QotW (#68) 18 February 2019


First (my QotW comes later), a few pithy words from Donald Rumsfeld in February 2007:

‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’

Something worth bearing in mind as the Ponytail Shakespeare read-through canters on to The Merchant of Venice

Maybe it’s hard to tease any unintended wisdom out of Rumsfeld, but there are nuances, shades of meaning, and hey, this is what we do, right?   When it comes to Shakespeare, whilst there are lots of known knowns (his baptism date, for example), and known unknowns (his actual birth-date).  As to the unknown unknowns, those lightbulb moments when you become aware of some nebulous concept or critical position, or simply find out something you had no idea would resonate with you, are what keeps me reading, thinking, and blogging …

Jumping into The Merchant for the second time (plus one live performance attended some years ago), I haven’t currently got any truck with suggestions that the play, or Shakespeare himself, are anti-semitic.  There’s an important distinction between constantly asking, in class, ‘what is the writer trying to do (and how)?‘ and ‘what was the writer’s opinion about X?

BH are you not entertained
Are you not entertained, screamed Will?

Above all, Shakespeare was trying to entertain, surely – to provoke thoughts and feelings, reaction, in we the audience – because that was how he made money in a world in which poverty made your life short and brutal.  Otherwise, why pay your penny to go and sit with the other groundlings, not least when you were likely to be a good deal poorer than the playwright?  Hence why my model for analysis always ends with some consideration of the ‘effect on the reader’ …

So to AD Nuttall:

‘… we have no idea what Shakespeare thought, finally, about any major question.  The man is elusive – one might almost say, systematically elusive.  There is something eerie about a figure that can write so much and give so little away. […]

Shakespeare’s work is a huge vanishing act.  This copious body of superlative dramatic writing is accompanied by no letters, no evidence of attendance at any church, no professional accounts: “a chronicle of immaculate absenteeism.”‘

Maybe this is part of the attraction of Shakespeare as a cultural artefact to so many critics over the centuries; so many books claiming a special insight into his psyche.  Shakespeare’s like the strong-silent type that proves irresistible to those determined to uniquely understand them.  Nuttall, with other excellent writers like Ivor Brown and Bill Bryson gently steer me back to what really matters – the beauty of the words on the page …


[a]  AD Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker, (Yale College:  New Haven, 2007)


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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