Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shakespeare, But (Speciously) Deeper

When greeted with the works of William Shakespeare, students let out a universal groan. His fanciful language and inverted sentence structures have confused readers since their very existence. There is, however, something worse -- much worse: the scholarly article on the subject of Shakespeare. In order to comprehend this sort of work, one must not only understand Shakespeare’s plays but furthermore understand the dreaded official style that will almost surely be utilized in said critiques. One of these articles, “The Call of Vocation in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus” by Robert McCutcheon from a journal titled “English Literary Renaissance”, goes above and beyond the average wordy scholarly piece to a place where, evidently, the word vocation means whatever we want it to mean.
I accessed this article via a database of scholarly work called EBSCOhost .     This is a place where students go in order to find critical analysis and fresh research on nearly any subject. When searching a database of this sort, we are bound to find the official style in droves, and this does not surprise us. This article in particular, however, just goes too far, failing to prove any sort of theory. Literary studies is often a subjective, “squishy” field, but this text does not function even within this broad context.
Pictured below is a snapshot of the text at hand. As we can see, the explanatory footnotes are taking up more space on the page than the main content itself. Here is the first sign that we are dealing with some seriously official stuff, since so much external context is being given.

The subject of this article is Shakespeare’s use of vocation in his plays, specifically Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. Vocation is God’s way of calling upon a person to do special work. Simple enough, right? Not for McCutcheon. Throughout his article, he offers (roughly) forty-three synonyms and other adjectives to describe this word, including “drudgery”, “quasi-military”, and “sequestered”. For the average reader, these words are totally unfamiliar jargon. Furthermore, some of them are directly contradictory, such as “collective vs. individual” and “to limit vs. to liberate”. Critical analysis papers often bring up these sorts of contradictions, but McCutcheon simply doesn’t know where to stop.
Often, we find it difficult to translate scholarly works, and this article offers no exceptions to that rule. McCutcheon writes: “The tragedies reflect the human tension of life in the already-but-not-yet, pitting a clarity of call against complexity of character and circumstance, each often a function of the other.” In this sentence, it seems that the author was trying to find as many words that start with the letter “C” as he could, disregarding coherence entirely. In addition, he coins his own term, “already-but-not-yet”, which is yet another example of contradiction that is present only to confuse the reader. Finally, let’s ask, “What is he saying?” Well, the answer isn’t that difficult. Basically, people are sometimes afraid when they are called to do something because said thing is contradictory to their values.
Another example of McCutcheon’s verbose style:
“In its scriptural expression and its theological elaboration, the concept of vocation is much more than social policy. Vocation takes shape in the Bible as the vehicle of Christian identity—what it means in Christian terms to be a human being—and it is this ontological overtone of the term with which some of Shakespeare’s plays, even some that seem most secular, resonate.”
This passage begins with a prepositional phrase, a common sentence combining strategy. It then moves to an absolute phrase (the part we see between the long dashes), into a relative clause, finally ending with a verb. Simple sentence structures dictate that verbs should come directly after nouns, with all other descriptors coming after; this sentence breaks those rules and ends up being needlessly long-winded. By the time we get to the point -- that the ontological meaning for vocation is what resonates in Shakespeare’s plays -- we have forgotten what it is that we are reading about.
A final passage for our study (or lack thereof):
“This counterpoint of realism and melodrama raises the philosophical problem of determinism: does human personality serve or shape events? The two permutations, that humans are either instruments or agents of larger forces, are not exhaustive, since those forces could initiate or harness human action; conversely, human efforts can let slip larger forces.”
For the moment, let’s ignore the obnoxious vocabulary at use here and simply focus on what this sentence is trying to say. First, it asks a question: “Does human personality serve or shape events?” Simple enough. The answer that follows, however, is not so simple. Read it again. Get it? I will paraphrase the answer for you. “Neither” would have sufficed as an answer. Basically, humans are not entirely agents of or instruments of larger forces, it is a little bit of both. Instead of answering this way, McCutcheon decided to “word up” his answer in hopes of being seen as more credible, but all he did was making himself look like an Ivory Tower elitist.
Without writing of this sort, intellectual discussions of many kinds could never take place and, for our purposes, Shakespeare’s writing would not hold the meaning that it does. This “official style”, however, often leaves us disappointed as it talks circles around a subject that could have been more easily explained in a few clear, concise paragraphs. Even worse, meaning can be lost entirely after so many adjectives and ideas have been attached to a single subject -- in this case one word -- that the sum total of the effort is in nothing but fluff.

~ Michael Gibson

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