Term Paper: Shakespeare Never Read Aristotle?

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[. . .] Harbage agrees that Shakespeare can be interpreted as fulfilling Aristotelian models. However, even more than Mehl, Harbage tries to focus on the ways in which Shakespeare was not in debt to Aristotle. It is important to note where Harbage explains that Aristotle's works regarding tragedy were not widely read or distributed at that time. Keeping in mind that Shakespeare would not have been familiar with those "rules" might explain part of why he broke them so readily. He explains that while Shakespeare may have had certain elements in common with Aristotle's theater, Elizabethean theater in general "it adopted no formal conventions such as the chorus or the 'unities,' or even simplicity of design... As episodic as a History or as complicated as a Comedy. It was defined not by structure...but by its subject matter and informing spirit. It has to end in the meaningful death." (3) He proceeds to give a short history of the styles of Shakespeare's time, particularly delving into the tendency to strip death of its profundity and its link to morality. He speaks of Chaucer and the Monk's Tale, in which the victims (a little like Romeo and Juliet) are "morally blameless" (3) and of the way in which then-contemporary theater embraced morbidity "...easily understood, easily defensible against Philistine attacks...explosively adaptable to theater. At its best it converts Tragedy into a juridicial display of trespass, arrest, and execution; at its worst, into a spectacle of lust and bloodshed."

While Shakespeare himself, Harbage says, did not descend entirely into morbid schools of art, he was influenced by them. Deaths do occur in which the victim is blameless. The star-cross lovers are only one example. One could also argue that Hamlet had not directly sinner, though one can read his story as a moral complaint about passivity. However, Shakespeare is also influenced by the current religious trends regarding sacrifice and salvation, and all his deaths take on a kind of sublime meaning. Romeo and Juliet are "poor sacrifices" whose death heals their families. Religious imagery also surrounds the death of Hamlet, whose sacrifice clears the land of the blight of which he himself is a sign. In one of the essays chosen by Harbage, Charlton writes: As Charlton says, "In Shakespeare it is will, not fate, that creates inevitability. "tragedy becomes the stern, awful but exalting picture of mankind's heroic struggle towards a goodness..." (13) This picture is a sort of catharsis in itself, though often drawn from sources that Aristotle might have rejected. For Shakespeare also buys into the current moral ambiguity by portraying quite villainous heroes. King Lear, for example, is so defective of mind as to be quite unsound as an Aristotelian hero. This theater "is utilitarian but non-aristotelian, embracing what Aristotle has specifically rejected -- the idea of the protagonist as villain, and the psychological effect as dissuasion from crime."(5-6)

Harbage, like Mehl, discusses the way in which Shakespeare tends to be ambiguous and open-ended, morphing different styles and meaning together into a single body of work. Both discuss the way in which Shakespeare is "profoundly spiritual, and yet in no real sense is it at all religious." (Charlton, 14) He can be rightly interpreted by religious fundamentalist and secular humanists alike, and the essence of his tragedies is both Christian and Pagan, drawing on both redemption and a sort of existential unsurety. His works can be seen as following Aristotle's forms of tragedy and embracing the theories of the tragic flaw which brings the soul to a sudden humbling end, groveling poetically before the gods. They can also be read to deny that theory, and show the ways in which the flaws of others may corrupt the good of the otherwise flawless. His work can be viewed both as highly systematic, or as without form altogether.

Why, one might ask, does such contention exist regarding the nature of Shakespeare's tragedies? One answer springs quickly to mind. Shakespeare was not writing novels or poetry - he was writing plays, designed to be interpreted by actors, directors, singers, and so forth. So only half of the creative work is in his hands. By changing the tone, motion, and physical language of the play, vastly different finished works can emerge. So what might at the time have been portrayed as a natural flaw leading to destruction might today be portrayed as a virtue which is destroyed nonetheless. Interpretation is half of the art in the case of theater, and a reader becomes suddenly both director and play-actor, capable of contributing their own input to the imaginary finished product. To switch genres for a moment, one may consider the versions of Merchant of Venice which have been produced after the Holocaust. What was once a comedy has, in the right hands, been dealt with as a tragedy about the demise of the mistreated Jewish family. One can even find tragic flaws and almost Aristotelian logic behind Merchant of Venice if one treats Shylock as the hero. This is because, quite simply, one can take from Shakespeare precisely what one brings to it as a co-creator. Part of Shakespeare's true genius lay in his universal ambiguity, his often cipher-like characters who, in the hands of different actors, can change the very thought and import of the play. Because Shakespeare does not always follow Aristotle's advice that action is far more important than character, his characters are often capable of changing the import of the action. (This is of course more true in pieces like Hamlet, which are more focused on character, than in ones such as Romeo and Juliet which do draw heavily from incidental happenings) Before one can fully decide how closely a given play follows the rules set down by Aristotle, one must often first become an actor - and in so doing take on part of the responsibility for fulfilling those rules.

Bibliography

Aristotle. Poetica. Trans. W.H. Fyfe. http://www.noncontradiction.com/ac_works_b38.asp

Charlton, H.B. "Humanism and Mystery" Shakespeare The Tragedies. Ed. Alfred

Harbage. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964. 10-18.

Harbage, Alfred. "Introduction" Shakespeare The Tragedies. Ed. Alfred Harbage.

Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964. 1-10.

Mehl, Dieter. Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge

University Press, 1983.

Yanni, Robert. "Elements of Greek and Shakespearan Tragedy." Readings on the Tragedies of William Shakespeare. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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