“Educated men are so impressive!”
March 13, 2015 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Shakespeare in Tehran by Stephen Greenblatt [New York Review of Books]
"For more than four centuries now he has served as a crucial link across the boundaries that divide cultures, ideologies, religions, nations, and all the other ways in which humans define and demarcate their identities. The differences, of course, remain—Shakespeare cannot simply erase them—and yet he offers the opportunity for what he called “atonement.” He used the word in the special sense, no longer current, of “at-one-ment,” a bringing together in shared dialogue of those who have been for too long opposed and apart."
posted by Fizz (14 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I want to like this essay but it has the feint stink of Orientalism.
posted by Fizz at 1:25 PM on March 13, 2015

"Most of the questions were from students, the majority of them women, whose boldness, critical intelligence, and articulateness startled me. Very few of the faculty and students had traveled outside of Iran, but the questions were, for the most part, in flawless English and extremely well informed. "
Orientalism and a little sexism thrown in for good measure. Articulate women...how shocking!?

posted by Fizz at 1:37 PM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

If I'm crediting the author with self awareness, the quote Fizz references was part of a deliberate juxtaposition. The piece starts out outlining his various ideas about Iran's government and how it's totalitarian, oppressive, particularly to women, virulently anti-semitic, etc.... He gives a talk about about how Shakespeare was operating in an oppressive environment and how subversive some of his plays are and the difficulties in reconciling this, concluding with the observation:

Elizabethan and Jacobean society, though oppressive, was not as monolithic in its surveillance or as efficient in its punitive responses as the surviving evidence sometimes makes us think. Shakespeare’s world probably had more diversity of views, more room to breathe, than the official documents imply.

At which point he describes exchanges with the students that demonstrate that what he had just said about the environment in Shakespeare's time must be equally true for modern Iran.
posted by Grimgrin at 3:48 PM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Grimgrin, I guess I misread or misunderstood. I'll have to reread the essay. It felt like an odd comment to make. What you say does change the context of that quotation. I'll give it another go and see.
posted by Fizz at 3:55 PM on March 13, 2015

He said the articulateness of the students astounded him, not of the women. And he immediately follows with the hardly unrelated observation that most of those asking the questions had not travelled outside Iran. In short, he did not expect, from a closed, deeply religious society, such thoughtful questions on his specialist topic, due to expectations clearly laid out in the article's fifth and sixth paragraphs. You are being rather uncharitable.
posted by Palindromedary at 3:57 PM on March 13, 2015

Palindromedary, I obviously didn't read this as thoroughly as I should have and jumped onto a particular section for the wrong reasons, for which I apologize. I will reread this more closely when I have some time. Thank you for pointing it out.
posted by Fizz at 4:49 PM on March 13, 2015

This is an astonishing and very tricky essay and I am extremely glad you posted it. The heart of it is the speech he gave to the students - and the entire essay is, in a way, a feint.

If I am understanding it correctly, Greenblatt traveled to Iran and gave a very, very political speech, one that launches a fairly direct attack on the government and its censorship policies, couching it entirely in language about Shakespeare so that it would be acceptable to the authorities. He used Shakespeare as a kind of code, and the students (he suggests) were able to freely speak back to him in turn.

Here is a kind of rough effort at a translation.

"Shakespeare lived in a world in which he was not allowed to speak freely. There were people who watched everything and everyone, and reported it to the government. They were always in the audience when his plays were performed. Attacking the government or talking in a way that ran contrary to official policies could lead to very serious consequences. People were tortured and murdered not only for their political actions, but for their cultural and artistic expression.

To be able to speak honestly and freely in such an environment was a very difficult achievement. It would be easy to look at the documents and public records that come out of such a place and assume that everyone thought, spoke, and acted the same way, in accordance with the government. People from outside of it might think that everyone who lived there unthinkingly followed authority, or were swayed by mass populism, the irrational behavior of crowds.

But those people would be wrong. After all, take Claudius, in Hamlet, who - in a coded, indirect way - illustrates the way that corrupt rulers used religion as a cover for their ethically bankrupt policies. And there is King Lear, who observes that often times judges are as cruel and as morally compromised as the people they punish; that the highly moralistic judges who sentenced people to be whipped for minor sexual indiscretions often hypocritically indulged in the same desires themselves. Of course, people who felt this way couldn't say so directly, any more than they could say, "the man in power is a total asshole." They could barely say such things one-on-one, never mind in crowded rooms full of people, if they valued their lives.

