Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

National Poets, the Status of the Epic and the Strange Case of Master William Shakespeare

Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

National Poets, the Status of the Epic and the Strange Case of Master William Shakespeare

Article excerpt

This is not an essay about Shakespeare, or even about 'Shakespeare,' the cultural construct that emerges well after the death of the man from Stratford. It is, rather, about the space within which that construct evolves, a peculiar pastime seemingly beloved of many cultures: the terrain devoted to the making of national poets. And they are almost always poets, not simply writers or even authors. That in itself tells us something about the assumptions that lie behind the elevation of a particular person to the position of national poet seems, although of course the specific circumstances that manage the process vary widely. Not everyone will agree with a choice, or with the means by which that choice is eventually realised, and the reasons for this will also be many and varied. Supporters and objectors argue endlessly about categories of aesthetic value or political utility and partisanship cannot be discounted-in fact, it has to be expected. What is clear, however, is that any attempt to analyse and discuss the phenomenon has to tread very carefully, because no single example can be used as a basis from which to generalise. This is especially important in the case of the British Bard, the Swan of Avon, whose career as a proto-capitalist social climber bears some examination not so much in and of itself, but in the contested meanings given to it well after his death. Indeed, Shakespeare could be taken as an extreme example of the type, because the British seem to have spent so much energy upon his particular canonisation. In terms of comparative literature and, indeed, world literature, his peculiar stature raises important questions about what determines the relative value of different literary traditions.

The Romanian-American writer Virgil Nemoianu (249) is especially well placed to comment on the ways in which national writers attain prominence, particularly in Eastern Europe. He begins his essay on the relationship between national poets and Romanticism with some general comments about the process:

The institution of the "national poet" appears in its fullness toward the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. In the following essay I will concentrate less on the how of these events, important though it is, and try to focus for the moment on the matter of why this set of events occurred and gained importance. Why did German-speaking lands need Goethe and Schiller; why did (an absent) Poland need Mickiewicz; why do Petofi and Eminescu still seem indispensable; why do even Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes grow so considerably in importance? (Obviously the list could be lengthened!).

One response to the question Nemoianu poses would be that the Romantic engagement with nationalism should be seen as part of a wider cultural reaction against the ostensibly excessive rationalist classicism of the Enlightenment. Hence the attraction of an emotional appeal to notions of national identity extending beyond the politically pragmatic, not to mention the more extreme versions that produce a kind of pseudo-mystical sense of folk identity that leads to irrationalism. A more historically precise response, however, would suggest that there are in fact two related operations occurring: the rise of 'newer' national poets and also an increase in the stature of older figures such as "even" Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dante, as Nemoianu puts it. His comments show that Shakespeare's name is almost automatically invoked whenever questions of national stature arise, as part of some sort of involuntary association. These earlier writers complicate the situation, because the rise of their reputations precedes the confluence of romanticism and nationalism, and so crosses the boundaries between Romanticism and the Enlightenment. In their cases, then, a pre-existing tendency is further accelerated.1

Lefevere's Conceptual Grid

Following on from Nemoianu's comments, the question now becomes what is it that the two groups of writers who attain national status have in common. …

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