A Preface on Shakespeare

Fritz Wodruba, Große stehende Figur, 1962, Bad Homburg.
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By GERD BORNHEIM*

Preface to the book “Speaking of Shakespeare”, by Barbara Heliodora (Ed. Perspectiva).

Those who claim that theatrical activity constitutes a so-to-speak natural dimension of human behavior fall into an unsustainable error; such a point of view, frequently asserted, derives, precisely in its exaggeration, from one of the most superb creations of the human spirit – the theater and the passions it knows how to arouse. It happens, however, that that thesis does not withstand the slightest inspection effort in historical events.

The most that can be advanced is that man – and this applies, in his most primitive forms, to other types of animal as well – is endowed with a certain mimetic capacity, the ability to transmute himself into another; or yet, to develop the culture of some level of mimic expression for certain feelings, ideas or situations; these are ideas and gestures that even reach the level of sophisticated refinement, such as those observed in warlike commemorations or religious services, and make dance and liturgy flourish. Of this ritualistic, however, it must be asserted that it belongs, at most, to the proto-history of theatrical art; otherwise, the very concept of theater would suffer an expansion that would end up covering up its specificities.

Of course, the theater can assimilate everything, make a theme out of everything, it can go back to the most remote roots, let itself be inspired even by what already fades in the memory of time; it can even attempt the archetypal recovery of some old obliterated meaning, even if, like all meaning, it turns out to be essentially historical and destined to be lost in the traps of definitive oblivion.

The fact that must be recognized is that the theater has constituted, through the ages, an extremely rare activity; let's say that this synthesis that builds a show, aggregate of necessarily plural elements, hardly manages to get right in the composition of its complexity. Nor am I thinking here of the small and large cultures that knew how to express themselves in the most diverse ways: in them, there or beyond, there is no doubt that pearls of rare purity can be found, and perhaps only the West has actually known how to recognize them.

But I confine myself here solely to our western world. And I remember this incredible privilege, that of having no less than two unprecedented theatrical experiences, two strands of original and unique forms of theater, to the point that they are even irreconcilable – the Greek and the Medieval. This can be explained by suggesting, and not without reason, that our Western world had been steeped in the exuberance of a double root: Greco-Roman culture on the one hand and Hebrew-Christian culture on the other. Differences can be inaugurated, therefore, already at the level of the roots. Understood this, one begins to understand even the details. For example: among his major works, the only text by Aristotle that remained virtually ignored in the Middle Ages was the Poetics; because, in fact, how could the medieval imaginary have access to this text, a reflection of a totally different fable?

And look: these surprising forms of theatrical wonder have never ceased to be an exception: a century or so in Attic Greece, and the splendor of the high scene in the greatest moments of the Middle Ages. I am thinking here, of course, of the most solemn and so to speak definitive manifestations of those two ancient times. But things get complicated: if we think about the current standards in modern theater, as it began to be elaborated in the course of the XNUMXth century, would it be considered those already exhausted solemnities as properly theatrical expressions? Yes and no. If we observe what is seen today on the scene, we would certainly be induced to endorse a completely negative response. In fact, what the Greeks and Christians saw were much more forms of celebration, of commemoration of myths, of the original word, of the ever current and always necessary rescue of that mythical word and which constituted the sole raison d'être of such theaters: everything it announced the presentification of divine things and their surroundings.

But I'm preferring here to insist on the differences instead of everything lying in the same bed. And, in relation to modern theatre, in terms of differences, the proper name that best summarizes them is exactly this: Shakespeare. In truth, it is Elizabethan theatre, but the advantages, the pre-eminence of Shakespeare in the context of this scenario could not be overlooked. I will not go into another topic, the Spaniards, since they remained much more ambiguous in everything. What impresses in the figure of Shakespeare is precisely in a certain radicality in knowing how to say new things, in expressing the dawn of modern times.

Perhaps there are, among your peers, others who are more daring, more aggressive and controversial; however, what impresses about Shakespeare comes from the breadth of his directives, and he ends up saying much more than the first glimpse of his creations allows. What happens in these historic beginnings is indeed extraordinary, and the reforms that are being put in place begin to lay the foundations for a revolution in the very sense of theater. And there is, as we know, a thorny question: to what extent was Shakespeare really aware of the metamorphoses generated in the intimacy of his own commitment?

I prefer to ignore here the long and sometimes specious discussions on the subject, but allow me to make two brief observations. The first is short and incisive, and states bluntly that Shakespeare knows everything – he knows the man, and he knew it for a very simple reason: the bard did everything; a genius of such dimensions could not be opaque to himself, the commitments – not only of Shakespeare, but also those of his companions – were necessarily constructed with a certain degree of transparency.

