When Schoenbaum considered 400 years of scholarship on Shakespeare, he couldn’t help notice that the authors of this scholarship had posted portraits of themselves.
It was as natural for Samuel Butler and Oscar Wilde to depict [Shakespeare] as a homosexual as for Frank Harris to depict him as an unabashed sensualist. It is natural for Catholics to seize on the phrase “he died a papist”; for Bernard Shaw to confess that Shakespeare was like himself and for Malone to suppose that Shakespeare had been a lawyer’s clerk. [Muir, ref. below]
And this is something we are inclined recognize as entirely human. Everyone sees the world through their own lens. We understand the other as we understand ourselves.
Right? Wrong. Thirty years downstream the thing that Schoenbaum and Muir thought “natural” seems to us a little tedious, clannish, and unsophisticated. These days I think, we are more interested in the Shakespeare who isn’t like us than turning him into someone who is like us.
There is an epistemological problem here. If we have no categories with which to understand the other, well, we are inclined to assimilate that other to the categories we do have. But this caveat aside, it seems to be we are less likely to be that figure from the old joke: the man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail.
Something has changed. We are a little bored with making the world into an image of ourselves. We are no longer this provincial. We are no longer this hostile to difference. We are much more actively curious about how someone can depart from our expectations and ourselves.
Think of it this way. In the old model, we wanted to use a conversation as an opportunity to talk about ourselves. But these days I have seen conversations grind to a halt because both parties are more interested in listening than talking. When you ask why, they will tell you something like, “well, I already know what I am going to say, so I’d rather listen.”
I don’t know that we are any more selfless. It’s just that our curious demands a richer diet than anything we have access to when we make scholarship and conversation a self portrait.
Muir, Kenneth. 1971/2008. Review of Shakepeare’s Lives. Times Literary Supplement. Originally published January 22, 1971. Republished August 15, 2008.
Schoenbaum, Samuel. 1970. Shakespeare’s Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.