Moral outrage and the artist, Shakespeare, and Hemingway

An interesting colloquy about the above subjects is taking place on Facebook among Karen Malpede, Joshua Ruebl, Ian Thal, and myself, and in one response I make a few points that should really be scribbled in my notebook:

Whether I like or dislike Hemingway, he’s in a long tradition of American vernacular “plain speech” that dates back to 17th century Puritan polemics and so quite in the American tradition. In this, actually, he’s very much a colleague of Gertrude Stein’s, whose language might seem similarly “impoverished” to a reader who prefers a more complex linguistic style and vocabulary.

As to the question of violence, I don’t think we know enough about Shakespeare to determine whether or not he glorifies or doesn’t glorify violence in any of his plays; we can’t read a character’s patriotic rhetoric as Shakespeare’s own opinion, even in Henry V; critics have been arguing about it for years, which suggests there’s no definitive answer to be had. Now directors can no doubt glorify the violence they find in these plays, from Titus Andronicus and Richard III to King Lear; but I don’t believe we can firmly say that Shakespeare does so.

I must say I don’t necessarily agree with Karen’s definition of what makes an artist an artist. Moral stances are iffy things; political violence can serve either the left or the right. Is revolutionary violence such as we’re seeing in the Middle East and Ukraine, for example, justifiable? — and certainly it is glorified via political rhetoric by many revolutionaries, though not all.

Speaking up for peace and justice is a fine thing — but whose peace, whose justice? Appeals to abstractions like these always mask an ideological dogma.

Anyway, this post from the other day seems relevant.

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4 comments on “Moral outrage and the artist, Shakespeare, and Hemingway

  1. [My response, lifted from the Facebook thread. Let me additionally note that I am in part responding to Karen Malpede’s assertion that Shakespeare glorifies violence, and that we are collectively responding to Ira Glass’ distaste for Shakespeare.]

    My comment about Hemingway, to be fair, was my simply being snarky about how we all have our reasons to dislike certain works that are considered classic.

    I think that in Shakespeare (whose view of humanity /appears/ to be far less cynical than Marlowe’s), violence, whether individual or political, is simply part of the story, even when violence temporarily restores the peace it still begets more violence (as with the whole sequence that goes from Richard II to Richard III.) So while I would say that he treats violence as a natural function of the state (or more properly an extension of the monarch’s power) it’s a natural function that is not without consequences even if it is undertaken with noble intent.

    So I would say that Shakespeare is ambivalent towards violence (in the general sense) rather than either strictly “glorifying” or “condemning.”

  2. It’s hard to say because of Marlowe’s comparatively short career, but Shakespeare seems to have been much better at performing a kind of self-erasure in his plays. There are certainly many cynics in the canon, from Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jaques in As You Like It to Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, but there are an equal number of idealists, from Romeo and Juliet onwards. Searching for Shakespeare’s own “opinion,” as much as we’d like to have it, is not quite as important or valid as searching for our own.

  3. Searching for Shakespeare’s own “opinion,” as much as we’d like to have it, is not quite as important or valid as searching for our own.

    Agreed. This is why I say he is “ambivalent” about violence (though I might have been better served to say that he is “agnostic” about the absolute morality of violence.) To clarify when I say “violence begets violence” in Shakespeare’s plays, I am not making a moral judgement or suggesting that he is making a moral judgement– I am reflecting on the causality that drives his plots along.

  4. Oh, yes, that’s true. I think “agnostic” is about as good as we’re going to get.

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