And the second observation derives entirely from this concept of transparency. In fact, modern man very early devoted himself to building his own profile, to drawing up a project for a new world, and everything happens, in those times, as if the calculation of any event were premeditated. Here we are faced with a unique experience in the history of man. Not even the Greeks could go that far. Undoubtedly, the Greeks invented transparency; I remember, just by way of example, the desire of the old Aristotle to see everything – really everything – traversed by thought, to elaborate an encyclopedia in which the whole of reality remained registered in the form of a concept. And yet, modern-day man goes far beyond the Greeks on this point, even inventing a veritable fauna of panopticons, through which this new man intended to take a critical attitude towards his own successes.

Think, always as a mere example, of two contemporaries of Shakespeare, Morus and Montaigne: utopia and the noble savage do not find a real place in the society that designed them, they are like objective references through which man could see himself. through the mediation of other instances; I invent the other to be judged by him and to better see myself. For Shakespeare was also an expert on the other, an inventor of otherness. After all, we are in the age of the great navigations. Shakespeare knew his time; he knew how cold he painted the passage, to use Montaigne's expression.

Well then, let's get to the passage. Or the passages, where everything is prodigal. First of all, it should be made clear that our author's theater has its roots in medieval theatre. Of course, it is not a question of admitting an influence coming from a so-to-speak static reality, given once and for all in the manner of a definitive creation; It is, indeed, a rich theatre, an experience in constant transformation, until it reaches, already with a somewhat tired air, the XNUMXth century. Everything seems to happen in a way that is alien to any type of more consistent theory: what counts is in the evolution of theatrical practice, in the ways in which its effective language is forged. And this affects the whole of scenic art, in all its dimensions, from its scenographic rudiments to a certain stability of the language and the somewhat detached way of composing the sequence of scenes. Let's say, therefore, that everything crystallizes in the practice of theatricality, an obedient practice, as it could not be otherwise, to certain conventions that convey communication.

It happened, however, that, in this general panorama of the celebration of the mysteries, Shakespeare and his colleagues – but it should be noted that the figure of the rebel is not yet fashionable – dared to perpetrate a rupture that led to nothing less than the reinvention of the theater – a situation that would become more complicated, especially with the contribution that would soon be developed by the French. What is inaugurated, therefore, is in the theater as we still conceive it today, a theater that displays, even in its ups and downs, an unparalleled vitality, which has been crossing the centuries, and for us, who are already biting our At the beginning of a new millennium, there are no serious indications that theatrical activity is fading away – even the crisis has already become constitutive of theater.

It seems to me that this break, so strongly present in Shakespeare, is all concentrated in a very precise point: the abandonment of faith, of faith understood as the basic element that represented the very reason for being of past theater. Understand well: it doesn't even matter so much whether Shakespeare was an atheist or not – atheism is a position that will only clearly delineate his profile later, in the XNUMXth century. Maybe Shakespeare is one of his forerunners, but that's not what we're talking about here. There is talk of theatre, and in the Shakespearean scene one does not only perceive the absence of characters moved by faith in the sense of the simplicity of medieval theater, there are no longer acts that tend to the mystical or orientation from the supernatural world; it is necessary to dig, and well, to come across some residue, some detail, some reflection of a divine order that was being desecrated at the time with astonishing speed.

Our author is already an expression of the new spirit of the modern age. Not even the splendid gallery of kings manages to ignore this strange process. Barbara Heliodora observes in a remarkable and absolutely indispensable essay [The dramatic expression of the politician in Shakespeare, Peace and Earth] that, among all Shakespearean kings, the only one who continues to be attached to the divine order of royalty is Richard II, and the author adds that it is precisely for this reason that he loses everything. But the most significant, I repeat, is not only in this incredible dissolution of acts, facts and happenings of a religious nature, but in the evaporation of the essentially religious sense that nourished the medieval scene.

The disappearance of this objectively substantial faith is not just one element among others, as it configures a complex core that displaces the meaning of theater. I insist: faith and its belongings disappear. For example: miracles, or the three theological levels of the supernatural world; or the multitude of angelic hierarchies now replaced by the scrawny scanty, police-like specter of Hamlet's father. And so on. All religious apparatuses are dismantled or desacralized. At best, religious or political-religious themes become, even if rare, a mere theme among others; everything starts to be done, then, in a nuclear profane way.

It is perhaps to be regretted that, in this passage, the machine too has disappeared - there is no trace of them among the Elizabethans. And yet, in the great moments of the past, machines delivered simply unbelievable performances. Among the Greek machines, it is enough to remember the famous crane that, coming from above, was in charge of depositing goddesses such as Athena and Justice (someone). The subject still lends itself to controversy today, and authors such as AW Pickard-Cambridge and Siegfried Melchinger discuss it in detail that borders on perfectionism. For example: how did the goddess get rid of the leather belts that tied her to that crane?

