Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One cannot claim that Shakespeare was genius of human affairs while also claiming that America is somehow immune to the depravities explored in his plays.

When I teach Hamlet, which I have done almost every year since 1996, I warn my students of the creepy presence of the unspeakable in the murder of King Hamlet the Elder and the corruption that the cover-up requires. I bring this home to them by invoking the Assassination of President Kennedy as I teach the Elizabethan drama of assassination and cover-up. In fact, for two semesters at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, I taught an entire course based on four texts: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, by Peter Dale Scott. Students were stirred by that experience, because it merged areas of the psyche that had been compartmentalized by the ideology of the culture of capital. In other words, the students got excited, seemed to experience the growth of their own moral imagination, and turned in strong academic performances, because the course was electrifying. It was so for many reasons, but the most important is the mutual reflection of past art and present life. From a pedagogical point of view, “deep events” like 9/11 and 11/22 (the First Kennedy Assassination) are ideal for connecting students’ inner lives to the texts at hand. It is not difficult to prove that the very issues that govern Elizabethan drama are also at the heart of current affairs—provided that one knows something about Elizabethan drama, and about current affairs.

One cannot claim that Shakespeare was genius of human affairs while one also claims that America is magically immune to the vices, depravities, and cynical dialectics we find in his plays. In Richard II, Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar, to name a few examples, we see the way the world works, and it is our world. People kill and lie about it, and they always will; those lies are interesting because they are believed by people—including the perpetrators, as well as the public—who know better.

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