I’m very happy that several students in my “World Drama” class chose to write about The Merchant of Venice in their latest paper. Almost as many also write about Nine. And several chose to write about both. The assignment asked students to make an intertextual argument — that is, I asked them to write an argument that draws on two different literary works. I got a lot of
Paragraph 1: There is a thing in literature, theme X.
Paragraph 2: Play 1 mentions X. (Details from Play 1.)
Paragraph 3: By the way, Play 2 also mentions X. (Details from Play 2.)
Paragraph 4. As you can see, both Play 1 and Play 2 mention X, Could it be that [really interesting but completely undeveloped insight]? We will never know for sure, because my paper is over now.
It’s early in the term yet; I want them to understand the difference between summarizing in order to meet a word count and using textual evidence to support an original literary interpretation.
This fall I’ll be teaching my usual “Shakespeare” course, but after that, the next time I teach Shakespeare it will be in a new course called “Shakespeare in Context.” I’ll have to teach a little less Shakespeare, but I hope I’ll be able to offer my students a deeper understanding of the works we do cover.
An argument like the following will, I hope, give us plenty of interesting things to talk about, beyond plot summaries and creative speculation about how the plays would have been different if the characters had made different choices. The New Oxford Shakespeare argues that Shakespeare’s approach to telling stories is not the only way to tell stories, and other authors were much better than Shakespeare was at some things. According to the New Oxford view, we should recognize Shakespeare as a collaborator and visionary behind the company that produced his plays, rather than the wielder of the pen that inscribed every word in the scripts we study today.
It’s no longer controversial to give other authors a share in Shakespeare’s plays—not because he was a front for an aristocrat, as conspiracy theorists since the Victorian era have proposed, but because scholars have come to recognize that writing a play in the sixteenth century was a bit like writing a screenplay today, with many hands revising a company’s product. The New Oxford Shakespeare claims that its algorithms can tease out the work of individual hands—a possibility, although there are reasons to challenge its computational methods. But there is a deeper argument made by the edition that is both less definitive and more interesting. It’s not just that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights, and it’s not just that Shakespeare was one of a number of great Renaissance writers whose fame he outstripped in the ensuing centuries. It’s that the canonization of Shakespeare has made his way of telling stories—especially his monarch-centered view of history—seem like the norm to us, when there are other ways of telling stories, and other ways of staging history, that other playwrights did better. If Shakespeare worshippers have told one story in order to discredit his contemporary rivals, the New Oxford is telling a story that aims to give the credit back. —The New Yorker