Sunday, July 6, 2014

Leaning into the Wind: Preparing for the Second Whilrwind Week

Very few things can get high school English teachers as excited as books: the rarer, the better. As I sat in the reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Saturday Morning (yep, I just wrote that), I realized that these old books, like any other, would open new doors to me, tempting me with a musky rustle to walk through them to new discoveries. As I picked up the very small edition of Luigi da Porto's novella, Julietta, I felt a sense of connection with the past that surprised and thrilled me. The translation of da Porto's medieval novella was published in 1894 and included an introduction comparing various versions of the Romeo and Juliet story that predated Shakespeare's enduring classic. One of the things that struck me about these various versions is the fact that Shakespeare was able to say so much in such a small space when compared with his predecessors.

For example, in Albert Brooke's poetic version (which is most likely the original source of Shakespeare's play), the Friar requires about 10 lines less, but comes across far less poetically. On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Painter (or Paynter if you are feeling fancy) required about six pages in the introduction to say the same thing. This difference is so disproportionate, that the author of the introduction writes that Juliet's relief at the end of the Friar's speech was not from the discovery of a way out, but that the man had stopped talking. I agree with him.

But what really struck me was da Porto's story. By way of comparison, I'll summarize the beginning:
Romeo Montecchi and Julietta Cappelletti live in Verona. Their families disagree about the existential condition of one another. The Cappellettis love to throw parties, so they do. Romeo shows up--dressed as a woman and wearing a mask (and we all thought Baz Luhrmann was way out on some limb). He puts aside his mask and is so beautiful, he throws all of the women into a jealous fit, save one: Julietta. She falls deeply in love with the "beautiful" Romeo. He does not feel the same way as he is there in pursuit of Julietta's cousin: the woman we all know as Rosaline. Romeo goes home when no affection comes his way from Rosaline. He wakes up the next day to mull over the fact that Julietta seemed pretty interested in him and how that made him feel better than Rosaline's stone cold rejection. Meanwhile, back at the Cappelletti estate, Julietta is still swooning, thinking actively to hersef that if she got Romeo to marry her, the families might stop fighting.

Obviously, I have paraphrased a bit, but you get the gist: this is not the story we know; however, it is the earliest recorded use of the names Romeo and Juliet and the earliest use of Verona as setting. It is the source text for the translations created by Brooke and Paynter (felt fancy). Why the change? The explanations are many, the least of which is that Shakespeare, being a good writer, changed details and added dialogue because a play is a far different genre than a novel.

All of this brings me back around to the beginning of Thursday's work at the Folger. Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger and Digital Humanist, walked us through what exactly the digital humanities are trying to accomplish. In a word, they are trying to create Access. The Folger's modern stacks (books published after 1830) run the length of a city block underground. Needless to say, that is a lot of text to rifle through looking for a specific piece of information. What the digital humanities seek to do is to turn the scholarly labyrinth into an easily navigable place. You looking for other texts that treat a specific pattern in a specific play by Shakespeare, or even contemporary plays that employ similar patterns, do a search and the computer compiles which books fit your criteria. Think about a card catalog with enhanced eyesight, seeing on the level of the page the context you seek and bringing it to your attention. What might have been a hidden jewel becomes a visible, useful, polished gem. At one point, Witmore explained a discovery a colleague of his made at one of the universities where he worked. In short, using a computer to analyze the text of Shakespeare's plays, a report was generated that scientifically classified Shakespeare's plays in a sort of taxonomy of dramatic structures: a classification identical to the one Heminge and Condell created in the Table of Contents in the First Folio. They had no computer, but they made judgments we now know to be based on an intuited understanding of the mechanics of the play. The only difference? The computer did it in 30 minutes.

After this eye-opening lecture, we discussed in our seminar groups the potential gifts of the digital humanities. We also discussed whether or not knowing that Shakespeare built his works upon familiar and consistent structures would reduce the view of him as exceptional. As one member said it, this might destroy the cult of Shakespeare.

But there is more to a writer than structure and form. Homer, or whoever Homer might have been (notice that genius in the modern age is received with the skepticism that only the well-educated and well-traveled could be truly great), used phrases like epithets to build repetition into the form of his works. Do the structures of the oral tradition depreciate the value of Homer's work? Does our lives lack the four elements? In other words, NO. There are reasons why so little survives from antiquity, but Homer's work is so surprisingly complete. It is the same reason that tomorrow, next year, next decade, or next century, when the inevitable hand is played and we nearly eradicate ourselves with this or that horrific weapon, the survivors will find treasured volumes like the plays of Shakespeare kept safe from the indiscriminate destruction we so often unleash.

Besides, Shakespeare's stories are not really his stories; they are the stories of the European cultures of his time. The fact is that Shakespeare's characters, like those of Dickens or Faulkner, are so fully realized, so infused with vitality on the page and stage that we cannot help but see something of ourselves in them all. From our wild, Sir Toby sides to our buttoned-up, Malvolio sides, Shakespeare knew how to create humans, to place them in conflict, and to make that conflict matter in the most basic of ways. After all, what is more fundamentally human than the means of our deaths, the creation of unions that generate life, and teh pursuit of our own happiness? The structures do not speak to our hearts, the words do.

Enough waxing philosophical, need to get back on track. We ended our day with a virtual tour of the library's online catalog and the online image database. Access to these is well beyond the value of the time and energy we are putting in here. We received our charge to do some research (for ourselves!), and the dreamy look I saw in the eyes of my friends (for that is what we have become) as we sat in the reading room on Saturday told the story of love beyond two Veronese lovers.

Bring on the week. We are ready for more.

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