Shakespeare was able to get away with writing this way for a few reasons. He put these opinions in the mouths of his characters, especially ones that were meant to be read as unreliable, and by pretending he was talking about the past instead of current events. He never talked directly about the moral and religious authorities. He knew that even though censors were often present in the rooms where the plays were performed, watching and recording, they rarely intervened directly unless someone said something that was explicitly related to current events. He actually had quite a bit of room to maneuver, as long as he spoke in this kind of indirect code.

And yet, sometimes, he came quite close to speaking out openly against the government. There is a scene in King Lear where a servant directly prevents the king from executing a traitor, even though everyone knew that this was the acceptable punishment for this crime. Shakespeare even gets us to sympathize with this man. He dies, but not before he's managed to kill the corrupt ruler, and gotten the entire audience to sympathize with this idea of overthrowing the king. That is the kind of persuasive power of art, and the reason it threatens the political authorities.

Why did he get away with this? By being indirect, yes, but also because the society he lived in was much more diverse in its views than we usually give it credit for. The authorities could not actually control everything; there was actually quite a bit of room to maneuver, and to breathe. People learned how to talk about these things, to connect and imagine and create. And, more importantly, Shakespeare tied the political struggles of the people he was writing about to the struggles of people in other lands, in other times - his work created a space in which people could come together in a space where they were free from oppression, and imagine a better world."

And then the students respond, and two questions, in particular, deserve their own translation:

"In one book, you talk about cultural change, pluralism, and tolerance of difference in Shakespeare's time, but in another book, you say that people are created by their political environments - that it becomes impossible to think freely when you live in a culture determined by unfree power relations. How is it possible to live from birth in an unjust society and yet develop a will to be free - and, more importantly, help overturn the structures that have oppressed you?"


"In Richard II, when the opposition overturned the government, were they actually striving towards freedom or were they just using the rhetoric of freedom to seize power for themselves?"

Greenblatt says, I don't know, what do you think?

And the student says "I think it was just one set of thugs replacing another."

They're literally discussing the pros and cons of supporting the opposition movement right in front of government censors. It is breathtaking.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:22 PM on March 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

They're literally discussing the pros and cons of supporting the opposition movement right in front of government censors. It is breathtaking.

And potentially, they are talking about the western desire to see Iran's government replaced. Not that Greenblatt would have picked up on that, in his refusal to see a complex society for the nuances it has. What is breathtaking is that someone could wander into a country with their own preconceived notions of how that place operates, from top to bottom, and then be surprised that there are free-thinking intellectuals there who aren't afraid to speak their minds in a public space.

I'm with Fizz, this reeks of orientalism. Also, Shakespeare being used as cultural imperialism - and not for the first time.
posted by iotic at 12:43 AM on March 14, 2015

This essay reminds me of colonial travel writing from the late 19th century. It has heavy orientalist overtones. The author's Iran is not the Iran of the living Iranians. It's cobbled together from memories, objects, and old books. Greenblatt keeps the Iran of living people at distance. It does not interest him. The religious practices of his minder Hassan disgust him.

Greenblatt experiences no growth during his stay in Iran. His lecture does not lead him to learn about his audience or anything about Iran.

In fact, modern Iran always gets in the way of him finding the Iran of his dreams whether it's 1970s architecture or billboards commemorating war dead. The description of Hassan is especially problematic. It doubles as one-dimensional critique of the current regime.

Greenblatt finds his idealized Iran in the end at a tourist attraction. A lone Dutchman is there to share the moment. Only another Westerner could understand Iran's ancient past. That has been a staple of orientalist thinking for centuries.

The essay ends with a weird homage to this Dutch banker on holiday. Greenblatt sees in him "vestiges of the dream of an honest, free, and wide-open world that I had once cherished and that Shakespeare continues to embody."