Also in the Middle Ages there were flying cars that transported angels, not to mention the very popular “masters of fires”, who reproduced with their complicated contraptions the most fantastic miracles – Saint Peter walking on water – and reconstructed the very structure of the supernatural world: the heaven, purgatory and hell, with all the condiments that were characteristic of them. In fact, machines were present on the scene until the end of Baroque theater, then everything was already weakened by a somewhat false pedagogy. These extraordinary devices that so worried artists, starting with Da Vinci (who also wanted to “perform miracles”), completely changed their meaning only with the Industrial Revolution: with it, the machine started to be interpreted from biological paradigms, and exercised their functions within the inner limits of the subject-object dichotomy.

But here, too, Shakespeare knew how to be a forerunner: the machine disappeared from the scene precisely with the Elizabethans. It is easy, no doubt, to understand this disappearance of machines: it is because their scope was to make gods and goddesses present, to make visible the supernatural and its effects; and it is understandable that, when such dimensions were absent, the machine itself lost its theatrical raison d'être. Even in our century, Piscator's efforts to "re-machinize" the scene do not remotely resemble the splendor of the great and complex machines of the past. The question of the machine shows all its interest in making clear the intensity of the rupture and the decline of the presence of the supernatural world: a profane theater can no longer be at the service of the gods and the plagues sent by them.

The core that allows us to understand Shakespearean innovation can be seen in the theater understood as a pedagogical institution. I advance on the subject, but little that I already abuse in the space of these pages. How was such pedagogy seen in Greek tragedy and medieval mysteries? Through what must be understood by the presence of the concept of concrete universal. In other words: it was a theater that dealt with gods and goddesses, kings and heroes, Christ and the Virgin, saints and again kings and heroes. This all made up the catalog of concrete universal sayings: they were models, prototypes to instigate the education of man through the exhibition of figures considered sacred. Such concepts are at the basis of what is called imitation in art, and the essence of the imitation of those concepts constituted the field of pedagogy. For what Shakespeare does is nothing less than the invalidation of this concept of pedagogy that appealed to the concrete universal.

But how to accomplish such a feat? Evidently, it would not be appropriate to expect from Shakespeare the explicit proposal of any form of theory on the subject - this will only become possible with the passage of time. And any good connoisseur of his work easily realizes the nature of the perpetrated commission. What Shakespeare does is change the proper content of such a concrete universal. That is to say: he dismisses it from its religious character, both as a particular theme and also as the ultimate foundation of the theater's meaning, and gives it a new content.

It seems to me that the concrete universal is now exhausted in two categories, time and space, or better, in history and geography. Because our bard travels, he is the first great traveler in the history of the theater. Or rather: he makes his theater travel. A little recollection is enough to understand what I'm saying: he goes to Denmark, and there he unearths Hamlet, the quasi-hero; it is with this character that the slow and inexorable crisis of the hero figure in modern theater begins. In the fourteenth century, he goes to Verona, and commits the shamelessness of exhibiting two lovers, Romeo and Juliet; it is the first time that the unbridled passion of two teenagers has been shown so freshly.

Another brief ascent into Italy, and Shakespeare, also for the first time, puts a black man on stage, Othello. The surprises never stop, and the poet goes much further, travels to Greece, writes Troilus and Cressida and com Timon of Athens bring in the money. In passing, he attaches himself to the Romans, Corolian, not to mention the entire imperial palace of Julius Caesar. Our author does not even limit himself to the level of reality: a piece like The storm explores the realm of the imaginary, 6 does so in a surprising and totally modern way. And how can we at least not mention the prominence achieved by comedy, since the Greeks (and even Hegel) practically excluded from the field of art?

The contrast with what was done before stands out. And that Greek tragedy and medieval mysteries do not definitively explore time and space. More precisely: any incursion into space and time only finds its raison d'être in the instant of the presentification of the absolute truth. Myths are always, whether Greek or medieval, nuclearly suprahistorical; are forms of theater that always and essentially end up in the vertical dialogue with the divine: the fundamental dialogue of Oedipus Rex passes all of it through someone, by divine Justice, and the goddess does not even need to enter the scene.

With Shakespeare, however, everything takes place on the plane of complete horizontality. It is in this sense that space and time constitute, as it were, the extreme ontological limits of the new scene. In other words: geography and history end up being the nourishing sources of dramatic action — including any possible reference to some divine element: history, properly located, is historical, and no longer mythical history.

