Shakespeare after 9/11

After yesterday’s Syrian appropriation of Shakespeare, here is news that The Shakespeare Yearbook is going to devote an issue to “Shakespeare after 9/11”, and will sponsor a special session on the subject at this year’s MLA meeting.

In the wake of the New Historicism, much critical work on Shakespeare and his contemporaries has been faulted for its failure to develop and deploy an active sense of historical self-consciousness. Such a failure can be traced to a number of significant tendencies in historicist methodology: the privileging of synchronic analysis over diachronic or recursive) approaches; the conviction that truth emerges as an immanent entity within culture, one that can be teased out by the patient critic; and (more fundamentally) the lack of interest in how meaning functions across time — what is often pejoratively labeled trans-historicist. Not surprisingly, little has been done to think through what it means to read and teach the literary production of Shakespeare and his contemporaries after 9/11.

I am not sure I agree with this characterization of the New Historicism, but I certainly think that Cultural Materialism is ignored in this overview of recent developments in Shakespeare criticism. Critics like Terence Hawkes, Catherine Belsey, or Graham Holderness, to name but a few, certainly explore literary texts in contemporary power relations. The study of appropriations of Shakespeare, as in the new online journal Borrowers and Lenders, similarly considers the ways in which Shakespeare functions in other, and later, cultures. On the differences between New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, I can heartily recommend John Brannigan’s New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998). But on with the call for papers:

Shakespeare Yearbook hopes to fill this critical gap by seeking out and publishing scholarly essays that take seriously what and how early modern English literature means in a post-9/11 world – a world where strangers can be terrorists, where a heavy coat can be the signifier for a suicide attack or a briefcase can be a dirty bomb, where the workplace, the daily commute, the shopping center, or even the theatre, can be transformed in an instant into a site of mass suffering and death. The journal welcomes scholarship that treats issues of religion, violence, empire, and race in works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, especially in light of post-9/11 readings, stagings, and films of such works.

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6 thoughts on “Shakespeare after 9/11

  1. The CFP’s characterization of New Historicism is undeserved (largely), and I agree that it is odd that there isn’t a reference to Cultural Materialism, which tends to be (at least in my opinion) far more concerned with radical politics, both in history and present day.

    This reminds me to page through Matthew Biberman’s book that I’ve got sitting ont he shelf, since it looks like he’s the guest editor for this 9/11 issue of Shakespeare Yearbook.

  2. Look, for the last time, terrorism was not invented at 911. I realise that the US can be a tad insular on some issues, but the rest of the world, and indeed the US has known plenty of terrorism before that hideous attack. 911 was not a BC/AD moment in human history. Considerably more Americans die every year in RTAs. Try to attain some perspective before any more “[Anything] in a post 9/11 world” publications leap on the bandwagon.

  3. Clanger, of course terrorism was not invented on the 11th of September 2001. But your reaction itself shows that the attacks have a pervasive presence in our thinking, whether you approve of it or not. In that sense, 9/11 is a watershed in contemporary culture, and has altered our perspective on the place of Western culture in the world. That change has introduced new themes into cultural analysis, and has created new accents that allow for new perspectives on the literary canon (in the way that decolonisation did as well, or the fall of the Berlin wall). As Forsyth’s article on Milton’s Samson Agonistes (in the next post) shows, that does not mean that the canon is marshalled to support the US government in their view of the terrorist attacks – instead, a post 9/11 perspective on Shakespeare or Milton gives us tools to think with, and could yield new insights into the literary works as well as into contemporary culture. It could even teach us that terrorism was not invented in 2001.

  4. A terrorist attack is hardly comparable to the abolition of slavery. I never suggested that the canon is being marshalled for the support of the US government. I’m just tired of the ceaseless flood of works that are not really textual criticism. It seems that anything can be picked at random, and literature tacked on to it to give it an academic gloss. 911 is just the latest trendy thing to appropriate. At their heart these works are not about the texts-they are about us, about today. Why not just publish an autobiography? This is human ego run mad.

    It is especially sad as we are now discovering that the lack of context in the last centuries of critical study has rendered much of it to be deeply flawed, and some of it to be laughable. We have centuries of texts to explore, for the first time armed with some heavy duty bibliographical, historical, and cultural context. And what do folk do? They hang studies off current events like baubles off a christmas tree, tarted-up in impenetrable jargon, and pretend its scholarship.

    If you want a new insight into contemporary culture, watch Oprah. Don’t waste research funding in textual criticism.

    So much lost opportunity.

    I surrender. Carry on. I await ‘Jane Austen in a Post Enron Society’ with great anticipation.

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