Even More Vapid Than Usual
3 hours ago
Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif. What has happened? It is not that my students now lack verbal facility. In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid. It is as if the sense of linguistic birthright that I experienced with such wonder had faded and with it an interest in exploiting its infinite resources.To this, I say: Okay. Maybe. But also maybe not. But if this is so, it isn't a naturally occurring phenomenon. It results from a changed set of educational emphases. Focusing on the poetry as poetry, and relentlessly working over the rhythms and images and word choices, was the central enterprise of college English Lit classes over roughly the middle half of the 20th century. And because that was what high school and middle school English teachers had learned how to do in college, that was what they passed on to students in middle school and high school. If Stephen Greenblatt came to college already loving Shakespeare for the beautiful language, it is because he had come to college through an educational system where studying Shakespeare meant studying the beautiful language.
In graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s, I found myself deeply uncertain about the direction I wanted my work to take. I was only mildly interested in the formalist agenda that dominated graduate instruction and was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K. Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal -- poetry as "an object which in a mysterious way is both highly general and highly particular" -- seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery.Wimsatt was one of the intellectual giants of the "New Criticism," the so-called "formalist" attention to poetic language above all else. But our former graduate student couldn't limit himself to that approach. So he struck out in a new direction and pioneered a new critical approach to Shakespeare which centered on using history to illuminate the texts in new and innovative ways.