Saturday, 28 January 2017

Will Shakespeare Go Out of Style?

Today I was trying to figure out what movie to see and I googled the reviews for Trespass Against Us, a new flick in which Michael Fassbender appears shirtless.  This seemed to me to be a good reason to go see it, in any case (by the way, it’s a great movie!). But Rotten Tomatoes made it very clear that I should not go to see it because the leading characters were amoral. All the more reason to go, I thought -- amoral, shirtless guys -- I can’ imagine anything more lovely!
But it did get me to thinking.It seems to me that panning a film because it does not improve us sets a bad precedent. Is a work’s didacticism the measure of its success? Apparently it is these days. People seem to think artists should base their work on real incidents and true stories, and deal with big issues like child trafficking, and the murder of aboriginal women. I am all for politicians and journalists tackling these important subjects, but it has never seemed to me that great art comes from moralizing.
I predict that in a few years Shakespeare will fall from his exalted position as the penultimate Western literary genius for one reason alone: his work is singularly amoral. This may be why his plays were so neglected for more than a century after after his death. Unlike his contemporaries Spenser and Sydney, Shakespeare’s work is devoid of overt Christian preaching, neglecting to take a stand on the most important issue of his day. One critic calledTrespass Against Us a ‘violent drama about [an] unlikable criminal family.’ The same of course, could be said of Hamlet. And no relationship would have been considered quite as immoral, in Renaissance times, than the affair between Antony and Cleopatra -- she a whore; and he ‘unmanned’ by her sly womanly wiles. Yet Shakespeare devoted an entire tragedy to this notorious twosome whose only possibility of redemption was in his poetry.
It isn’t that we don’t know Shakespeare’s opinions about anything -- for that is not entirely true. It is true that Shakespeare’s works display an obsession with critiquing the very notion of truth. Shakespeare was the first post-modernist. Post-modernism, does not posit (as many would have us believe) that there are ‘alternative facts’ (Trump style). Post-modernism and post-structuralism suggest instead that everything is fiction, and that we should treat anything that passes for ‘truth’ with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Shakespeare was obsessed with the notion of art as lie; and yet he was a poet. Unlike Sydney, who (in his Defense of Poesy) suggests that poetry is valuable because it instructs, Shakespeare’s plays foreground the discombobulating paradox that art is both a holy, mystical truth, and a dangerous, immoral lie. 
The suspicious lack of preaching in Shakespeare makes his work irrelevant to us now. We need quick, clear answers. We expect art to take positions on the issues of the day.
Because most of all, we want to know -- what is the truth?
And we want to know now.