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PC Shakespeare



I was brought up, as I would bet most of us were, with a couple of specific verities--tolerance for the opinions of others and the understanding that if you really don't like something that's presented to you, and you have the opportunity to, you can always turn the page (change the channel, leave the room, etc).

But I'm afraid that my tolerance has been pushed to the edge by Jonathan Martin's letter (issue of 26 November) and his comments on "reinterpreting" Shakespeare, et al.

I take the position that any revisionist view of culture (your culture or mine) is straight fascism. I further refute the concept that literature, or culture, needs any revision at all. What an ongoing, evolving society must teach includes context--so that we can appreciate (or disagree with) a given work in its appropriate historical and sociological perspectives--and it must also teach us how to create work that will show future generations how we thought, and what were the true and specific issues and attitudes that shaped us. If the 25th century only finds us as editorial critics of past cultures we will, in fact, have not existed as a culture at all. (That may be true anyhow).

To examine Shakespeare as a late-20th-century playwright is a gross intellectual error. His views of people and their motives have little or no equivalence with us. The antagonists of his English history plays were not arguing the merits of involvement in Vietnam or NAFTA, but rather the difficult issues surrounding the succession to the crown in the 15th century, and he was probably writing these histories as a Tudor apologist anyhow.

If Shakespeare, or Sappho, or Ibn Khaldun, or Black Elk, or the Lady Murasaki, or anyone who ever created work of value to their own society is to be called upon today we must try to understand them as in their own time--not as a reflection of, or comment upon, today's society and its attitudes. It does less than no good at all to try to put a contemporary "political" spin on any of this. They were not us as we are not them.

Here's a party game for you, Mr. Martin. You and your friends are invited to reinterpret Angels in America from the point of view of the very highly cultured Moghul court of l6th-century India. Try it on New Year's Eve, in your best-intentioned and well-understood version of North Indian societal values of that time. Black tie optional.

Today's values have nothing to do with the Ramayana, the Tibetan Book of the Dead or the Icelandic Sagas. But these works are not vilified in the same way as mainstream European-American culture is by these fringe neopoliticals. Probably not enough people who consider themselves "PC" probably even know of these works, as they're far enough outside the major canon of "western" culture to avoid being considered suspect by these cranks.

Racism, sexism, ageism, and all of the other -isms are what is really incorrect. And totally wrong. Cultural bias is also wrong. Any cultural bias. To read them into ancient texts is to not understand that people of those times didn't see society along the same lines that we do. But that's not all. To try to interpret these works based upon an inappropriate premise is self-delusion. The equation never works.

If you are not pleased by a given author, composer, sculptor, potter, grocer, lawn service or shoe repair person, don't patronize them. If you don't like country music change the station. I personally don't care for the work of, among others, Woody Allen and Joyce Carol Oates. That neither makes me anti-Semitic or antifeminist. I simply make the choices to see other people's films and to read other people's books. It's that easy.

You can all do the same thing. If enough people turn away from anything it can eventually lose its value. Or it can remain of value to some . . . and that's fine. It's the core of a multicultural society. But do you understand that Mr. Martin?

Finally, I'd like to put out a call to all reasonable people to put an end to the kind of perverse pseudoeducation that sets the Jonathan Martins out into society. His view of a "manner consonant with the advances of 20th century humanism" should go to work reinterpreting such advanced 20th-century literature as Mein Kampf (A. Schickelgruber), the Little Red Book (M. Tzedong), and a few other documents that have cost the 20th century hundreds of millions of lives as a result of their own forms of cultural revisionism.

I invite Mr. Martin to get a life. Then go to see a good play.

H.N. Solotroff


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