It is almost as if the essay is an ode to 'American values.'
posted by CtrlAltD at 1:14 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a certain bleak irony in watching Greenblatt being read this way. Being parsed for -isms, his observations read simply as the unconscious imprints or symptoms of larger ideological constructions -- orientalism, White privilege, "American values" -- rather than things in themselves. This is, of course, the hermeneutics of suspicion that Greenblatt and his ilk popularised in the 1980s, and which has since extended beyond literary criticism to become hegemonic as a way of discussing popular culture and ripping people to shreds on social media based on partial and tendentious readings of their presumed ideological commitments. To see this mode of reading being practised here, on Greenblatt, by people who seem barely aware of who he is (or was) is fitting in its way as an epitaph to the corpse of New Historicism.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:06 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Sonny Jim, Greenblatt did not invent the concept of orientalism, nor that of cultural imperialism - the main charges being levelled at him above. Arguably the practice of both far predate him, whatever the theory. In any case, he could still be guilty of them - or are you seeking to suggest they are not real concerns? I don't see you answering those accusations in any way. In fact, I'm finding it difficult to find something in your rather condescending comment which adds anything at all to the present discussion.
posted by iotic at 6:00 AM on March 14, 2015

Yeahhhhhhhh I really, really don't see Greenblatt being surprised at the fact that there were free and independent thinkers in Iran. What I see him being "surprised" by (though that's hardly the right word - it's more of a desire to celebrate) is his ability to have a conversation that would otherwise have been restricted by censorship laws through the medium of a discussion of Shakespeare. He does not arrive bearing the magical gift of Shakespeare in order to enlighten the poor, simple Iranians. The Iranian scholars are experts on the nuances of Shakespeare and can deploy its meaning as adroitly as Greenblatt can: that's not the takeaway of the article; it's the basic premise of their conversation.

The fact that Shakespeare has been used as a medium of cultural imperialism is right there, openly discussed in the essay, both in G's speech and in the students' questions (the one about universality is taking on that topic). And yes, iotic, they are absolutely also talking about the difference between Iran's government and the West, but it's my rushed-at-the-end interpretation that missed that nuance, not Greenblatt himself.

I think it's probably true that there are traces of Orientalist thinking in the essay - and I have no doubt Greenblatt himself would agree. As the second-to-last question I quoted discusses, none of us exist independent from power dynamics of the cultures that form us: Orientalism isn't just an annoying thing that egoistic jerks engage in; it's an overarching system of thought that shapes the way "The West" and "The East" relate to each other in a multitude of ways. To point to an essay about a man from the U.S. arriving in Iran and say - "I detect a trace of Orientalist thinking here, ugh, gross, I will therefore discount it" is a basic misunderstanding of the way Orientalism works.

Of course such an encounter carries whiffs of Orientalism--the power relationships that form us are impossible to fully set aside. But it is not unexamined Orientalism; it is not only Orientalism, and even as it carries traces of its culture, it pushes back against it. Hence, the question: "How can an individual be an unfree ideological product of the relations of power and also at the same time an agent in the dialectic of cultural change and persistence?"

I don't think this essay is perfect or Greenblatt is perfect, not at all. I'm usually not a great fan of his, which may be in part why I was so taken aback by this. But this is a much more complicated piece of writing than anybody here is giving it credit for.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:01 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a certain bleak irony in watching Greenblatt being read this way

I agree. But I bet that is how the Iranian students whom he lectured would read this essay.

Had he critiqued the American surveillance state in addition to scold the regime of his hosts, he would have done something interesting and consistent with his stated belief in One World Shakespeare or "atonement." As it is, he doesn't really examine anything that came up in the Q&A. He is surprised by language skills but does not grapple with ideas or challenges to his. Like grad students everywhere, the students appear to have prepared their questions well in advance. "Showing off in Tehran." There's another one for the "-- in Tehran" genre.

I get the sense that Greenblatt expected Iran to be sealed-off a la North Korea. He ends up presenting himself as provincial as he thinks his driver.

When writing about an unknown place and people for an American audience the risk is the same for anyone. Nostalgia and bemusement don't get a pass even when those people live in The Axis of Evil.
posted by CtrlAltD at 11:15 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it's probably true that there are traces of Orientalist thinking in the essay

Eh, he talks about Shakespeare being the "magic carpet" which took him to Iran. *Gag*
posted by iotic at 1:02 PM on March 14, 2015

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