered it essential to the refined identity that would shape the new world.
However, when subsequent immigrants from Eastern European countries began to arrive at Ellis Island, they did not naturally conform to Western ideals.
In hopes of assimilating the new population, a playwright and poet named Percy MacKaye reconstructed Shakespearean scenes into a narrative meant to educate and unify the diverse population of New York City, as well as establish English as the national language.
MacKaye’s interpretation follows Caliban, a reflection of the audience, and his transformation from a primitive brute to a civilized Shakespeare “lover.”
“They enacted their assimilation into American society by celebrating Shakespeare’s now universalized preeminence,” Kahn said.
Although different in purpose, Garrick’s jubilee and MacKaye’s production both defined the love of Shakespeare as part of one’s identity and created tradition.
“These rituals sustain and convey an image of the past and a sense of continuity, although contrived and invented,” she said. “He was represented in terms of nostalgic yearning for that supposedly uncomplicated past.”
The celebration of Shakespeare continues to this day. Kahn said the cult of Shakespeare as a man, rather than an appreciation of his works, has by and large dominated commemoration.
“Our culture is increasingly driven by anniversaries of the births of iconic men, and very few women,” she said. “The pitfall of repetition and tradition is that its rituals become stale and cliches.”
Kahn said annual traditions did help introduce Shakespeare to the masses, although the emphasis should be on an author’s works that can be read any day of the year.
“We invite a personal presence that inevitably connotes absence, loss and irretrievability of the past,” she said. “Neither the ritual or the place of memory engages us with Shakespeare’s books, his resonant, complex, subtle, ambiguous, moving poems and plays.”
Although Kahn’s opinion is perhaps ironic considering she was invited to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, Director of the USF Humanities Institute Elizabeth Bird said her department appreciated her larger understanding of contemporary meaning of Shakespeare.
“Why do we still care about Shakespeare?” Byrd said. “It’s not just about ‘let’s perform a play’ but what he means to us as a culture. …He has a lot to offer in today’s world. We need to go to his words, to his plays. They need to be performed, they need to be lived instead of icons of the past.”