Such, moreover, is the meaning of the global evolution of the new times, all committed to the disruption of Platonizing ideals; man starts to consider himself a simply mundane being, striving to establish himself once and for all on this Earth. The astonishing thing is that such coordinates are announced, for the first time, as far as I can see, and with the completeness that I tried to highlight, in Shakespeare's theater, even though one cannot forget, at one point or another, the contribution of other authors, and I think here in a special way in the uniqueness of Montaigne's presence.

This authentic modern revolution, pioneering paths, establishing a different world, continues unabated beyond our days – and it is this creative movement that leads to an understanding of Shakespeare's actuality. However, do not ask too much of our poet. You don't enter a crisis with impunity, so you overcome it like someone who turns a corner. The theater is essentially mortal, it wants to be ephemeral, every turning off of lights is definitive in a certain way. The fact that for grandiose periods the theater has made eternity its central theme does not at all mean that the theater itself intended to be eternal; this idea is rather modern, perhaps the invention of an atheism still ashamed of itself, postulating substitutes for the Absolute by resorting to supposed immutable values ​​and feelings.

What best defines Shakespeare is precisely the fact that he has his time in his hands as a clearly assumed actuality — who did this before him? If we still hear it, it's because our current situation remains the same, despite all the metamorphoses. It is for this reason that it is now difficult for us to gain access to the Greek tragedians, and not just because they are no longer about our gods, that morality is no longer wanted; today, in the best of attempts to revive them, it is not possible to go much further than a well-executed school exercise, a bit like what the Baroque Jesuits did with Plautus in their colleges. Because the lived sense of tragedy is no longer accessible to us, and everything ends up summed up in the awareness of a certain nostalgia precisely because of what one can no longer see. Shakespeare doesn't feed any kind of nostalgia - for today's spectator, his plays remain being.

Of course, distances exist. Of course they can only tend to increase. So, for example, with Shakespeare's voyages praised above. Indeed, Shakespeare never travelled. I mean: he never abandoned the actuality of the current. The frequentation of legends and ancient stories were always other and other ways of discussing their own time. And it couldn't have been any other way. Shakespeare was never a historian, never did historical research, never consulted archives, simply because all that didn't exist.

It is unquestionably located at the beginning of a certain restlessness that would generate, much later, the formation of historical consciousness. But such awareness would only acquire its specific status over the course of the last century, and it is only a little over a century since history was founded as a science. And that evil distance wanted things to get complicated precisely in our days. It is ironic, because what is least attempted today is to set up Shakespeare in the Elizabethan style. Any attempt in this direction certainly could not pass from a mere historical curiosity to be buried in some archive.

Undoubtedly, a certain margin of Shakespeare's actuality has been lost, and it is based on this loss that the situation changes, that is: the possible readings of his texts expand. The new element is precisely at this point: there are readings, now untied from a concise show. So, there are readings. Thus the legendary and thunderous reading given at the turn of the century by the Duke of Saxe Meiningen de Julius Caesar it was built precisely from the perspective of such a historical archive, with architects and archaeologists on duty in Rome itself.

Whence the problem: what is a text like Julius Caesar? A Roman play from the XNUMXrd century, a simply Elizabethan proposal, or a contemporary text? The theater, and with it the cinema, has been preferring the first hypothesis. On the surface, such an approach might even seem like “progress”, a way of “updating” Shakespeare precisely by pushing him back to the Roman Ides. But, all things considered, and however much it is deplored, such procedures carry with them some of the make-up of the death mask. They are the ravings of historical consciousness, things that make up the specificity of the theatrical experience of our time. But the saint is strong, and knows how to resist everything.

The ideas exposed are just ways of walking through generalities that perhaps sin for losing contact with the concrete soil of this immense sea that was and continues to be our bardo. But they are ideas that are part, as a simple itinerary, of my effort to understand Shakespeare, to make him intelligible in his varied adventure of successes: in this case, and as always, the intelligence of each one is absolutely mandatory. This limit of generic statements strictly leads to the obvious: what matters, since it constitutes the true starting point of everything, is in the Survey, in field research, in the meticulous analysis that accompanies each situation, each phrase, each word.

Let the pen, therefore, pass to the author of this extensive and fascinating text that is now given to the hands of the reader. It was with pleasure, with joy even that I accepted Barbara Heliodora's invitation to write this brief meditation, for her sake, and especially for Shakespeare. The excellence of the essays that make up this book, some written in English and now translated into Portuguese by the author herself, deserve much more. Barbara occupies, without any favors, a privileged place among the greatest specialists in Shakespeare in the world. It is read to see.

* Gerd Bornheim (1929-2002) was professor of philosophy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Brecht: the aesthetics of theater (Grail).

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