Julius Caesar: Who gets to be “difficult”?

I attended a student production of Julius Caesar this weekend and was reminded of how difficult and foreign the language of Shakespeare is to my ears. I found myself struggling to keep up with the archaic phrases and to make sense of the performers’ monologues. After reading the Charles Bersteinn piece on difficult poems, I am reflecting on what types of difficult texts we are taught to value in an educational system and culture defined by hegemonic control. Of course, white, male artists who wrote for white audiences are dominant. There are also aesthetic patterns in canonical texts: predictable difficulty is celebrated while unpredictable difficultly is excluded. Shakespeare is difficult, but academics have developed a standard toolkit for analyzing iambic pentameter and considering the arch of a classical dramatic scene. The same types of difficult yet defined aesthetics characterize the avant-garde poetics, which value divergence from typical forms of writing only when they fit and established molds of strangeness. This pattern suggests a popularity of aesthetics that are inaccessible to most, but legible to a few with access to rubrics for how to read them. As Hejinian suggests, the exclusive power to define categories in aesthetics mirrors and reifies the centrality of categorical logic to the Kyriarchy.

Given the troubling implications of categories and rigid aesthetics, I am considering how we can best approach texts that are not only difficult, but also unpredictable and distinct from other poetic forms. What frameworks of thought might we use to approach these texts? Is it possible to approach a text without a framework? Will a combination of frameworks might allow a poem space for multiplicity? Is there a violence to constructing a thesis on the meaning of a text?

The Caesar production also sparked questions about reclamation of language and the limits of form. The production featured all female / gender non-conforming actors and many actors of color in a narrative that is traditionally about the jealousy and violence of white men. This casting changed my perception and understanding of the words, generating a new meaning for the text. There were moments when the feminine dimensions of rage and grief were brilliantly embodied. As Amiri Baraka states: “Words have users, but users also have words.” But ultimately, the performance depended on Shakespeare’s language and themes of violence and royalty written for a white, European audience. I left the production wondering if a radical performance of an oppressive canonical text is an act of reclamation, or one that reintegrates artists into this canon. How far can users mold the meaning and context of their words? Hejinian writes that “form is not a fixture, but an activity” suggesting a malleability of form to serve its users purpose. But artists have choices between various forms, and some forms more fixed and anchored to histories of oppression than others. What are the strings attached to working in forms tied to oppression? What is required to cut them? 



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2 Responses to Julius Caesar: Who gets to be “difficult”?

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Great thoughts on this! I hadn’t considered Shakespeare difficult before in the way Bernstein means, but of course he very much is to a contemporary reader. In the same way that to me, Don Quijote is very very difficult to understand because it’s written in an archaic Spanish that because I learned Spanish as a second language I have trouble accessing. To it’s contemporaries it would have been accessible, popular use of language, but as the context and language have changed the text itself becomes difficult. So perhaps one of the questions is who defines what difficult means, and to whom? Is difficult about intent (authorial or otherwise) to resist meaning and reading, or is it about impact? Or more likely some combination of the two.

    Your questions about approach to unpredictable difficult texts are great. I’m especially interested in developing your questions about framework and approach. I want us to develop our own ways of approaching a text that is based in engaged and empathetic showing up as a reader for the text, which I suppose could be considered a framework of some kind.

    As to your question of violence, I think great violence can be done when imposing a reading or meaning on an artistic work. But it’s not inevitable, and our goal is to learn how to read difficult texts without that kind of critical violence, but a more sympathetic engagement.


  2. Pingback: Class Notes Feb 13 | Experimental Poets of Color

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