Romanian traditions in reading/teaching Shakespeare

The declared commitment to a context-oriented teaching of literature in the recent textbooks testifies to a clear desire for change. The way the authors managed to introduce this change indicates strong resistances to change. What explains the persistence of the conservative thrust in the teaching of Shakespeare? Why is there a great gap between the classroom Shakespeare and the iconoclastic one of the theatrical performances, which for more than three decades have vied with each other in politicizing or more recently in deconstructing his plays?

One answer is that in socialist Romania, unlike in the former GDR, there was no close communication between theatre people and academia, or schoolteachers. (Weimann 1997, Pfister 1994) Consequently, critical approaches to Shakespeare did not receive any encouragement to establish the kind of challenging relations between past and present, between Shakespearian representations and problems of contemporary politics as was the case in the GDR. Romanian classrooms whether in high schools or at universities were not and still are not open to experimenting, but functioned mainly as what Althusser called ideological state apparatuses. Nor topicality of theatres. Their possibilities of "making meaning by Shakespearian texts" in provocative ways were very limited. (Hawkes 1992)

Another answer to the question about the resistance to change in teaching Shakespeare is the rejection of anything that smacks of leftist, Marxist critical stances. More radical approaches such as those developed by cultural materialism, new historicism or by feminist or postcolonialist theories have hardly had any currency in Romania. This attitude goes back to the sixties and was initially understood as a way of resisting an oppressive dogmatic discourse on literature.

An important landmark in fashioning this "oppositional" approach to Shakespeare was the publication in 1964 of a collection of critical essays from all over the world. Tudor Vianu, a most prominent Romanian scholar, prefaced the book and also included an important essay "Umanitatea lui Shakespeare" (Shakespeare's humanism/ "humanity"). (Vianu 1964) What Vianu set out to do was to counter the unrelenting dogmatism in the approaches to Shakespeare's `titanic" personalities, who were understood to pre-figure and indirectly legitimate the socialist New Man. The comparison with Weiman's way of breaking through the straitjacket of this critical discourse seems to me quite apposite. Like Weiman, Vianu set out to resist the teleological continuity between past and present in the politics of reading Shakespeare of the early sixties and to introduce the possibility of discontinuity. Unlike Weinmann, however, Vianu did not try to find a way out by working from within this discourse (Weinman 1997), but tried to evade it and re-establish links with earlier traditions of critical thinking. In Vianu's views discontinuity could only be inserted by preserving inviolate the literary and moral value of Shakespeare's texts. Vianu tried to re-assert what we nowadays call "the pastness of Shakespeare" by reconstructing the literary and moral context of Shakespeare's plays and by bracketing the socio-political context that orthodox criticism pounded on in a crude, reductionist way. (The official discourse abounded in simplifying discussions of the class struggle in Shakespeare's plays, the emergence of bourgeois relations) What Vianu primarily wanted to evade was the oppressive socio-political context of his own time that imposed such readings.

Inevitably, Vianu's re-reading and re-assessment of Shakespeare's humanism did not involve only the reinforcement of the authority of the text but also the projection of the image of a transcendent Shakespeare. Vianu fully acknowledges the geographical/ synchronic and historical/diachronic plurality of the Shakespeare produced in the reception of the plays, all of them being more or less "conjunctural constructions". Against this "mobility" in reading Shakespeare he asserts the transcendent value of "an ever self-same core" of his work, a core that continuously germinates new productions and that provides the links between past, present and future constructions of the plays. (Vianu Preface: 12)

Later Romanian scholars followed in his footsteps and developed sophisticated stylistic, semiotic or pragmatic models to read Shakespeare, all of these models placing the act of reading at a safe remove from reality and from politics. The tradition of resistance against the intrusion of "ideology and politics" that was set up in the socialist period has lingered on, with politics and ideology still being defined as basically leftist or Marxist and therefore objectionable. (Conservative liberal discourses, the invasive discourses of the market are not as yet perceived as "ideology", which proves that they are successfully naturalized.) What are further dismissed on these grounds are post-structuralist, feminist and of course, cultural materialist attempts at deconstructing the literary canon or at providing non-canonical readings of canonical texts. Leading scholars such as Mircea Martin use Harold Bloom's work on the canon and particularly Bloom's derogatory comments on present Shakespearian scholarship to inveigle deconstructionism, feminism, multiculturalism, cultural materialism and cultural studies (the latter operating with "an incredibly crude Marxism") for the combined attack on aesthetic value. (Martin 105-107) The defensive mechanisms Vianu's followers have adopted to prevent the aesthetic world from getting contaminated with "dirty politics" has put a lid upon the development of Shakespeare criticism. At the same time it has rendered scholars ill equipped to devise proper discursive strategies against the encroachment of nationalist rhetoric. One can even detect an uncanny collusion between the stultifying and often outdated approaches to Shakespeare and the readings formulated from nationalist positions.

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