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Untimely aesthetics: Shakespeare, anachronism and prescence

Poulard, Étienne 2013. Untimely aesthetics: Shakespeare, anachronism and prescence. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Abstract

For many critics, Hamlet’s famous dictum that ‘The time is out of joint’ is to be read as a social comment on Shakespeare’s own historical moment (Hamlet, 1.5.189). Generally thought to have been written around the same period as Hamlet, Julius Caesar contains a similar statement—‘it is a strange-disposèd time,’ Cicero remarks early on in the play (1.3.33). In 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro suggests that, far from being coincidental, this recurring untimeliness in fact pervades the plays Shakespeare wrote at the turn of the seventeenth century—and most notably Henry V, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. For Shapiro, the many anachronisms that can be found in those plays point to a shared, objective core of historical reality (‘Shakespeare came of age when time itself was out of joint,’ the critic argues). The idea that the ultimate meaning of Shakespeare’s dramas is inextricably bound up with the late Elizabethan (or early Jacobean) moment of their production is a central tenet of historicist criticism. Largely due to the hegemonic status of new historicism in the field of Shakespeare studies in the last thirty years or so, this mode of criticism has become, to a great extent, normative. The present work takes issue with the systematic approach that consists in viewing Shakespeare’s plays as mere reflections of an overarching, ‘objective’ historical reality. Specifically, the thesis challenges the default historicist framework in which many of Shakespeare’s plays have been embedded. Thus, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Henry V are here looked at with a large emphasis on the present of interpretation (as opposed to the authorial moment). A key thread of the thesis is the sense that the meaning of these plays is directly determined by the criticism. In other words, their meaning is essentially constructed in the present—a fundamentally unfixed and ever-moving category. Accordingly, alleged anachronisms are here viewed as by-products of this subjective present. Rather than expressing the objective historical ‘real’ of the dramas, such anachronisms are considered to testify to the intrusion of the viewer within the literary scene. This implies that the dramas are always already infected not so much by their author’s historical moment but by the eye of the critic itself. At the heart of the thesis is the sense that Shakespearean drama can be viewed through the grid of an aesthetics of untimeliness, which manifests itself in various ways. The coexistence of multiple presents of interpretation within the hermeneutic field of the plays is one of the ways in which such an aesthetics can be experienced. For instance, the colossal criticism of Hamlet guarantees that no one historical elucidation of the play can prevail. Alternatively, the diegetic content of the plays can also be used to support the idea of an untimely aesthetics. On many occasions, Shakespeare’s dramas comment on the inherent disjunction that alienates them from the historical past which they (supposedly) purport to stage—this is generally done through the medium of key metadramatic characters like the Chorus in Henry V. In either case, complete historical presence is negated. Thus, the thesis posits the impossibility of presence—or untimeliness—as a valid aesthetic category in view of Shakespeare’s dramas. Each individual chapter illustrates how the dramas can be said to aestheticise the intrinsically differential quality of literature. Ultimately, the thesis also emphasises how différance, to use Jacques Derrida’s celebrated coinage, lies at the heart not only of literature but of all forms of staged entertainment.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Funders: AHRC
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 30 March 2016
Last Modified: 19 Mar 2016 23:28
URI: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/53954

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