Being a professor of English is a tough gig these days. When mainstream media are ridiculing the travesty of higher education, the English prof is an easy target. What could be more irrelevant to the needs of society today than the humanities? What could be more impractical for the solutions of current global crises than departments of cultural studies? And what could be more ideologically harmful to young Canadians than those postmodernist professors of literature?
And that’s just the mainstream media. In Christian circles, the English professor represents all that has gone wrong in Western society. “Deconstruction” stands for the widespread practice of destroying all that is valuable in a culture shaped by Judeo-Christian values. If you’re looking for the bogeymen and -women of postmodernism, you need only walk through an English department.
I’m telling you: being an English professor is a tough gig these days.
At the same time, however, literature’s stock could not be higher on the exchange — thanks to Margaret Atwood. Calling the TV adaptation of Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale a hit is an understatement. The show has garnered numerous Emmys and Golden Globes. The handmaid’s red cloak and white hood have become a ubiquitous symbol of women’s oppression and a silent protest for women’s reproductive rights around the world. No one can deny that Atwood’s novel has shaped the nature of political dissent in the public square today.
So, maybe literature does have relevance. Maybe we should pay closer attention to Atwood’s dystopian vision. Maybe Christians should look closely at Atwood’s recasting of Hagar, of Puritan New England and of the record of patriarchy in the West. Perhaps we could use an English professor to show us how writers influence the way we see the world.
My problem, however, is that I don’t usually teach Atwood. I teach Shakespeare and Milton. If the humanities already have issues of relevance and practicality, imagine how hard it is to justify assigning the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries. as cultural anthropologists, perhaps, we could use the plays and poems of Shakespeare and Milton as a record of the way things were about 300 years ago. The major literary works of the past could help us trace the ancestry of ideas and practices that we have today. But that sort of approach could turn into a form of cultural nostalgia, a hankering after the glory days of Western civilization. We don’t want to be guilty of a naive historical idealization of the past nor be uncritically infatuated with the English literary tradition.
We might justify reading Renaissance literature because Shakespeare and Milton’s works embody, across time and place, the archetypes of human consciousness. Shakespeare and Milton are not of an age, said writer Ben Jonson of Shakespeare in 1623, but for all of time. When Shakespeare takes a universal human experience and gives it a local habitation and a name, he is expressing something that we all recognize to be deeply true. Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed, in the Globe Theatre and around the world, because they are more about humanity than they are about Elizabethan England. The form and content of his plays express archetypes that can be translated into any language and context. And when Milton narrates the biblical story of creation and the fall in Paradise Lost, he is reviving a profound reality that every human being recognizes and experiences as true.
Above and beyond reading literature for insights into the past or for its archetypes, I believe that the value of Shakespeare and Milton lies more in the way that their writing teaches the reader to think about his or her place in the present. As C.S. Lewis noted in An Experiment in Criticism, the good reader does not seek to escape from the present through the imagination. Instead, the good reader stands on the shoulders of writers from the past in order to gain a better perspective on his or her world. In other words, the act of reading is always in the present tense, even when we read literature written in the distant past. For instance, when we experience pity and fear for a character that we see on stage, that feeling of empathy is in the present moment, even though the character from ancient Roman history is in a play written in the early 1600s. In this regard, reading a play by Shakespeare or a poem by Milton is always a present action not a re-enactment of a past event.
“It’s as though Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus with our conflicted thoughts about Donald Trump in mind.”
A fine illustration of reading the present through works of the past is two major productions of Shakespeare, Timon of Athens and Coriolanus, that ran recently at the Stratford Festival. Both are tragedies set in the classical world of Athens and Rome. We see the same in Western University’s production this summer of Milton’s poetic drama about Samson, Samson Agonistes, set in biblical Philistia.
The Stratford production of Timon of Athens last year was widely recognized as a triumph. Scholars are not completely certain about the dating of this play, but they agree that Shakespeare wrote it around the time of his other major tragedies King Lear and Macbeth. Despite being numbered among Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Timon of Athens is usually overlooked in high school English curricula and rarely included in university courses on Shakespeare. And yet it has proved popular with contemporary audiences in North America and Britain in the past decade. Simon Russell Beale’s acclaimed performance of Timon with London’s National Theatre in 2012 was later broadcast around the world and in Cineplex theatres across Canada. The Stratford Festival produced the play in its 2017 season, also with much success.
Audiences are introduced to Timon of Athens as a wealthy nobleman, who is overly generous in treating his friends and followers with expensive gifts and lavish dinners. By the beginning of Act 2, however, the audience learns from Timon’s steward that the excessive generosity has put Timon deeply in debt with unforgiving creditors. By Act 3, Timon has fallen from the height of Athenian society to self-banishment from human contact. His erstwhile friends have abandoned him to his misery. Throughout Act 4, Timon embodies the spirit of misanthropy, hating mankind and cursing all who encounter him. At the end of Act 5, there is nothing left to Timon but bitterness and gall.
