Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Fighting the Good Fight" or "Battling for the Bard"

(Filming The Quest for Shakespeare - Season Two at EWTN. Left to right: Christina Rios, Tom Lehmann, John Wolbers, Tom Leith, Frank C. Turner, Kevin O'Brien, Jonathan Elkins, Maria Romine. Seated: Joseph Pearce, host of the series)

It was the young actor who approached me. I’ll call him Bill. We had a break in rehearsal and Bill broke it to me as gently as he could. He knows I’m a curmudgeonly old cuss, hopelessly out of date, infected with this Catholic thing. “You know,” he said. “You know, it is generally accepted that Bassanio and Lorenzo in Merchant of Venice are gay lovers.”

“What!” I exploded, for I am indeed naïve. Curmudgeonly but naïve. “There is no evidence for that in the text whatsoever!”

Bill smiled that condescending smile that the young who know everything use with their elders, who are so foolish – even their elders who are directing them on stage. “It’s certainly implied,” he said. And he looked on me with a smug kind of pity.

“In no way is it implied!” I retorted. “The love that Bassanio and Antonio have for one another is a love of friendship. Male friendship was once acknowledged as the remarkable thing that it is – a great grace. This is friendship – not lust! And certainly not perverse lust! It’s only the moderns who have done this; this is a reflection on the putrid state of our souls, and has nothing to do with Shakespeare or this play!”

“Well,” he said with a barely audible sigh. “I have never seen a production of this play that interpreted their relationship in any other way.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not. And also, this thing you’re doing with Portia – making her deliver her speeches as anything but frustration against her father and this position he’s put her in. You know, every production I’ve seen also has Portia cheat.”

“She cheats?” I asked.

“She cheats,” he answered. “She gives a nod to Bassanio to let him know which of the caskets to choose so she can marry him.”

“But that’s a contrived stage direction – an arbitrary interpolation that is at odds with everything that Portia stands for, and indeed at odds with the entire message of this play!” I said, fulminating.

“Yes,” Bill, the young actor, continued. “Yes, that’s how it’s always done. Either that, or it’s Bassanio disguising himself as the other two suitors, Morocco and Aragon, which is just his way of working the system.”

“Of cheating,” I observed. Well, I could not believe this. What kind of perverse producers and degenerate directors was this young man hanging around with? He can not seriously have seen a number of productions of Merchant of Venice, all of which destroy the play by deliberately misreading it – right?

I asked this of Joseph Pearce, “Right?”

“Kevin,” he said, “I hate to break this to you, but your actor was not exaggerating. This is exactly what the post-modernists have done with all of Shakespeare. They have made him into a reflection of their own shallow selves. All of these things and many other things even worse than these have been done to Merchant of Venice, and to every play in the canon – all in the name of staging and interpreting the writer these people claim to be William Shakespeare. Such twisted productions of his plays are now the norm.”

It was then that I began to get a sense of how this battle of Joseph’s that I had volunteered to join, this battle to free Shakespeare from the absurdity, perversion, and vacuity of the post-modernists, was indeed a part of the larger battle, the great battle against the forces of darkness that the Church has been fighting from the beginning. For Shakespeare is a kind of touchstone for us. He is universally acknowledged to be the greatest writer in the history of the English language, and so who he was and what he wrote stand as a reference point for all of our culture.

Therefore when a culture grows sick and spiteful, it makes of this icon a sick and spiteful thing. People can thus easily ignore the great patrimony that Shakespeare brings to us; in fact they can pervert and twist the man and his works so that they become merely an affirmation of the suicidal narcissism that fuels everything we do.

So Joseph Pearce’s attempts to save Shakespeare are part of “fighting the good fight” even in the narrow world of literary criticism. But of course Joseph is doing much more than saving the plays from bad scholarship, from oblivion – or from something worse than oblivion, from the hideous aping and the shameful self-parodies that they are being turned into on stage. He is, in proposing for us the Catholic Shakespeare, part of a band of scholars who are forcing us to examine not only Shakespeare in his true light, but also forcing us to confront the importance of what he says, what the profound truth and beauty of his plays convey, which is a vision of humanity in the context of heaven and hell, woven from the fabric of a culture that rose from the body of Christ.

... for the conclusion of this article, see an upcoming issue of The St. Austin Review