April 12, 1999
Volume 51, No. 27
Shore takes an anthropological bent to Shakespeare
The Bard is hot. Anthropology professor Bradd Shore teaches a course called "Ritual in Shakespeare" at a time when there is renewed appreciation for the playwright. Besides the recent success of the film Shakespeare in Love, there have been numerous cinematic versions of Shakespearean classics such as Othello, Hamlet and As You Like It. Because of their acute universality, quotes from his plays have been used in contexts far from the theater.
According to Shore, Shakespeare's plays contain realms of wisdom, some of which has not yet made it into traditional scholarly journals. "Among other things, Shakespeare wrote the world's most beautiful and thrilling anthropology, a look at the dilemmas and paradoxes of the human condition," Shore said. "Students are often amazed to discover that social theory can come dressed up in powerful poetry and embedded within gripping dramatic forms."
Shakespeare lived at a time of momentous political, social and cultural transformations in English life, Shore said. "The Elizabethan world straddled an essentially medieval society, with its theologically grounded world view and political order, and a modern one, with the rise of a powerful merchant class, modern conceptions of the individual and a thirst for representative government. To his students Shore poses the question: "How do Shakespeare's plays reflect the fundamental questioning of conventions that accompanied these upheavals?"
Part of the answer is found in the structure of his dramas. "Shakespeare inherited a repertoire of powerful artistic and performance conventions that he deployed in constructing his plays. But what Shakespeare does with these forms--rituals, dramatic forms, ceremonies, poetic conventions--is something totally new and astonishing. His plays speak to us not only through their poetry, their characters and their plot structures, but through the very architecture of performance genres embedded within them."
The plays are filled with recognizable rituals--plays within plays, self-conscious allusions to poetic forms like the sonnet--though many of these forms don't work in the ways that we expect them to. Shore believes "Shakespeare speaks to us--often ironically--from a depth that is sometimes not obvious to viewers or readers. In their very architecture, his plays often provide a running commentary on themselves that is there for the careful viewer and reader to behold."
To understand Shakespeare takes time. In one semester, Shore's class reads only four plays in which fractured performance genres like ritual are prominent. Over the years, Shore has taught Hamlet; Henry IV, Part I; The Tempest, King Lear; A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Winter's Tale; and Julius Caesar. Spending three to four weeks on each play, reading significant scenes aloud and discussing them, students are also introduced to scholarly papers dealing with related ritual and other performance issues or with anthropological theories of ritual and performance.
Through LearnLink discussion groups, they relate the papers to each play. Then students each select a fifth play to master on their own and write three papers on the treatment of ritual or other performance genres in that play. "Many will read their fifth play a dozen times before the course is over, and it stays with them for life, as a very special experience," Shore said.
Emory senior Patrick Acuna chose MacBeth for personal study. "Shakespeare creates multiple levels of understanding that complement a diverse range of his audience's thoughts," he noted. "The most surprising thing that Shore teaches is that contradictory points can exist at the same time in the same place. From his teaching, I have learned that the beauty in life is its paradox."
Though not a Shakespeare scholar by profession, in the 1960s Shore earned a bachelor's degree in Renaissance English literature from the University of California at Berkeley, where he wrote his honor's thesis on The Winter's Tale. During graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago, Shore was surprised to discover how much of what Shakespeare had written related to issues in his social theory, linguistics and anthropology courses.
In 1986 Shore began co-teaching graduate and undergraduate versions of "Shakespeare and Ritual" with Candler Professor of English Literature Frank Manley. This semester Shore is teaching the course on his own. "My view of Shakespeare is openly one of astonishment at the intelligence, and the poetic and dramatic virtuosity, of the world's best writer. Each time I teach the course, I re-experience Shakespeare as an anthropologist; this has brought a wholeness to my intellectual life," he said. "And to introduce to several generations of my students this powerful, if somewhat eccentric, vision of Shakespeare has been a great personal and professional pleasure, one which increases as the years go by."