2012 Conference of the Société Française Shakespeare (March 22-24, 2012)
Shakespeare and his contemporaries invent new styles, interpretations or imaginary models by tapping the most ancient sources of collective memory, those most frequently imitated, in literature, history, legend, mythology, iconography… Simultaneously, an unprecedented crisis in learning and representations questions the validity of creative methods based on such acquired knowledge, saturated with references to the past Europe was built on, thus shaking its constitutive cult and culture of memory. Montaigne, although he had no objection himself to repeating and borrowing, denounced its oppressive weight: “There's more ado to interpret interpretations than to interpret things, and more books upon books than upon any other subject. We do but enter-glose our selves. All swarms with commentaries; of Authors there is great penury. Is not the chiefest and most famous knowledge of our ages to know how to understand the wise?”
In their age of paradoxes, Giordano Bruno, a philosopher who gave much thought to the technical workings of Artes memoriae, chose to break with the stifled memory of “the wise”, heirs and commentators of Aristotle, in favour of a liberating logic, and invent an infinite universe of many worlds. His provocative style challenged all literary inheritance with satires of conventional rhetoric, a good indication that memory itself stood at the centre of the crisis. With the advent of printing, the Artes memoriae that used to store and safeguard knowledge had lost much of their urgency, perhaps their relevance. Memory was now required in the service of new acquisitions, casting doubt on the very notion of inheritance – a crisis affecting the values of humanism, religious unity, political governments around Europe, moving away from the clerical basis of learning, having tapped dry and subverted heavy predecessors like the inescapable Petrarch. In the manner of Janus, an Elizabethan icon, memory then looks at the past to decipher an undecided, unreadable future, perhaps invent a new memory or new history: the tale of Troy’s woes will provide a founding legend, and a fake heroic memory, to all the nations of Europe. New rules of writing and dramaturgy will be drawn from Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars poetica in numerous essays and treatises. Ovid’s more archaic myth of Acteon will add to the voluptas dolendi inherited from Petrarch, the better to express the pleasurable discontent of mannerist waverings, an epitome of the poet’s delight in subverting and corrupting the most revered literary models. Plutarch supplies material for a baroque rewriting of Antony and Cleopatra’s tragic love, spiced up with a touch of Horace’s reluctant admiration for the “frenzied Queen”. The more recent Plantagenet saga suggests keys to the still unresolved threat of an open succession. Machiavelli combines the lessons of Livy and Tacitus with what he has learnt at various Italian courts to evolve a thoroughly modern theory of power that will serve as basis to portrayals of “politic”, i.e. Machiavellian, monarchs in reconstructions like Shakespeare’s Henry IV: the kind of usurping but efficient ruler Essex might turn into if he did succeed in his bid for Elizabeth’s throne. Memory also invites itself as an obsessive fear, the voice of a guilty conscience that haunts the stage of Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet in ghostly shape.
Translations from the Latin, Greek, Italian and French arrive upon cue to freshen up the faded, blurred memories of influential texts, imbuing them with new dynamics: “the world is a theatre” to Epictetus, whose Manual is translated in 1567, long before his metaphor becomes a free for all cliché on the Elizabethan stage, in the service of wholly different ends. The discovery of paintings in Nero’s buried Domus Aurea fires imaginings of the “grottesche” whose discontinuities will lead Montaigne to call them an emblem of his own writing. Translations of the Bible appear central to the Reformation programme, suffused with a will to “re-memorize” this founding text under different lights. Myths of pre-lapsarian times, edens and other golden ages of humanity are endlessly revisited, to stress either the “fall into time” caused by Adam’s “sin”, or the violent birth of history in a new “iron age”, in which memory is torn between idealizations of the past, distrust of the present, anxiety and even terror of the future.
The fields to explore are vast and many: the workings of memory and its cult in Shakespeare’s days; the woven memory of old texts into any new one, of another’s text into one’s own; the memory of self born from rehearsed Petrarchan laments, or the Psalmist’s descant on David’s doleful “I”; the study of innovative links between memory and history, memory and knowledge, science, religion, writing, memory of self and autobiography in the first tales of conversions, memory and the history of memory itself; the geography of memory through the use of “loci”, i.e. the imaginary location of memorised objects; or early medical enquiries into the exact location of memory in the brain…
No doubt other areas of research will spring to mind, for instance the remembrance of Shakespeare by his contemporaries, like the admirative yet unquiet tribute to his work of Jonson: the thought that it rests on “little Latine and lesse Greeke” is as good, or as bad, to him, as no memory to speak of. On the other hand our own contemporaries might well need, to paraphrase Charles Mauron’s psychocriticism, to track an “obsessive metaphor” in themselves: has Shakespeare’s absolute conquest of global memory reached the heights of a “personal myth” where he stands immune from any interpretative criteria according to conservative anglophone criticism? Or has he so penetrated the imagination of English-speaking writers that a number of them depend on him to illuminate their own “personal myths”?
Université Paris-III Sorbonne Nouvelle Call for Papers