The Stratford production, similar to the National Theatre production, set the play in the present: iPhones and selfies, laptops and spreadsheets, Beyoncé and nightclubbing. The mythology of the play is still very much ancient Greece and the language is Shakespearean, but the setting of this play is Bay Street and the mood is 2018. Yes, this play is a persuasive articulation of the universal theme of riches to rags. And, yes, this play tells us much about anxieties regarding social mobility—especially downward— of Shakespeare’s London audience in the time of King James. But it also gives an audience today a play to confront its own notions of wealth and philanthropy, money and charity, friendship and responsibility. today, you cannot see the video of this production of Timon of Athens without reflecting on the financial crisis of 2008.
Well if Timon of Athens wasn’t relevant enough for you, then this season’s production of Coriolanus certainly would have been. Whereas Shakespeare’s most familiar Roman play, Julius Caesar, is set in the imperial era of Rome, Coriolanus is set in Rome during the Republic. In other words, the political structure of Rome in this play aligns a little better with the democratic institutions we have in the West than does the politics of Julius Caesar.
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is a complicated character. He is a highly decorated way vet who is persuaded by his mother, together with some politicos, to take on the high position of consul. Because Coriolanus is a soldier, he cannot easily play the part of the politician nor modify his rhetoric to curry favour with the common people. At the end of Act 3, Coriolanus the war hero is no longer welcome in Rome and he defects to his arch-enemy, Aufidius. Because of his conflicted loyalties— to himself, to his mother, to Rome, to his band of brothers-in-arms— Coriolanus dies at the end of the play without having achieved the social good of peace and prosperity for Rome.
Like last year’s Timon of Athens, this production of Coriolanus is set in the modern era with unmistakable contemporary visual allusions: updates from the war with the Volscian rebels take the form of CNN reporting and sentries exchange Shakespearean text messages, projected on a screen for the audience to see. The form and content of this production force the audience to experience the Roman culture and hear the Shakespearean language from the vantage point of the present. In a 2018 book on Shakespeare’s politics, Stephen Greenblatt describes Coriolanus as a personal tragedy for the protagonist but as a political victory for the city that narrowly avoided choosing a tyrant to represent them.
It’s as though Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus with our conflicted thoughts about Donald Trump in mind.
In 1671, John Milton published a poetic drama about Samson. Rather than writing a five-act play about the rise and fall of this biblical hero, Milton chose the final act of Samson’s life as the subject of the work — the killing of the Philistines in the temple of Dagon. By this point in his career, Milton had become completely blind. The parliamentary political cause he championed throughout his life was defeated when King Charles II was restored to the monarchy. The hopes of Puritan reformers in England were dashed with the restoration of a king who was sympathetic to Catholicism. It’s tempting to read Milton’s final work as an allegorical autobiography of sorts: Milton as the blind prophet, wreaking vengeance on his God’s enemies.
Shortly after 9/11 attacks occurred, one of the leading Milton scholars drew a connection between suicide bombers and Milton’s characterization of the biblical figure of Samson. John Carey suggested that we could no longer read Milton’s dramatic poem about Samson in the same way. From now on, we must read Milton’s Samson as a type of religious terrorist. This summer’s production of Milton’s Samson Agonistes at Western University in London, Ont., for example, set the play in Guantanamo Bay. Conference presentations, scholarly articles and chapters in books have worried over the suggestion that contemporary events change the meaning of historical texts.
Carey’s 2002 article in the Times Literary Supplement in effect asked readers of Milton to do what Stratford productions of Shakespeare have done. The historical context, including the relevant aspects of Milton’s own life and career, certainly has a place in our understanding of his work. The universal themes that emerge from the words of Samson, who is neither a classical Greek tragic hero nor a Christian warfaring saint, certainly bear teasing out. But the real question for the reader is: how does the merging of Milton’s historical horizon with the universal truths that I encounter through this character make me see the world that I inhabit in a clearer way?
“We blow the dust off of these 400-year-old plays and they become catalysts for conversations about race, gender, faith and ecology.”
I consider teaching 16th and 17th-century literature at a Christian university to be a privilege. The works of Shakespeare and Milton invite students to read both the past and the present with self-conscious and critical engagement. When they accept this invitation, in the words of C.S. Lewis, students begin “to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as their own.” And what they see, imagine and feel in Renaissance literature runs the whole gamut of human experience. I teach these works in the conviction that they also shape the way we understand ourselves and others today. It thrills me to hear students in a class on Othello discuss appropriate Christian responses on racial discrimination in 2018. Or in a class on Paradise Lost to talk about creation care and stewardship of the environment. We blow the dust off of these 300-year-old plays and poems and they become catalysts for conversations about race, gender, faith, ecology, truth, beauty and goodness. When I see that happen in a class on Shakespeare or Milton at Redeemer, being an English prof is not a tough gig. It is a joy.